In Holy Week I witnessed three tragedies. The first came while I was helping ITIA Resident Artist Daniel Drage install a sculpture, holding the ladder as he climbed up to begin preparations for the Transept space( )between event at St Andrews – a series of exhibitions and performances exploring the theology of Holy Saturday. Just as Dan was putting the finishing touches to his piece, a series of vertical lengths of string framing an empty nook where a statue once stood, we were told by a concerned staff member that the artwork should be dismantled. Though Dan had acquired all the necessary permissions to display his artwork in this location, out of deference to the staff member he elected to remove this piece. The second tragedy was the vision of the majestic, iconic Notre Dame Cathedral in flames: an awful accident which saw the Gothic masterpiece badly damaged and several smaller articles it had housed destroyed. Finally, in church on Good Friday, I bore witness to Tragedy Incarnate – the desolation of Calvary and the destruction of Love Itself on the cross.
Looking back, I have gradually realised that the first of these events shaped my response to the two weightier catastrophes that followed. I had learned an important lesson from this glorious artistic failure: a revelation from the bottom of a ladder which gave me a new perspective on life, art, and theology.
When Dan was told to take down the work he had just brought into existence, we only had a few fleeting moments to admire it in situ. The lengths of string, shuddering in the breeze like the strings of a lightly plucked lyre, subtly highlighted the gap they were in, amplifying without occupying. As the strings swayed in the wind they framed brief, fragile spaces like the one we found ourselves in, a meaningful moment that would soon end.
Returning to my base at the bottom of the ladder, as Dan set about deconstructing his work above me, I had a chance to consider what I had just been a part of. I suddenly saw the space between us, itself compartmentalised by the rungs of the ladder, in a new light. As a student of books and articles, I rarely gain this kind of insight into the world of a practising artist: the privilege of gazing up in interest and admiration at creativity in action, or of being involved in the complications and calamities that are part of this vocation. Too often these roles are reversed, with the academic theologian pronouncing judgement from on high, critiquing and interpreting artworks from the safety of the ivory tower. The artist and his or her audience become secondary concerns, subordinated to a particular, personal theological reading of the artwork, delivered as if it held the authority of objective truth. Yet here I had witnessed a painful, moving artistic disaster in which all traces of abstraction from the precariousness of human life, lived within time and space, had gone. The artistic process had elicited a dramatic experience of wonder and loss embedded in everyday reality. Words which I write or read can easily become stale, gradually losing the immediacy of context, and increasingly detached from the situation in which they were first uttered. In contrast, artworks can present a powerful performance tied to a specific moment, woven into their surroundings and subject to the patterns of experienced existence. They can offer insight and meaning expressed in the language of change, transience, and fragility so familiar to us all.
The artistic process had elicited a dramatic experience of wonder and loss embedded in everyday reality.
While I watched the spire of Notre Dame Cathedral collapse in flames a few days later, the awe and horror I felt seeing fire expose the vulnerability of something so beautiful took me back to the foot of the ladder. I was humbled again by the power of art to embrace and transform mutability and impermanence, teaching us about our own finitude through its susceptibility to nature and time. During Holy Week, I had also been taking in the other exhibitions and performances that were part of the space( )between event and its exploration of Holy Saturday and liminality. In Marginalia, Ashley Mowers and Jen Schmidt used theatre, poetry, and a new musical composition by Joel Clarkson to imagine a first-hand experience of Holy Saturday, dramatizing the feelings of bewilderment and loss it must have entailed. Karen Kiefer directed Encounters, a performance which used personal, human stories and theatrical improvisation to give a different perspective on these themes. Like the burning beauty of Notre Dame, they fashioned fiercely involving experiences of desolation, uncertainty, and mystery. As the flames fizzled out in Paris, these artists provided inspiring examples of art which concentrated, framed, and deepened a moment: a ‘space between’ that is ephemeral and empty, yet full of meaning, life and purpose.
Elsewhere, visual artists Mariah Ziemer, Friedericke Seide, Michael Thames, Letizia Morley and Sherrill Keefe, amongst others, used various mediums to render this empty space and everything that filled it. They brought out the beauty, poignancy, and tragedy of the intermediary, temporary qualities of the day between Cross and Resurrection, translating the theology of Holy Saturday into something tangible and visceral. The project also spilled out into the wider St Andrews community, showing the ease with which artistic collaborations can bridge the spaces between different communities and perspectives, filling these gaps with shared interests.
I realised that the space( )between artworks had deepened my understanding of the humanity of liminality
When the time came to take the artworks down, finish the performances, and face the final tragedy, the impact of this creative project endured. Confronted with the sorrow and foolish beauty of the Crucifixion, I was taken back to the start of Holy Week, and the all-too-brief life of Daniel Drage’s sculpture. The analogy was irresistible: a fragile, wonderful form nailed up and suspended, then taken down in grief and mourning. Yet it was also more than mere analogy, as I had witnessed a small, imperfect echo of the Good Friday tragedy which was felt, seen, and experienced within a historical moment: a resonance vibrating in the particularity of my own life. And moving into Holy Saturday, I realised that the space( )between artworks had deepened my understanding of the humanity of liminality, making the scriptural narrative more intimate, more immediate. Many others that I spoke to during the event told me how the art and performances had affected them, and they described profound experiences that were meaningful and valuable, whether religious, spiritual, or human. Similarly, the event had helped me to reach the theology beyond the words that was bound up in emotion, reaction, and duration. Photography, calligraphy, sculpture, poetry, music, and theatre had transformed the space between the present and the experiences of those first Christians who had wept at the foot of the cross. Time spent at the bottom of the ladder, looking up in interest and curiosity at the work of these artists, had renewed and enriched my appreciation of Holy Week.
As I write, the irony of setting this down in words is not lost on me, but I hope the words might still point toward the role academic, semantic theology can play in these instances. It can provide balance, grounding, and reassurance; support for those climbing above; and a steadying foundation which facilitates and liberates creative expression. It might also offer reflection and reaction once the artists return to the ground, sharing in the appreciation of what they have created before it is dismantled, destroyed or burned down, then considering what the artwork has left behind even after it is gone. When this happens, the division between art and theology, which can sometimes seem like a chasm, is transformed into a space between, filled with constructive tension, conversation, and collaboration.