Towards an Embodied Art and Theology

My interest in art and spirituality has been shaped over many years through two specific different contexts that I have situated myself in. For the past 30+ years I have supported my husband in his role as an ordained Baptist minister in churches in London and Manchester and secondly for the past 16 years or so I have been practicing as a visual artist and curator, working primarily in mediums linked to textiles, often facilitating creative projects within the community, curating exhibitions as well as making my own work; and these roles have given me opportunities to explore both publicly and privately creative expressions of faith from my own faith background and from other faith traditions.

There is a disturbing divorce, a separation between the spiritual and the material in our Western way of living. A disconnectedness between the individual and community, a dualism of mind and spirit. Throughout my lifetime the Word has been the primary from of language and the language of the senses and of the spirit often disregarded. This dualism has affected the church I have served in too; Baptist churches have been filled with lively worship songs, guitars and drum kits, and some excellent preaching and teaching, as ‘proclamation’ has been understood to be the main emphasis of communication, but sadly at the expense of image, materiality, mystery and wonder. Our denomination has grown significantly because of this ‘preacher, pastor, worship’ emphasis and has suited well the generation I grew up in, but in this new postmodern era, things are changing and there is a growing cultural divide between church and society that is causing us to readdress the way we do church.

In the last few years this disembodied theology is being challenged to rethink some of its ingrained practices and to make space for faith to be explored, to be more organic, mystical and spiritual and less defined and dogmatic. New and Fresh Expressions of church are emerging particularly within the Free Church tradition, that are seeking to re-connect with a visual and material language that utilises participation and ritual. As an artist and a Christian this excites me, as I believe that now is the time for creatives and theologians to work together to build a new language, to reconnect with some of the pre reformational expressions of church that utilised all the senses, in both ritual performance and sacred spaces. There is a growing interest in mysticism rather than religion; a desire to search for the hidden mysteries of the heart and the spirituality of Eastern meditation and a rediscovering of a new monasticism ie. Tv programmes The Big Silence and The Monastry, in which people employ a rhythm of spirituality that engulfs their whole lives and not just their Sundays. A rhythm of silence, prayer and study; of daily work and social action; and of play and self expression, all practised within strong community ties. 

These practical theologies of participation are growing and replacing a dualistic faith that emphasized individual salvation over a theology that understands the incarnation of Christ to be not just for individual souls but for a restoration of all created things.

And it is within this changing context that I want to consider a link between this theology of participation and the participation of contemporary artistic practice; the activity of participatory ritual and the activity of installation and performance art, as generic language understood via the senses as well as the mind.

Victor Turner  undertook an anthropological study of ritual in his seminal text ‘the Ritual Process’ in which he suggested ritual to be a form of non-verbal language; essentially a performance laden with metaphorical symbols through which information is revealed that evokes a transformation in human behaviour. The intention of a ritual is that those involved in the performance are changed; transformed through their experience; the ritual acting as a threshold to a renewed experience either in a religious or social context. Within my Baptist tradition we have forgotten or even rejected many of the ancient Christian rituals, with probably the Eucharist and baptism being the only examples of material language remaining. We have much to learn from the Catholic traditions about the role of ritual and material culture as forms of collective worship. For these rituals and traditions become ways for us to inhabit theology and to embody theological expression. But can I suggest that perhaps we also need to create new contemporary, postmodern expressions of ritual utilising symbols and images that relate to today’s culture and not just our religious history. This is something that we have experimented with in my own church in Manchester, holding monthly services that make use of contemporary music, drama, visual images, video and participatory rituals, and we have been surprised by how many non church goers have been coming along regularly and taking part in the services, and yet I think we still play safe, the creative images and activities used tend to be very obvious and lack a sense of mystery

So I have begun to learn much from observing contemporary artists like Anne Hamilton, best known for her sculptural, site-responsive installations that utilise sensuous objects embodying history, memory and ritual, making use of large industrial spaces to create a sacred sense of place, whilst exploiting the language of materials to convey sensorial messages to her audience. Her work almost always consists of vast amounts of one material; blue cotton work clothes, rags soaked in wine, horse hair, coins, even teeth. This aesthetic use of material excess is always ordered, folded, in rows, or containers, suggesting the idea of control and alluding to religious ceremony. Vast empty voids speak of separation and exclusion, exaggerated by the absence of interaction between performer and the audience.

Much of Hamilton’s work is dominated by the power of repetition, either multiples of objects, materials or actions. In Malediction a performer is seated at a large table with her back to the spectators, filling her mouth with pieces of dough to make an impression of the inside of her mouth. These pieces were then placed in a large basket and the repetitive, mundane performance would be repeated over an extended period of time until the action takes on a life of its own, a rhythm forming that in turn becomes a meditative practice. This ordinary activity becomes something special, extraordinary, a kind of ritual; the original action taking on a new form and function that speaks of something deeper and greater than the action itself. The activity is transformed. The selected materials in the installation of bread dough, a large long table, white sheets soaked in red wine, a wicker basket taken from a morgue, and the meditative repetitious actions offer many associations with religion and the act of communion, evoke a sense of death and life, sustenance and decay, creating an environment of associational meaning. The repetitive labor of the performer becomes redemptive, a narrative that is also expressed in much of Marina Abramovic’s work.

In ‘The Lips of Thomas’ Abramovic also makes use of material associations and rhythmic, repetitive actions to narrate her text to her audience; white cloth, blood, wounds, tears, ice and homey, all weighted with symbolism accompany her provocative, violent actions that play on the audiences emotions. Subjecting herself to intense pain and discomfort Abramovic confronts our disembodied nature, challenging the spectator to become an active participant either by violating her physically or by interrupting the performance.

Both these contemporary female artists create a conversation with the spectator, either as performer in the flesh as with Abramovic, or in the case of Hamilton as a hidden narrator. Each artist creates an energetic dialogue around ritual processes, people, objects, actions, repetition and duration; building a space that becomes a threshold to the unknown.

I find it enormously challenging that these artists are performing new rituals and performances that speak so movingly yet shockingly to us; they have found a language through which they touch us on a spiritual level, encouraging us to question the meaning of their performance and to gain a sense of togetherness as we encounter the performance or installation collectively.

This has led me to experiment with new ways of translating ritual in my own work. My practice explores the boundary between our inner spaces of memory and the oneiric, and the exterior spaces we inhabit. Seeing liminal space as a threshold between the known and the unknown, the seen and the unseen, I aim to explore the liturgical and ritual functions of art and the sensory language these embody with particular reference to the red thread and its relationship to wounding and healing, sacrifice and restoration and the resultant establishment of community or congregation.

Red has been associated with blood in much literature and myth as well as anthropological and cultural studies; the blood of life and of death, menstruation- giving of life, shedding blood- murder and loss of life, hunting and sacrifice, fire and sun. Red and white are both associated with life – white for purity, innocence and the preservation of life, whilst red can also refer to the taking of life, of sacrifice for the communal good as in Girard’s theories of sacrifice, thereby embodying a protective role when worn or stitched onto garments. It is in this context that I have chosen to use red thread or rope within my recent installation and performance work.

‘Communitas’ is an installation focusing on the continual repetition of small gestures that induce notions of presence and absence. The three thousand pins piercing the oak pillars speak of wounding whilst the traces of individual red threads draw lines through physical space that come together to form structure out of chaos, offering clues to the ritual performance now frozen in time. Referencing the fragmentation and displacement of contemporary society, each thread is bound, pinned down and isolated before journeying through the threshold to shared space; the density of the heavy oak contrasting with the delicacy of the threads mimicking the known world with the oneiric. The title of the work, ‘communitas’ is a Latin noun describing people experiencing liminality together.

Victoria Mitchell in an essay entitled ‘Drawing Threads From Sight to Site explores the relationship between textiles and architecture looking at thread as a drawn line in space marking the visible and the invisible, thereby referencing phenomenology and perception as well as perspective. Textiles or thread can in this way reference interior and exterior presence, evoking a sensorial, mnemonic language whilst also scripting space. In spinning, thread is made by drawing out and twisting together multiple strands and fibres to form a single thread. This single thread now becomes not only an object but a tool; a tool for drawing and measuring space, a tool for mapping. The act of spinning can be read as a phenomenological understanding of the relationship between body and space; the body touches and creates the thread which in turn maps and inhabits space; a metaphor for the tangible material world and the ethereal world of unseen spirit.

Spinning also speaks of transformation; a silent performance or ritual, repetitively creating a transformation of the various fibres into a new state of oneness; read as a metaphor for a rite of passage, a journey towards enlightenment, it can be linked to the performance element of a ritual and the unconscious and material transformation of body, mind and spirit. This ‘unvoiced conversation between hand and eye’ (Mitchell 2006:345) can in this way relate to ritual and the repetitive, unconscious acts that we make to bring about transformation.

In my performance and video work my aim has been to create the experience of ritual in a gallery context; using repetitive actions, slow rhythmical movement and the use of sound to mark out rhythm and sequence. The violence implied by the piercing of cloth and rose offer a hidden and subdued narrative; the increasing carpet of red formed by small repetitive hand gestures of steel needles penetrating the garment wrapping a body, creates a softened and aesthetic interpretation of the opposing reality that violence and beauty, violence and the sacred, are inextricably bound to one another.

The repetitive gestures and sequences in my video pieces disclosing numerous red stitches piercing an embodied garment suggest language is resisted to invoke tacit communication, graceful rhythm and mindfulness. Imitating Hamilton’s work that speaks of an unsatisfied search for the numinous, the repeated ritualized tasks, often futile and incomplete, suggest a subtle longing to encounter transcendence. The hushed environment and reverent actions evoking connections to life, death, memory and decay; as the hours of laborious stitching mount, so the task becomes meditative, and the event transformed.

In an essay entitled ‘Congregation Ecstasy and Pain: the ritualistic dimensions of performance practice.’ Arya discusses the role of performance art in relation to Christian theology by observing two examples, Rhythm 0 (1974) by Marina Abramovic and Orgies Mysteries Theatre (1965) by Herman Nitsch, that examine the relationship between the sacred and the profane, wounding and healing and the resultant establishment of community or congregation, themes that are constantly arising from my own artistic practice. Both works can be said to subvert the function of the Christian ritual of the holy sacraments through their mimetic links to the story of Christ’s Passion. In the case of Abramovic, by renouncing her subjectivity and offering herself to the audience as an object to be tormented and scarred, she passively opens herself up to the possibility of violence. She makes visible the theories of anthropologist Rene Girard about violence and the sacred and the inevitable role of the scapegoat as a means for bringing about a sense of collectivity and community through the sacrifice of an innocent. Both Girard and Abramovic paint links to the passion of Christ and the Christian tradition.

In primal religions ritual brings about the ordering of relationships and hierarchy after turmoil. In ‘Violence and the Sacred’ (1972), Girard introduces us to the notion of mimetic desire and sacrificial violence; to mimetic rivalry and the scapegoat mechanism. Desire is mimetic; in this way we learn from one another what is or is not desirable, often leading to jealousy, rivalry and finally conflict when we desire what is not ours to own, or that which is beyond our reach. Mimetic desire can also be directed beyond the material realm towards ideals of fulfillment, a sense of belonging, recognition or wellbeing. This is known as ‘metaphysical desire’ and is at the heart of many religions and faiths.

Aristotle wrote in the ‘Poetics’ that man is distinguished from other life-forms by his capacity for imitation. Girard takes this notion one step further, suggesting that desire is not just biological or instinctual like our need to eat or sleep or inquisitive mimicry, but that mimetic desire defines our humanity and is influenced by social interaction and culture. Mimetic desire tends to lead to violence arising from rivalry; humanity desires what the other has. Violence in turn leads to more violence and he goes on to suggest that in order to break this cycle, society creates a ritual that selects a scapegoat to sacrifice, for the greater good of the community as a whole. In Jewish culture and literature the scarlet thread acts as a mark of protection to all who wear it or place it upon their doorposts ‘appearing in situations where boundaries must be asserted between sacred and profane, forsaken and redeemed, those destined to live and those judged deserving of death.’ (Elly Taman 2008:13).

In my work this red thread now not only makes a connection between two objects, but it also cuts through invisible space, metaphysical space. The haptic quality of the thread, the performance and movement of the ritual in its making (either through spinning or felting) and the visual experience, all work together to create a sensorial relationship between the ritual, the participants and the viewer creating both a haptic and optic sensation, ‘What emerges through touch is given, (transferred) to sight…’ (Mitchell 2006:346)

The thread both unifies and divides space, uniting one object or spatial point to another, but in so doing cutting across invisible space, exposing a link between violence and the sacred and the contradictory balance that we have to maintain to induce the sacred; revealing that the sacred can be experienced both in the wounding and the healing, the fragmentation and the wholeness; a bringing together through separation. In this way the red rope or thread in my work acts as both a material object, tactile, textural and significant because of its colour as well as a conceptual thought, bringing together as well as dividing invisible space, both literal space and conceptual space and in so doing provokes an encounter with ritual and a transformation from the profane to the sacred.

The materiality of the red thread and the everyday objects explore notions of the profane whilst the conceptual and spatial elements of the installation simultaneously reference the sacred.

A conversation is formed between the haptic and the optic, the senses and the rational mind, the material and the conceptual, interior and exterior sensations. These opposing thoughts are bound together and spun into one – a transformation.

So to conclude I want to question if in a visual age of experience, participation, mimicry and idolatry, does the artist have a role to offer in translating faith and spirituality to a society who has largely rejected the language of traditional religion? Can we find new, creative visual and material expression for embodying our theology and deepening understanding of our Christian practice?

Installation and performance art moves beyond the single point perspective and patriarchal ideology of renaissance and modernist art works and thinking, for there are no fixed viewpoints; the art work becomes physically immersive and open to each individuals situation and circumstance, often heightening awareness of phenomenological perception by personal associations. This form of art presupposes an embodied viewer, arousing senses of touch, smell and sound as well as a sense of vision and thereby sharing similarities with many forms of ritual processes.

Can we, artists and theologians together, begin to replace our disembodied theology by locating our own doctrine in contemporary expressions of ritual that don’t just mimic the past but marry the old truths with new expressions of language and in so doing begin to re-engage with this postmodern generation?

By Lesley Sutton (artist and curator – )