- Header image courtesy of Beyond Belief Media. (Adapted from the Christ Pantocrator icon in St. Catherine's monastery, Sinai, 6th century.)
Water shows up a lot in the Christian scriptures and, along with with bread and wine, is central to the sacramental life of the church. In the rite of baptism, it signifies purification or cleansing, even as it signifies too the burial of the old man and the rising of the new.
Bill Viola riffs on these and other connotations in his video art piece Emergence, created in 2002 at the commission of the J. Paul Getty Museum. The piece is part of The Passions series, the aim of which is to explore the power and complexity of human emotion.
Click here to see a nine-photo study for Emergence. (Warning: contains nudity.)
The video shows two women sitting on either side of a large marble receptacle, each absorbed in her own grief. Then to their surprise, a man starts rising up out of it, pale and nude, unleashing a cascade of water. He stands at full height, then totters and falls; the women catch him and help him gently to the ground. They then cover him with a cloth, one overcome by tearful emotion, the other tenderly embracing his body.
These actions unfold in extreme slow motion over a span of eleven minutes and forty-nine seconds. Viola uses this slow playback technique in much of his work because, he says, he wants the viewer to notice every subtle shift of movement and emotional expression. In our fast-moving world and even in film, such things are barely perceptible.
In the original installation, the video was rear-projected on a wall-mounted screen in a dark room. A low-quality YouTube clip viewed on a computer is a poor substitute, but I show it here to give you an idea of Viola’s vision.
CONTENT ADVISORY: Video contains nudity.
A child of postmodernism, Viola embraces ambiguity; he said he doesn’t want to lock his works into any one meaning but rather prefers their meaning to remain fluid and unstable.
This expansive approach to imagery is evident in Emergence, a work that poses more questions than answers. Where is the scene taking place? Who are the two women? What is their relationship to each other, and to the man? From where is the man emerging? Is he alive—a newborn? or one being reborn?—or is he dead, a victim of drowning? The water can support either reading, being seen as either an agent of life—that is, the amniotic fluid that cushions and nourishes the child in preparation for his birth—or an agent of death, a flood that fills the lungs, chokes the breath, and crushes the body. Continue reading
As a schoolgirl, I was taught plenty about slavery and segregation in the US; I was taught that both were gross injustices, shameful times in our nation’s past. There was so much emphasis on the civil rights movement in our elementary school curriculum that whenever anyone asked me who my hero was, I always said “Rosa Parks.”
What I don’t remember ever being taught about, though, was lynching—at least not in very much detail. I didn’t learn about it in school, and I certainly didn’t learn about it in church. I was aware that in the Jim Crow South, white mobs sometimes brutalized black men and even killed them by hanging, but that was about the extent of my knowledge of lynching. I didn’t know how common and widespread it was. Nor that women and children were among the victims. Nor that burning and mutilation were almost always involved. Nor that lynchings were considered community-wide entertainment events, complete with food vendors, souvenir salesmen, and free passes from school.
James H. Cone’s book The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Orbis, 2013) is both history lesson and sermon—a harrowing look at America’s national crime (as Ida B. Wells called it) and the ways it was (and was not) confronted as well as a brotherly rebuke of the white church’s silence on this issue and a proposal for how to move forward.
The two most representative and emotionally charged symbols of black experience in America, the cross and the lynching tree interpret each other, Cone says. The black community understood this; they embraced the cross of Christ in all its paradox, finding hope and empowerment in knowing that just as death did not determine Christ’s final meaning, so neither would lynching have the final word for them. But this symbolic link doesn’t serve only African Americans; people of all races would do well to ponder it and flesh it out, as it promotes a rich theology of suffering and a helpful base for race relations within the church. And in fact Cone doesn’t see such reflections as optional; he considers them necessary for the sake of the gospel:
The cross and the lynching tree are separated by nearly two thousand years. One is the universal symbol of the Christian faith; the other is the quintessential symbol of black oppression in America. Though both are symbols of death, one represents a message of hope and salvation, while the other signifies the negation of that message by white supremacy. Despite the obvious similarities between Jesus’ death on the cross and the death of thousands of black men and women strung up to die on a lamppost or tree, relatively few people, apart from the black poets, novelists, and other reality-seeing artists, have explored the symbolic connections. Yet, I believe this is the challenge we must face. What is at stake is the credibility and the promise of the Christian gospel and the hope that we may heal the wounds of racial violence that continue to divide our churches and our society. . . .
Until we can see the cross and the lynching tree together, until we can identify Christ with a “recrucified” black body hanging from a lynching tree, there can be no genuine understanding of Christian identity in America, and no deliverance from the brutal legacy of slavery and white supremacy. (xiii-xiv, xv)
The Cross and the Lynching Tree integrates four different modes of writing—historical analysis, polemic, literary and visual art exegesis, and theological treatise—woven together into one vibrant, seamless cloth. I will examine each of these below. Continue reading
Who Is My Neighbor?
In February I promoted a two-day visual arts conference organized by Eyekons called “Who Is My Neighbor?”, to take place the Friday and Saturday after Easter in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Now all the speakers and topics are confirmed, and a video promo has been produced, so I just want to encourage you to look into this opportunity again if it’s something you’re interested in.
I really want to go, but though the actual conference cost is reasonable, the airline ticket and hotel room costs make it unaffordable for me. If it were in Boston, I’d be all-in! (Eyekons, if you’re reading this, I can hook you up with some Boston-area churches for next year!)
Two artists whose work I have long admired—Steve Prince and Linda Witte Henke—will be there, plus many more, representing a wide range of media, including painting, printmaking, mosaic, paper cutting, calligraphy, and textile art. Continue reading