Good evening. My name is Chris Cuthill and I teach art here
at Redeemer. It is my practice to open every exhibition with
some opening remarks, thoughts, observances which will perhaps
give you a hook, a point of contact, for engaging this show.
It is a great honour for me to be introducing Maria Gabankova's
work for you this evening and to offer some thoughts on her work.
It would not be ill-fitting to suggest the Bible as one interpretive hook for looking at Gabankova's work. Her works clearly draws on this story, and the obvious biblical term of "redemption" serves as part of the title for this show. Perhaps this seems an odd juxtaposition, a postmodern play of opposites because for us, at least those of us who grew up in a Protestant tradition, we're not comfortable thinking of the bible as a fleshy book, a book of the body. I grew up, for example, in a tradition which affirmed inner spirituality in the here and now as a means to securing life in the hereafter. Bound in concepts and theological abstraction, it was a tradition often antagonistic to the flavors of a common, human life. My imagination, as a good Protestant, was never at home on earth, and the words of the old American spiritual, about the pilgrim and stranger, "travelin' through this worrisome land" really resonated as true to me.
I am taken, looking at Gabankova's work, by the number of images culled from the biblical book of John's Revelation. There was a time when these might have summoned thoughts of escape for me away and out. But this is not the story Gabankova tells, and it might be appropriate this evening, to begin at the end.
At the very end of the bible, we are presented with a wonderful
picture of Christ descending from heaven to live on the earth.
The biblical story does not end in the clouds, but in the cities
and fields of this very real and corporeal place. At the end
of the great story, we get to hear, through John's ears, the great
proclamation from the throne declaring, "Now the dwelling
of God is with men, and he will live with them." In the end,
God is with us. Finally we understand the full meaning of Emmanuel.
The title of this show is body redeemed; which begs the question: redeemed from what, or to what? Like the incipient Gnostics who hoped to slough off their mortal coils when they entered their heavenly home, the church has not always understood or embraced the body. Perhaps some of us imagine an eschaton in which disembodied souls float around the heavens a far cry from the Biblical image of us dwelling with Christ in the place we were always meant to live, on planet earth as whole persons, body and soul. Or perhaps we might imagine a very Platonic place where our bodies have been transformed into a perfected ideal.
There are deep reasons why our imagination might be thus conditioned.
The first Christians found themselves at the heart of this dilemma when they attempted to forge for themselves a new visual identity in the shadow of the empire. The Greeks had emphasized a mastery of both body and mind, because the expression of ideal bodily form represented something much deeper than love of the physical body it symbolized the measured order of Greek virtues such as temperance, courage justice and wisdom. While valued, these virtues did not sit at the heart of a fledgling religion which was also reacting to the military and entertainment centric ideals of the Romans. As Derek Kidner notes at the outset of his study The Christian and the Arts, the whole weight of the Biblical emphasis is on the dangers, not the advantages, of the leisured conditions on which the arts flourished and in which the Greco-Roman world sought to cultivate the good life.
For these early faithful, images of the body needed to convey both a sense of corruptible flesh and incorruptible spirit a flesh marked not by the virtues of human achievement, but a penitent desire to walk the way of the broken servant-king. The solution for the early Christians was not a rejection of the body, but a deepening of its it meaning through a symbolism which renounced the vital naturalism of the Greeks. In the centuries prior to and after Constantine, they developed a suggestion-rich iconography which testified to the power of art to convey more than a snapshot image of our world. Common objects: a fish, an anchor, a lily became pointers to the larger biblical narrative, and in turn promoted a deep sacramental awareness that the things of God could be seen in everyday objects.
As an art historian I have found a book written fifty years ago by George Ferguson, to be an invaluable aide in helping me to understand what the signs and symbols in the Christian tradition mean. Clearly this book, and the tradition to which it refers is also important to Gabankova. Nestled beneath the table leg in her Melancholia painting is a copy of this very book, and many of her pictures can be "read" in the same way we might read one of Giotto's Gothic altarpieces. We might miss out if we assume her choices of fruit and flower to be arbitrary or that her colour choices simply reflect a very modernist concern for formal and aesthetic coherence. Perhaps she is playing with the conventional meanings, but her subtle inclusion of the Ferguson text shows us that she understands what she is playing with.
But there is more here than symbol. We would be wrong to simply convert the richness of these images into concepts and ideas to be rearranged in our minds as formulas to understanding. I mentioned earlier that one of the limitations of the Protestant imagination is this desire to convert visual images into concepts or text. We are after all the people of the Word. Something wonderful occurred when people began to read the bible for the first time, but in the process, something was also lost. Through the technology of the printing press we were able to re-scope the horizons of theology within the hearing, structuring mind, but we lost something of the aesthetic dimension of theology in the process. Uncomfortable with the corporeal Christ many of the early Protestants relativized the body in favor of universalized concepts or dogmatic principals in which Christ is referenced in the abstract as a keystone in a theological formulation. Repulsed by the visible bodily wounds, these formulations rejected the corpus verum in favour, of what the great Catholic thinker von Blathasar called an "invisible Christ of faith".
But art bound entirely in the invisible concept is a dangerous thing. The 20th century is a testimony to the deadening spirit at play when artists reject the fleshiness of lived experience in their work. One meaning of body redeemed then, I believe, is a reclaiming of something lost within the Protestant tradition, the corporal baby we threw out with the holy bath water.
Traditional Catholic approaches hold that the enfleshed human body is the vehicle through which the mystery of salvation was accomplished. We can see, for example, that the central moments within the Biblical story for Catholics, the Incarnation and the Passion, center around the body. The created order, including the human body becomes a way through what Aquinas calls "a general sacrament which speaks to us of God." Here we can find a world coloured by the sacramental sense that physical objects, events, and persons of everyday life are sensual revelations of grace. And we know well the impact this incarnational aesthetic has had on the Caravaggios and Rubens of history. There is a true love in the works of these old masters for the fleshiness of human experience, for what Calvin Seerveld calls the "full-blooded human life".
This sensible physical emphasis, sadly, is something we have lost touch of in the Protestant tradition. John Calvin often argued that the preached word could form mental images far superior to the perception of our eyes. The notion of a body redeemed does not elevate body above concept and argue that it is "far superior" but brings it into concert with ideas and faith, in its proper place. Here Gabankova is a wise guide. Body enters into conversation with text and scripture and symbol.
Putting things in their proper place, is, I believe, a central theme in this show. Earlier we talked about the Greeks and their elevation of the ideal human body. This is a notion of body that also needs redemption in our fashion-centric consumer culture; an image-worshipping society in which the desire for the perfect body has generated critical esteem issues. In the fashion world, body is nothing more than commodity, a generated ideal we barter to people desperately searching for an identity.
As you look around the gallery you will see very few whole bodies. Gabankova's mannequin paintings, a bizarre mix of flesh and prosthetic, remind us, like the grotesques in a Flannery O' Connor story, of characters who quite can't seem to orient themselves properly in the physical universe. Confronted by the grotesques in art, our accustomed perspectives on being human begin to dissolve and become unstable, they are the places Wolfgang Kaiser once said, where we watch the "familiar and natural" world turn into the strange and ominous." And there is something strange about these images that is not quite right, something odd about the sinking ship of fools that reminds us of what foolishness, to the ideal-body-obsessed Greek is all about.
It would be difficult to find our identity in these bodies. The bodies in Gabankova's works are hard to put your finger around. Where does flesh end and plastic or wire or mesh armature or fabric begin? In many cases, the case: the fabric, shroud or clothing surrounding the body is all we have to remind us that the chimeric body is or was there at all. In the hands of another artist, such brokenness might reflect the existentialist concern that we are nothing more than body. If the Greeks elevated the body to the noble ideal, it was the artists of this century who took the body to the other extreme. Artists from Francis Bacon to Orlan debased the fullness of the human condition, and argued that we are little more than meat, perverse treatments of not only the human form, but human identity. Such images have the capacity to convey, through violent manipulations of flesh, a brutal vision of creaturely reality in which we are cut-off from each other and from God.
But this is not the case with Gabankova. The absence of body suggests that our identity is found elsewhere precisely in our broken reliance on contact. Brokenness in her work functions as precondition for faith, and in this sense these are loving images of human frailty. They also suggest that brokenness in the Christian story is not removed by faith, but rather transformed accepting that love for the Christian is a broken and humiliated love, a love exposed to insult, mockery and persecution, because it is a love conformed to Christ even unto the cross. By extension we might argue that bodily images conformed to Christ are always broken bodies, bodies exposed to fragility, the abject and decay.
Traditional notions of beauty would argue that images of the body should be timeless, but Maria's bodies are marked by time. She acknowledges time, it penetrates and devours. It shows us our finitude. Time wildly and violently reminds us of our mortality, and this too is part of what it means to be body. That Maria once had a show entitled Tempus Edax Rerum, Ovid's line about time devouring of all things, testifies to the power of this theme in her body of work.
How then can we speak of body redeemed? In proper Biblical paradox, the redemption is both fully accomplished in Christ, but also something we wait before in a Lenten moment of humble and fragile awareness of the brokenness around us. In the meantime, we sail on our leaking boats, struggling with what it means to be both eternal and incorruptible beings as well as mortal enfleshed humans. Such dilemmas pose a struggle for concepts and philosophy, but they are places where art tends to flourish and revel. Art can speak where are words tend to fail us, and reveal the intersections and interplay between our concrete world and the invisible things. But art does not do this by taking us upwards and away from the world. It always finds a starting place in our embodied experience of our world: with its wars and hatred and genocidal cleansings and also with its wonder and play.
But art is not journalism, it doesn't simply capture the moments of pain and joy; it transforms them through the expression of line and colour and composition to say something that defies textual equivalencies. As you walk around the gallery tonight, allow yourself to be taken by the lush palette and the emotional power of the Gabankova's brushstroke. And as you do, consider the stories that are being told and ask why a Czech- born woman might be so moved to raise the specter of Kosovo a place where Serbians and Albanians reduce their enemy to the absolute-other, unworthy of human dignity a mere body for massacre. Together, the stories and the way they are being told will help you form a fuller picture of body. Not body elevated or ignored or fetishized, but body redeemed. Redeemed in, I would argue, a biblical sense of proper relationship. Redemption, you may know, in scripture, is a legal term it's a buy-back of something lost. And art, in its allusive and often mysterious ways, can sometimes help us buy-back or regain a proper perspective. Redeemed to be wounded and to be broken, to cry and to move and also to dance.