Transience - Nick Baines's blog - Musings of a restless bishop

Here goes with yet another exposure of ignorance.

Until this week I had never heard of the Spanish artist Cristobal Toral. Born in 1940 and from the Andalucian town of Antequera, he works in a variety of media. However, his paintings, bronzes and sculptures all address the pain and loneliness of transience. He seems obsessed with luggage. Yes – suitcases. And lonely people. Some of the female subjects of his paintings are the most poignant I have ever seen.

Core to his concerns are concepts of emigration – images of suitcases and a lone traveler. Emigration seems to him to characterise human experience both in reality and existentially. Hence his categorisation by people who know what they are talking about as a ‘realist’ who sees reality as a starting point and not a limitation. The result is powerful images suggestive of displacement, uncertainty and loneliness.

You have to stand in front of them to see what I mean by this. (I’d never make an art critic…)

For some obscure reason this reminded me of Bill Viola‘s Nantes Tryptich which I saw nearly a decade ago (I think) at Tate Modern in London. Viola filmed the last thirty minutes of his mother’s life and the last thirty minutes of his wife’s labour, placing the former on the right and the latter on the left (I think) of a central video of a human figure floating through water. It was haunting and disturbing. Yet, it was also compelling – attempting to hold his audience to just thirty minutes of contemplation of mortality and time in the midst of a race through an art gallery. (What interested me was how few people seemed able to stick with the Tryptich for more than just a few minutes of curious voyeurism.)

Ideas of transience are not exactly new. But, representations of transience that make you stop and look differently at it demand real skill. Viola asked us to contemplate our mortality; Toral stacks his suitcases and invites us to consider the human experience of ‘leaving’. They both made me stop and, in their different ways, provoked reflection on Cain – the experience of common humanity depicted in Genesis 4.

Having found himself exiled from Eden and stranded in a meaningless expanse of uncontoured desert (‘the Land of Nod’), Cain builds defensive walls, constructs a world of meaning within them. We all need constructs of significance that make our transient life meaningful and not meaningless. If we leave God behind we still need to create some sort of structure that allows us to believe that life is not worth nothing. Of course, the problem comes when the defensive walls of our constructed world view get breached by loss or chaos or crisis (existential or otherwise). The point is, however, that common to all human beings is the need for life to be inherently meaningful and not simply random or pointless.

I have yet to meet anyone who claims that life is inherently meaningless… and lives accordingly.

Christian faith begins with an acceptance of mortality, of transience. It starts with an experience of human being and living that faces death and non-existence with frankness and realism. But, as Easter is all about, it does so in the light of a meaning found in the action of God the Creator raising Christ from death and shining new light on our living and dying. It doesn’t minimise the experience of loss or crisis, but it does challenge fear and dread.

It also suggests that Christians should start with people’s real experience and not with answers to questions they haven’t yet formulated. Our common humanity is where we should always start – empathetically as well as intellectually – because it is here that we shall also always finish.

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Tags: Andalucia, Antequera, Bill, Cristobal, Toral, Viola, art, existentialism

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