Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Swimming Pool in Paris, for John Berger

Below is a link to the film I finished last month, The Swimming Pool in Paris.  I first screened it June 15 at the CIVA Conference, JustArt; on Justice and Art.  It is based on a story by John Berger.  I invited John to speak at the conference; his age made that impossible.  As an alternative, he suggested reading one of his stories, on video.  I tried to go to France to film his reading.  It didn’t work out, so I made this film in response to the story John wanted to read.  

Please watch the film in HD, if you have the connection for it.  The picture is much better.  You can set HD 720p with one of the buttons on the bottom right of the viewer.  If you need to watch it smaller, it breaks up a lot if you make it bigger.  Some notes about the film:

“Love for our neighbors, being made of creative attention, is analogous to genius.”
Simone Weil

The story is from Bentoʼs Sketchbook, How Does the Impulse to Draw Something Begin? (John Berger, Pantheon Books, 2011 pp.120-131).  It is a personal story, of how he gave away his Sho Japanese brush to a Cambodian woman, an artist and a refugee from the Vietnam War, the Khmer Rouge, and the American bombings.  Berger met her at a swimming pool in Paris where they both regularly swim.  The woman, L__, suffers from arthritis; her husband always helps her in and out of the pool.  In return for the gift, she makes him a picture of a bird indigenous to Southeast Asia, a mésange bleue (blue tit).

In The Shape of a Pocket, Berger writes of the need to mount pockets of resistance against “the inhumanity of the new world economic order.”  Walter Brueggemann calls it he script of “technological, therapeutic, consumer militarism that socializes us all.”  “...military consumerism cannot make us safe and it cannot make us happy . We may be the unhappiest society in the world” (Brueggemann, 19 theses).  One of the means of resisting the script, for Berger, is the process of making art, a way of sorting through the overwhelming events and images of our time, “a series of exchanges [that] strengthen each of us in our conviction that what is happening to the world today is wrong, and that what is often said about it is a lie.”

The musicians in the film represent artists who act as receivers, who filter the pain, numbness, and joy of existence through the creative process.  I was moved by the way these women, Karin Redekopp Edwards and Anne Monson, perform with such compassion and grace.  Their performance is a prayer, you can see it on their faces.  In their being, they demonstrate the resistance that we are called to, and that Berger points toward.

John Berger has been my favorite writer for a long time.  For me, he possesses a unique voice.  As a writer, a novelist, and an art historian, his prose is beautiful, poetic, and lyrical.  He deeply appreciates the traditional project of art.  He celebrates it's sensual aspects; he loves beauty and color.  He redeems art as a gift as opposed to a commodity, or a spectacle.  At the same time, he is relentless in his political advocacy, and in his quest for justice. 

Thursday, April 12, 2012

She is nailed to the cross.

Totus Christus (The Whole Christ), by Matthew Milliner

In his meditations the Stations of the Cross, the controversial twentieth-century saint Jose Maria Escrivá wrote the following: "Don't just read the Passion of Our Lord… to read is to recall something that happened in the past; to live it is to find oneself present at an event that is happening here and now, to be someone taking part in those scenes." There is, of course, nothing controversial about this statement.  What is controversial is leaving Christ safe in the mists of history and not permitting him to occupy our present. 

This is the impulse behind countless art historical depictions of Christ's suffering, paintings such as Pieter Bruegel the Elder's Procession to Calvary, where the Lord blends in among Bruegel's contemporaries alongside sixteenth century torture devices.  For us, Breugel's work may seem "historic," summoning us to safe stylistic observations.  But for Breugel's contemporaries, as the recent film makes clear, the painting was screamingly current.  This too, it seems, is the impulse behind Greg's stations, where the Passion becomes so immediate as to be woven into his very family and into the lives of contemporary victims of torture in the Chicago area that generated his work.

All that, I hope, is rather obvious.  What is more problematic – perhaps even "controversial" – is Greg's choice to include, in two of his most powerful photographs, a woman as Christ.  Greg even went so far as to write, "She is nailed to the cross" beneath the station.  The photographs remind us of Edwina Sandys 1975 Christa, which – in the artist's words – "simply reminded viewers that women as well as men are called upon to share the suffering of Christ."  In the same way, Greg's female Christ is not courting controversy or attempting to shock.  Greg does not believe the Christ was literally female, any more than he believes his wife Karen is actually the Virgin Mary.  Instead, Greg's stations "simply" remind us (if only it were so simple!) that the suffering of women, perhaps most especially the suffering of rape so delicately alluded to in one of Greg's photographs, Jesus is stripped naked, is also the suffering of Christ – a thought that, we can hope, might summon the hesitation of some future assailant.

Artists who (unlike Greg) toy around with religious imagery hoping to instigate protest have unfortunately made it more difficult for us to notice the kind of sincerity on offer here.  But I'd like to go so far that we have no choice but to grasp what Greg is suggesting, and not because of recent theological developments (though they can help), as much as because of the historic, orthodox core of Christian faith.  Most of us are familiar with the passages where Christ speaks with and ministers to women. But in a less familiar passage, Acts 8, Christ specifically identifies himself with women.  Saul, Luke tells us, "dragged off men and women and committed them to prison" (8:3).  That is not a gender inclusive translation.  The Greek goes out of its way to say "and women."  One chapter later comes the famous words of Christ, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me" (9:3)?

The body of Christ, which sits on the right hand of the Father, is, and remains, a circumcised Jewish male.  But Christ (the head) also intimately identifies with the church (his body).  Theologians refer to this as the totus Christus (the whole Christ), which necessarily incorporates all of us united to him in faith – perhaps especially, as Luke seems to suggest, victims of torture.  So is Greg's show heretical?  The question is best answered by another, namely Paul's, addressed to all believers, male and female: "Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ" (I Cor. 6:15)?
Procession to Calvary, Peter Bruegel the Elder, 1526

Christa, Edwina Sandys, 1975
Christa (detail), Edwina Sandys, 1975

He is nailed to the cross.

Jesus is stripped naked.

He falls the third time.

Powerless Power by Larycia Hawkins

All Power becomes powerless
Powerless in a donkey stall in deference to His destiny
Powerless on a donkey, in character for prophetic political theater
Powerless to take the cup away in obeisance of the will of Thine
Powerless to speak the truth to power in deference to the plan of I AM 
Powerless to lash out against violence in submission to the Prophets
Powerless to forsake forsakenness in accomplishment of It Is Finished
Powerlessness contingent—transformed to power in the Cross
 Powerlessly forsaken in death, yet
All Power transforms death to life 
All Power empowers the powerless—women and children, poor and prostitutes, widows and aliens, prisoners and pariahs, depressed and disabled 
All Power declares that unless we become powerless, we fail to understand Him and we have no part in Him
All Power bids that we come powerless and empty-handed to a peculiar feast of faith where eating His body and drinking His blood are neither crazy nor cannibalistic acts, but rather, the reality that defines all other reality
All Power subsumes everything in this radical feast of His perfect body and declares all good by His righteous blood
All Power declares that power is perfected in weakness—which He redefines, ironically, as strength
All Power ushers in a peaceable kingdom where
Powerlessness is power