Brett David Potter

Brett David Potter is a writer and video artist from Toronto. He has a BFA in Film and Video from York University concentrated in experimental cinema, and his found-footage video works have screened at the Flickerings Festival (Illinois) and as part of Scotiabank Nuit Blanche. He studied Christianity and the Arts at Regent College in Vancouver, BC, and is currently a PhD candidate at the Toronto School of Theology, where he is interested in bringing contemporary art, media, and culture into conversation with twentieth-century philosophy and theology. Brett enjoys playing banjo and spending time with his wonderful wife and daughter. He blogs (occasionally) at http://brettdavidpotter.wordpress.com.

Stanley Kubrick: Mystic

I first watched Stanley Kubrick’s uncanny The Shining (1980) where I watched all the great 80s horror movies, from Poultergeist to The Evil Dead —in the dark, sacred confines of my best friend’s basement. Though other films were more terrifying, The Shining was—and still is—like nothing I had ever seen: horror transposed into pure cinematic poetry. I sat transfixed in front of the glowing television set, swallowed up in the biblical deluge of blood pouring out of those elevator doors.

Largely panned when it was first released, Kubrick’s cult masterpiece has become, for me, what it has become for everyone—a dream we can’t seem to let go of, an odd hallucination haunting us in oblique ways. Not a week goes by where it doesn’t surface again in some Internet meme or pop culture parody (this week: a version starring small rodents).

Jack Nicholson’s performance as Jack Torrance, tormented writer-turned-axe-murderer, has become iconic—“heeeere’s Johnny!” The typographic horror of the “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” scene is perhaps one of the greatest depictions of on-screen madness (as well as the inherent dangers of trying to make it as a writer!). We feel the terror of Torrance’s wife and their psychically “shining” son as the father loses his grip on reality in the isolated hallways of the Overlook Hotel; their struggle to get out of the haunted ski resort induces a kind of cinematic claustrophobia on the part of the viewer. It is a harrowing viewing experience.

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Perhaps most importantly, though, the most enduring images of the film are not about the plot points, but those which give visual expression to psychic disintegration—little Danny Torrance riding his scooter around the corner, only to be confronted by the archetypal creepy twin girls; the blood in the elevator, a torrent straight out of Exodus; “REDRUM” scrawled on the wall; the sickening embrace of the dead woman in the bathroom of the infamous room 237. These are images which leave a mark on us, which even as they play out in eerie silence leave our eyes ringing.

Because of their uncanny persistence, we can’t leave the film alone. Its many complexities are explored in the 2012 documentary Room 237, currently streaming on Netflix. As Rodney Ascher, the director of the documentary, reminds us, Kubrick’s film is much more than a horror movie. Like the great auteur director’s other films, there is not a single aspect of mise-en-scène—what appears within the frame—which occurs by accident. Each seeming continuity error, grotesque scene, and eerie coincidence serves an esoteric purpose. The Shining, to borrow an image from the climax of the film, is a labyrinth into which we are irrevocably drawn; like the Overlook Hotel, as the trailer for Room 237 puts it, the film itself offers “many ways in” but “no way out.”

Room 237 plunges us into the labyrinth. And once we are in the maze of interpretations of The Shining, it becomes clear just how many twists and turns there are. Conspiracy theories, visual minutiae, allegories, trompe l’oeil—these all coalesce and swirl about each other in a haze of semiotic signs and signals.

shining

The Shining is read against the rest of Kubrick’s impressive oeuvre2001: A Space Odyssey, Full Metal Jacket, A Clockwork Orange, even Eyes Wide Shut–looking for visual and thematic clues about how the film’s narrative conceals a deeper layer of meaning. Medieval allegorists would be proud.

One interpreter of the film sees the repressed theme of the film as the killing and mistreatment of the Native Americans by colonizing European settlers. This is an elaborate yet internally convincing interpretation which takes as its starting point a seemingly inconsequential image of an Indian on a Calumet baking powder can, shown briefly in a scene in the hotel’s pantry. Another interpretation is centered on archetypal myths and fantasies about death and violence. A poster of a skier on the wall is thought to be the beastly Minotaur of Crete who stalks Theseus through the halls of the labyrinth. Jack Torrance is lost in the maze of not only the Overlook Hotel, but his own mind.

Even the most ephemeral visual elements of Kubrick’s film are taken as semantic clues, pointing to multiple (re)interpretations and obscure polysemies. The Overlook Hotel is mapped out, revealing inconsistencies with the placement of rooms, windows, and stairwells, hallways that lead nowhere–it is an impossible structure, an Escher-like maze.

The explanatory theories presented in Room 237 become increasingly outlandish. Most fantastically, The Shining is interpreted as Kubrick’s secret apology for helping fake the moon landing. Scenes are analyzed and deconstructed ad absurdum, the most minute details of the frame pored over. Interpreting the film becomes itself a kind of hermetic or kabbalistic enterprise, full of secrets and unveilings.

Central to many of the interpretations, and endemic to the film itself, is the sense of repressed trauma. Did Jack abuse his son Jimmy? Are there things forgotten which are coming to light? Perhaps the whole film is about the Freudian “return of the repressed”–be it America’s colonial past, the Holocaust, or devastations more psychological and internal. The river of blood gushing out of the elevator comes from a hidden wound in the heart of the century. Jack’s madness is the natural response of a man trapped in this terrifying recurrence.

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Room 237 is, in documentary terms, an extended video essay, never cutting to “talking heads” but rather investigating cinematic questions by layering multiple audio commentaries over the film itself.  It does not bring us out of the film, but circles around it, moving in closer—an ever-deepening hermeneutic spiral. In keeping us within the world of the film, it shows us paths through the maze, but never lets us out.

This kind of video-based film criticism expands, rather than demystifies, the quasi-spiritual appeal of The Shining. Just as I sat immobilized in my friend’s basement, reaching some kind of slack-jawed teenage horror-movie enlightenment as the frame filled with blood, it is a film we get lost in. We are not sure how to move through it. As one writer puts it, “the maze concept requires that an audience be tested and challenged, even to the point of confusion if it fails to shine and remember not only how it got into the film…but how it got lost.”

For this reason, Ascher in Room 237 also profiles those who have tried to navigate the film in different temporal dimensions using video editing technology. In one particularly compelling interpretation by artists John Fell Ryan and Akiva Saunders, the last shot of the film is taken and superimposed over the first shot, and so on over the entire film so that the film becomes a palimpsest moving simultaneously backward and forward in time (The Shining Backwards and Forwards, 2011). Scenes float atop one another, creating another visual layer of filmic ghosts to foreshadow future events and suggest narrative/psychological parallels. The film ends/begins with both the winding road leading to the Overlook Hotel and the past/future apparition of Jack Torrance’s face in the historical photograph.

Since Room 237 came out, filmmaker Jon Dieringer has gone one step further and created The Shining Backwards and Forwards and Inwards and Outwards in High Definition Anaglyph 3D (Chaos Mix), which pushes this Douglas Gordon-esque video practice to its perceptual extreme. Here the maze begins to expand beyond the frame and further into our consciousness. [A similar recombinant aesthetic guides the viral Red Drum Getaway mashup which through compositing creates a kind of Hitchcock-Kubrick metafilm. Jimmy Stewart from Hitchcock’s Vertigo follows Danny’s tricycle around winding corners into scenes from 2001 and Eyes Wide Shut. ]

Remixing The Shining into a new, even more complex form–where it plays backwards, forwards, and in multiple dimensions at the same time – reminds us of its uncanny power, the way it lingers in our eyes and brains. Rather than straightforward viewing, the film calls for a way of watching film that goes beyond the visible. If the filmmaker is a mystic, Kubrick here reveals himself as a kind of kabbalistic poet, drawing us deeper into the hermeneutical mysteries of the filmic “text.”

The Shining is a film that we can no longer watch without preconceived notions–countless “paratexts” influence our reception of it–and as Ascher’s Room 237 points out, it is endless in the meanings it yields. Perhaps the best way to appreciate its enduring power is to think of the “marks” it has left on us. St. Teresa of Avila was pierced by a burning celestial arrow. The extremities of humble St. Francis of Assisi were imprinted with the bleeding wounds of Christ as he prayed atop Mount La Verna. Kubrick’s mystical vision, which we all now share, was of blood pouring out of an elevator and an inescapable maze. Perhaps the language of mysticism, with all its talk of illumination and flowing blood from innumerable “cuts,” gives us a richer way of talking about this intertextual maze of cinematic meanings. In our film viewing, we open up to this strange and bloody imprint of the otherworldly, the spiritual, even in the ghostly margins of a thirty-year-old horror film. 

We sit still, perhaps in the dark of a suburban basement, and are initiated for a few fleeting moments into a strange and indescribable reality beyond our own. It is thus on the silver screen where, to crib from William James, “unpicturable beings are realized…with an intensity almost like that of a hallucination.” But what if it turns out we are not hallucinating at all? What if The Shining is a cultural dream we can’t wake up from? What if, in other words, we’re still in the maze, trying to find our way out?

Found Theology and Found-Footage Film

In collaboration with Christians in the Visual Arts, The Curator is publishing previews of scholarly papers from the 2015 CIVA conference “Between Two Worlds: Contemporary Art and the Church” to be held at Calvin College on June 11-14. This paper comes from the Theology and Visual Arts Track.

One thing artists and theologians have in common is that they both stand in relation to a tradition. Just as one cannot be an artist without standing in some relation to “an art history,” however broadly or narrowly such a term is conceived, so too the task of the Christian theologian is impossible without reckoning with what has been passed down (tradere) through the ages.[1] Theology and art alike must constantly mediate between the past and the present, between the pre-existing and the genuinely new.

Ben Quash’s recent book Found Theology takes as a central metaphor for Christian theology the “art of the found” associated with twentieth-century artists like Marcel Duchamp and Kurt Schwitters. Quash vividly describes the primary task of theology as “relati[ng] the given to the found.”[2] This expresses well the creative vocation shared by theologians and artists. Whether a theologian, artist, or both, tradition with all its complexity, profundity and even difficulty, is the “given” for all creative work. It is inevitable, as Quash writes, that “whenever one meets some found thing, one meets in it in the light of a tradition of thought and practice.”[3] But like artists, theologians must also be open to the new – as Quash describes it, to diverse and surprising “findings” as they appear in culture and history – even if they reconfigure certain ways of understanding the “given.” The French Dominican theologian Yves Congar, drawing a similar parallel between art and theology, argued for an understanding of tradition not as a force which stifles creativity, but as a force of renewal and something being constantly ‘re-newed’ itself in the process:

Tradition conceived as the handing down of set formulas and the enforced and servile imitation of models learned in the classroom would lead to sterility; even if there were an abundant output of works of art, they would be stillborn. […] The aim of this lesson is [rather] to receive the vitality of their inspiration and to continue their creative work in its original spirit, which thus, in a new generation, is born again with the freedom, the youthfulness and the promise that it originally possessed.

As Quash and Congar point out in varying ways, tradition ought to nourish rather than stifle Christian theology, and so its appropriation should take the form of creative use of its resources in order to engage the present anew. Tradition can only be “born again” when we are willing to embrace both the given and the found – to appropriate tradition with both reverence and a certain artistic irreverence, splicing together the old and the new in order to “find” our place in the unfolding story. Artists and theologians can both model this paradoxical stance, and perhaps learn from each other along the way.

Artistic Appropriation: The Clock

If film is a “time-based medium,” perhaps Christian Marclay’s video installation The Clock is cinema in its purest form. The Clock is, simply put, a twenty-four hour long montage of “found” film clips in which a clock or timepiece can be found somewhere in the frame, or where the passage of time is referred to or implied in some significant way. Displayed in a gallery as an installation, it aims to be an immersive experience. The footage comes from hundreds of different classic films, from Gary Cooper famously waiting for the outlaw train in High Noon to Peter Fonda checking his watch in Easy Rider to the iconic shot of silent film star Harold Lloyd hanging off of a giant city clock in Safety Last!, assembled together into a sprawling “metafilm.” Perhaps most ingeniously, however, the film also functions as a real clock – for the diegetic clocks on screen are arranged so as to coincide with “real time,” such that 3:30 on screen is 3:30 for the gallery viewer, midnight is midnight, and so on. The work, which debuted at London’s White Cube in 2010 and has since been widely exhibited, has been called one of the most important works of twenty-first century art as well as “the defining monument of the remix age.” In 2011 it won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale. The piece has been described as hypnotic and mesmerizing – viewers go in ready to spend only a few minutes but are entranced for hours by the overwhelming torrent of visual data and the whirlwind tour through Western cinema.

Christian Marclay, The Clock (2010).

Christian Marclay, The Clock (2010).

The Clock is a formidable achievement of “found footage film,” a genre of experimental cinema pioneered by artists like Joseph Cornell and Bruce Conner.[4] The term “found footage” belies its decidedly analog origin – “feet” of film physically “found” and repurposed by a generation of filmmakers – a short list would include Conner, Arthur Lipsett, Martin Arnold, and Craig Baldwin – who raided the “cinematic dustbins” to create subversive experimental films.[5] Taking, finding, and stealing film wherever they could find it – outtakes, commercials, home movies, instructional films, obscure B-movies – visionary films such as Conner’s seminal A Movie (1956) or Baldwin’s Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America (1992) wove together completely disparate visual sources into new, often bizarre narratives.

Similar to Douglas Gordon and Pierre Huyghe in the contemporary landscape of video art, Marclay’s work belongs to a new tradition of digital appropriation or “postproduction,”[6] which has moved away from the ephemeral, obscure source material favored by the earlier generation to recycling and remixing the canonical visual texts of Hollywood itself.[7] Postproduction art is embedded in what Nicolas Bourriaud calls a “culture of use,” or what is more popularly known as “sampling” – a digital, open-source mode of appropriation characteristic of “hip-hop, mashups, supercuts, and memes, each oscillating fluidly between modes of production and consumption.”[8] Alfred Hitchcock seemed to be a favorite source for found-footage artists in the 1990s: Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho (1993) stretched the original film out to a 24-hour period, while Christoph Girardet and Matthias Müller’s The Phoenix Tapes (1999) edited together visual motifs and recurring patterns from across the filmography of the great auteur, making Hitchcock’s familiar stylistic tropes and obsessions even stranger. We can also think of Gus van Sant’s shot-by-shot remake of Psycho (1998), maligned at the time but now thought of as a unique cinematic experiment –  which itself has subsequently been spliced together with Hitchcock’s original film by none other than Steven Soderbergh (“Psychos,” web video, 2014). Marclay belongs to the “illustrious tradition” of appropriation art in its new, endlessly recombinant digital/viral format.

As in other video works such as Video Quartet (2002), as well as an array of sculptural works and audio experiments, Marclay’s use of appropriated materials stems from an ongoing interest in collage and performance. Yet The Clock goes a step beyond these projects as well as Gordon and Müller’s works in its sheer, Internet-like data overload. In the language of the Internet meme, The Clock is the more mature older cousin of the “supercut,” where one aspect of a film or television series is “obsessively” collected and edited together. It is Marclay’s virtuosic skill as a collagist and editor, however, which allows him to transcend the banal and indexical – merely stitching together 24 hours of essentially unrelated footage, which often on the Internet leads to a tiresome “database” aesthetic rather than a narrative one – to create out of this shapeless mass of fragments a coherent and compelling whole, with moments of humor, suspense, and even various levels of (meta)narrative continuity.[9]

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Video editing is about placing images side by side so as to create meaning as they follow one another in temporal succession. As viewers, we construct narratives and patterns based on visual and aural continuity; the juxtaposition of two images causes us to reflect on their relationship. Borrowing from Fredric Jameson, we can call this a process of “re-narrativization.”  Rather than a linear narrative, however, Marclay accomplishes his transmutation of found footage into new meanings by structuring each shot in relation to temporality itself. His use of montage thus serves to remind us of cinema’s intrinsic relationship to time. In the darkened space of the movie theater, the passage of time seems to slow down and speed up based on the pace of the editing. In watching a “normal” Hollywood film, we are carried along with this without even thinking about it. The ellipsis of time, what is left out between cuts, disappears for us and as trained cinemagoers we instinctively ignore it.

In Marclay’s collage, on the other hand, we as viewers are constantly being reminded of the relationship of cinematic time to “real time,” and the invisible mechanism of editing is constantly making itself apparent. Moreover, the “foundness” of the footage – its origin in a film other than the one we are currently watching – asserts an undeniable presence. Collage involves the viewer in an active process of meaning-making. To watch The Clock is to simultaneously experience the passage of time both onscreen and in our own bodies; to recall the original source of the material (what movie is that from?); and to understand the clip in its new semiotic context. As Quash writes, “there are ways in which an object’s (or an event’s) quality of ‘foundness’ can continue to cling instructively to it even when it is incorporated, canonized, and revisited.”[10] Consider the complexity of seeing a clip from Orson Welles’ The Stranger (the scene where he is thrown off a clock tower) in Marclay’s collage. Our attention all at once directed to 1) the dramatic clip itself; 2) the film it was taken from; 3) our cultural associations with Welles, i.e. the “paratexts” which accompany our viewing of any film in which he appears; 4) the shots this shot is now playing alongside; and 5) the shot’s implicit relationship to time and clocks. Film viewing becomes an incredibly complex, intertextual, self-reflexive enterprise – yet accustomed to the complex cognitive process of movie-watching and the digital polysemy of the Internet, we do it without thinking. The visible edits become once again “seamless” as we are immersed in the film.

Jeremy Begbie has pointed out the way in which much of the meaningfulness of music comes from “the interplay between its temporal processes and a vast range of temporal processes which shape our lives in the world” – everyday phenomena like breathing, waiting, the cycle of day and night.[11] The Clock reminds us that film functions in a similar way, bridging between our bodily experience of time and the perfect, mediated time of the silver screen. Appropriation thus becomes not only the creative activity of the artist, but of the viewer. Not only does The Clock position itself so as to re-create a cinematic experience, it investigates cinematic experience itself in terms of time and temporality. The “real time” connection between what is happening on screen and the passage of time both disrupts and reconstitutes our experience of the world through the “time-based” medium of cinema.

Theological Appropriation

What The Clock does for theology is alert us to a way of being-in-the-world where the given and the found collide. This serves as a clue to the meaning of the term appropriation in both art and theology, which simply means “making one’s own.” The postproduction artist takes or recycles footage in order to synthesize it into his own unique creative vision. Yet the viewer also “appropriates” the experience in a constant, multidirectional act of interpretation – a self-reflexivity where one sees oneself both in relation to these films and their cultural meaning and to the present passage of time. In found-footage work, to digitize a phrase from Shakespeare, visual material is “untimely ripped.” It is taken out of one sequence and placed in another. Yet in the hands of an artist, a decontextualized, recycled shot can become extremely “timely” – the diachronic unfolding of shots in sequence situates us in relation to time and yields new histories and patterns of meaning.

Theology, I suggest, must similarly effect a kind of creative re-editing of tradition. Like a video editor, the theologian has at her disposal a vast array of materials, ready to be revisited and re-presented with an eye to both past and future time. Appropriation, in the theological sense, becomes a “making one’s own” of tradition not in the mode of a dead traditionalism but of artistic and pneumatic inspiration. A “found theology” investigates both theology and culture – in the mode or medium of time – for signs of new life, and integrates these findings into the living tradition of the church. In this vein, Quash’s “found theology” sets a new direction for conversations between theology and art, eschewing a “shallow” approach in favor of one that is genuinely interdisciplinary and open to new possibilities.

Theological Aesthetics as Bricolage

What can theology learn about tradition, creativity, and “foundness” from found-footage filmmaking and remix culture, and from Marclay’s The Clock in particular? One of Quash’s key theological precursors is the Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, the figure most closely allied with the term “theological aesthetics.” Balthasar’s seven-volume aesthetics are most often cited in terms of their retrieval of Beauty both within and outside of the Christian tradition. Yet another way to look at Balthasar’s voluminous theology is precisely as a complex work of art itself. This then begs the question of what kind of art it is. We may discover that Balthasar is in a certain sense a theological bricoleur, creatively putting together disparate elements – ancient and modern, sacred and secular, mystical and practical, theological, philosophical, artistic – into a new, organic whole.

Balthasar’s theological aesthetics and dramatics are daringly original, yet they gain their strength precisely from their non-systematic, integrative method – a theological project well-suited to its “artistic” subject matter. One striking example is the way Balthasar appropriates a range of thinkers as representatives of “lay” and “clerical” styles in volumes II and III of The Glory of the Lord: from the tradition of Christian theology he draws on Irenaeus, Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysius, Anselm and Bonaventure, but on the other hand he “finds” ample theological insight in the poetic and mystical works of Dante, John of the Cross, Pascal, Hamann, Soloviev, Hopkins, and Peguy. Throughout his work, he draws equally on German philosophers, French novelists, playwrights like Shakespeare and Calderon, painters (Georges Rouault seems to be a favorite), composers, poets from Sappho to Rilke, and mystics ranging from Eckhart to his own close friend Adrienne von Speyr. The heterogeneity of his theological sources is thus much like the eclecticism of the found-footage artist – he casts his net widely, but in the end he is able to weave his “findings” into a coherent and compelling whole.

His project is best seen as a work of creative and transformative appropriation and synthesis. Balthasar’s synthetic theological aesthetics is less like a Duchampian readymade and more like Dante’s Divine Comedy, integrating classical, Christian, and philosophical motifs into a new creative shape coalescing around the revealed supreme “form” of Christ. Thus Balthasar yields, in Ben Quash’s aesthetic terminology, theology “that is found and not simply made” – much like a certain (non-Duchampian) type of found art, which responds to both the found and the given with creativity and resourcefulness.[13] Moreover, Balthasar’s constant theme is openness and receptivity, a theological orientation readily available to the world and to God in order to experience both anew. Appropriation, in a Balthasarian model, is a matter of experiencing the form of Christ as mediated by the tradition – in short, it is an aesthetic, not just intellectual, process. Balthasar’s approach to tradition is consistent with the kind of “found” theological method espoused by Quash and modeled artistically by Marclay. Like each of the voluminous number of clips (re)assembled by Marclay, each piece of Balthasar’s ressourcement of tradition bears the marks of its own “foundness.” It points us all at once in a multiplicity of allusive and evocative directions – a theological aesthetics, not just a systematics. Yet it also presents itself with a startling newness, as in Congar’s model of tradition. Theology as dead traditionalism or propositionalism is precluded – rather, tradition, creativity, and appropriation exist in a dynamic interpretive relationship.

In found theology and art, tradition and creativity go hand in hand, and appropriative art of the kind evident in Marclay’s The Clock as well as Balthasar’s theo-aesthetics can help us explore this dynamic. In found-footage filmmaking, film clips are, as Shakespeare penned in Macbeth, “untimely ripped” from their narrative contexts and given new life, edited together in surprising, unusual, and often subversive ways.[14] But as the narrative context of this quote from the Scottish play reminds us, and as is evident from Congar’s metaphor, this is the way new artworks – and new theologies – are born.

 

Citations

[1] Jerrold Levinson, for example, argues that the “intentional orientation” of the artist to position a work of art in relation to “an art history” – from the great works of the Western canon to the more local scenario of “any prior art activity” – is what makes it art. For Levinson, a work that has been “seriously intended for regarding-as-a-work-of-art” is art because it is positioned to be regarded in the same specific ways that “preexisting or prior artworks are or were correctly regarded.” Jerrold Levinson, Music, Art and Metaphysics: essays in philosophical aesthetics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990), 44.

[2] Ben Quash, Found Theology: History, Imagination and the Holy Spirit (Edinburgh: Bloomsbury/T&T Clark, 2014), xiv.

[3] Quash, Found Theology, 17.

[4] A sign of the times in terms of the analog-to-digital trajectory of found footage work is Jen Proctor’s recent digital, shot-by-shot “remake” of Bruce Conner’s famous film A Movie. See Scott MacDonald, “Remaking a found-footage film in a digital age: an interview with Jennifer Proctor,” Millennium Film Journal 57 (April 2013): 84-91.

[5] Scott MacKenzie, “Flowers in the dustbin: termite cinema and detritus cinema,” CineAction 47:1 (1998): 24-29.

[6] The canonical text here is Nicolas Bourriaud, Postproduction: Culture as Screenplay: How Art Reprograms the World (New York: Lukas & Sternberg, 2002).

[7] Margot Bouman, “On Sampled Time and Intermedial Space: Postproduction, Video Installation and Christian Marclay’s The Clock,” Journal of Curatorial Studies 3:1 (2014): 5-6. For more on the changing nature of appropriative video in the digital age see the documentary film RiP: A Remix Manifesto (2009, dir. Brett Gaylor).

[8] Bouman, 4.

[9] The longer one watches, the more The Clock reveals itself as a metafilm in which our attention is concurrently and reflexively pulled into the action on the screen and thrust back out onto our own experience of viewing.” Julie Levinson, “Time and Time Again: Temporality, Narrativity, and Spectatorship in Christian Marclay’s The Clock,Cinema Journal 54:3 (Spring 2015).

[10] Quash, Found Theology, 6.

[11] Jeremy Begbie, Theology, Music and Time (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 13

[12] I realize that the terms bricoleur and bricolage may sound hopelessly postmodern, connoting mere pastiche instead of a deeper level of appropriation. In the original sense the word simply means making something out of what is available.

[13] Quash, Found Theology, 4-7.

[14] Macbeth Act 5, Scene 8. The context here is, of course, childbirth – an apt metaphor for the artistic process.

Setting the Record Straight

Ai Weiwei’s Straight (2008-2012), a large-scale sculptural work consisting of thousands of pieces of steel rebar, weighs approximately 38 tons. When it was installed at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, one of the many stops between Tokyo and Brooklyn on the Chinese artist’s major retrospective Ai Weiwei: According to What?, each day of the exhibition an expert was brought in to make sure the gallery floor hadn’t buckled under the immense weight. This is not the only one of Ai’s works to require a little extra curatorial fortitude: To take just two examples, Sunflower Seeds at the Tate Modern in 2010 consisted of millions of hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds; Forever Bicycles (2011), which we Torontonians got to see as part last year’s annual Scotiabank Nuit Blanche, is a sinuous structure made of 3,144 interconnected bicycles.

What is the point of all this heavy lifting? Ai Weiwei, whose minimalist and Pop Art inspired work has garnered increasing international acclaim over the past few years, is a controversial artist/activist/social-media guru whose work has consistently challenged the political and social status quo in his native China. He has been beaten, jailed and censored by the Chinese authorities, and currently has been barred from leaving the country under any circumstances – in Toronto, since he could not be present at the opening of his AGO retrospective, he gave an interview via Skype. His most famous piece, the appropriately titled photo triptych Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995/2009), established him as a figurehead of defiance by taking on a few centuries worth of Chinese politics, history and culture in one pregnant gesture. The striking Sunflower Seeds gives visual expression to Chairman Mao’s now infamous policy to “let a hundred flowers bloom” in the early days of his regime. More playful, but no less political works plaster symbolic antique vases with Coca-Cola logos and primary colors, signs of Westernization and cultural history in semiotic flux.

Straight, however, is heavier. Ai and his team literally and laboriously twisted back into shape thousand of pieces of steel rebar recovered from schools demolished in the devastating 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province. On the wall overlooking the enormous pile of rebar are the names of over 5,000 children killed during the quake due to poorly constructed school buildings. The Chinese government, dissociating itself from the shoddily built structures, never released a list of casualties – and so the list of the departed has been assembled by the artist, and appears on the wall above the reconstituted steel poles. The same theme animates the haunting Snake Ceiling (2009), a long, serpentine installation made of abandoned backpacks.

Rebar - Ai Weiwei

photo: Edna Winti

One way to interpret Straight is as an act of redemptive restitution, a concrete-and-steel manifestation of what we mean by “setting the record straight.” Art thus becomes, to adopt a phrase from Heidegger, a matter of truth “setting-itself-to-work” — straightening out the broken rebar is a metaphor, and in some sense a participation in, putting the world back together again. To make something straight is to set it right. What comes to mind is all the biblical language about “making straight paths,” from ethical admonitions in Proverbs to Isaiah’s prophetic words about “making straight a highway” for the coming of the Lord — words taken up by John the Baptist. “Lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed,” exhorts the anonymous author of Hebrews. In these passages, making things straight is a sign of the in-breaking kingdom of peace, wholeness and justice. The artist himself hints in this direction, linking straightness to the courage to pursue the true and the good — in other words, to backbone: “The tragic reality of today is reflected in the true plight of our spiritual existence. We are spineless and cannot stand straight.”

But as with all art, there is ambiguity — for another way of “straightening” or “smoothing” out the narrative is through spin and sleight-of-hand. The steel bars, bent back into perfect shape, now conceal the fact that anything happened at all. The broken buildings, the rubble and the bodies of the innocent are the incontrovertible evidence demanding a verdict — cleaned up and straightened out, things appear to be “back to normal,” which is precisely what those in power desire. Straight thus causes us to reflect on what has been straightened out and what, if anything, remains tangled.

Not everyone is enamored with Ai’s art. Jed Perl, for example, writes in the New Republic that:

…when Ai hangs an MRI on the wall or places thirty-eight tons
of steel rebar on the floor, he fails to meet, much less to grapple
with, the challenges of art. In this way, he creates his own kind
of political kitsch.

Perhaps the aesthetic simplicity of Straight is a little too, for lack of a better word, straightforward — like much of Ai Weiwei’s infamous work, it is resolutely in-your-face. But of course, when it comes to a terrible tragedy the world has forgotten, this is precisely the point. Those who forget the past, particularly its darkest features — along with those who lose sight of the many realities of suffering and oppression in the present — will struggle to shoulder the burden of the future.

For viewing:
Two documentaries have come out in the past two years detailing Ai’s biography, art and confrontation with the Chinese government:

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2012, dir. Alison Klayman)
Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case (2013, dir. Andreas Johnsen)

photo by: paul bica