Transpositions Ten-Year Anniversary Series Part 4: Significant Art from the 2010s

[EDITOR’S NOTE: This final instalment of our ten-year anniversary series is published in a new year.  We have turned the corner from the past decade and the tumultuous year that was 2020.  Looking back and also ahead, current Transpositions editors join the conversation, reflecting on significant art that has impacted us, and also how we anticipate how the arts will guide us on in the 2020s.   We wish you much inspired engagement with the arts in the years ahead and hope that Transpositions will continue to accompany you on that journey.]

 

Karlee Lillywhite – Fading Meconopsis, 2021

Delicate flowers like poppies don’t last long when cut and brought inside, but as they fade, they stretch out their petals in wild, dance-like gestures. There’s a grace to the way they say goodbye, a joy in the way they celebrate their ephemerality. As we remember and give thanks for the last ten years of art, we also say goodbye and make room for what new and unexpected blooms the next season will bring.

 

Karlee received her BA in English literature from the University of California, Berkeley and has worked as an editor, graphic designer and illustrator for several Christian organizations including Cornell University’s Christian study center, Chesterton House. As an MLitt student in ITIA’s Theology and the Arts program, she is exploring the devotional possibilities of illustration. Her artistic inspirations include gold leaf, Julian of Norwich, and the ways that text and image together can offer embodied spiritual experiences.

 

Joel Mayward – Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell, album, 2015

On 31 March 2015, Brooklyn-based artist Sufjan Stevens released his seventh studio album, the beautiful and sobering Carrie & Lowell. The hauntingly sparse folk record is certainly Sufjan’s most intimate and raw work, an elegiac Elliott Smith-esque lament inspired by the death of his estranged mother. Only a few weeks prior to the album’s release, on 7th March, my youngest child was born with a life-threatening congenital heart defect, one which would require a risky open-heart surgery and the high possibility that I would only have mere months to get to know my son. It was a parent’s worst nightmare: your newborn baby has something that will threaten their very existence and you are essentially helpless, quite literally handing over the life of your child—his heart, your heart—to a stranger in hospital scrubs who assures you that it will all be okay.

The timing of Carrie & Lowell’s release by Sufjan’s label, Asthmatic Kitty, felt strangely providential. During my son’s medical crisis, Carrie & Lowell served as a musical balm, a therapeutic soundtrack for my own painful experience of confronting mortality. When Sufjan’s falsetto sings f*ck me, I’m falling apart on the song, ‘No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross,’ every parent who has spent a night in the ICU with a child knows what he means.

Death happens. All of us will experience it, both as those who grieve the loved ones we’ve lost, as well as our own demise someday. We humans are fragile beings. This is the reality Carrie & Lowell embraces: the limited experience of our ephemerality. It stares human mortality directly in the eye and it will not blink back the tears. For instance, on the album’s saddest song, ‘Fourth of July,’ Sufjan sings the refrain we’re all gonna die nine times in his signature whispery falsetto. Lyrically structured as a conversation, the stanzas alternate between interlocutors—Sufjan and his dying mother, Carrie—while the music follows a basic downward progression of three minor chords, a repeated refrain on a piano keyboard. Absent of percussion, the minimalist rhythms emerge from the heartbeat-like drive of quarter notes in 4/4 time. The cycle repeats over and over, as if a musical representation of Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence, the endless weight of existence itself circling back upon itself via the piano notes. An ethereal high-pitched electronic hum permeates the background of the song, a ghostly presence haunting the listener. If it is not a proper funeral song, ‘Fourth of July’ is certainly a lament.

Indeed, ‘Fourth of July’ is Sufjan’s exorcism of grief, the central experience expressed within Carrie & Lowell. His lyrics demonstrate a rich knowledge of Christian biblical imagery (as well as Greek mythology) as he remembers the loss of his mother and conveys that loss through the music itself. The album is a musical masterpiece of good grief, which makes it paradoxically challenging and comforting in our present COVID-19 era where death and loss is an ever-present reality as a cloud of grief over the globe. This reality of suffering is grim, yet like a firefly glowing faintly in the dark, Carrie & Lowell—and other albums that follow in its spiritual footsteps—may be a catalytic spark of hope we need in the 2020s, reminding us of the possibility of life on the far side of death.

Joel is a final-year PhD candidate researching the intersection of theology, philosophy, and film in the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts (ITIA) at the University of St Andrews. The author of three books and dozens of articles in both popular and scholarly journals, he is currently completing a monograph on philosophical theology and the cinema of Christopher Nolan (Lexington Books/Fortress Academic, forthcoming 2022).

 

 James Smoker – Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven, novel, 2014

‘What would you choose if asked to pick a significant piece of art from the last ten years?’

Siobhan’s question came during one of our (formerly routine) post-school-drop-off walks. I was glad, as an assistant editor on the series, that I might avoid the question. How could I choose something that would stand out in the decade that saw me married, having children, attending graduate school, beginning a PhD, ending my twenties and beginning my thirties? How could I sum up so much change?

‘Maybe Station Eleven…’ I mused.

‘You cannot pick that book.’

‘Why not?’

‘…It’s about a pandemic.’

Station Eleven, the 2014 novel by Emily St. John Mandel, begins with a performance of King Lear on a snowy night in Toronto. The lead, Arthur Leander, dies on stage of a heart attack. As chaos unfolds in the theatre, an even worse global crisis will loom over the next several days. The Georgia Flu, a devastating plague, has reached its crisis point and will soon end the world.

The novel is non-linear. It flashes back to the lives of Arthur and his wife Miranda; it flashes forward twenty-years when North America has been reduced to scattered villages. It tells of those first days when everyone knew the world was changing forever. What it does not do—unlike genre-cousins like The Road and The Walking Dead—is tell the story of the immediate years following the plague.

Mandel has said that she was not interested in repeating the grimness of those tales. Yes, there would be those who would give into their urge to control, or isolate, or oppress. But, for the most part, people will still be people: we would care for our neighbours, raise children, play music, and find hope.

Station Eleven’s post-pandemic story follows ‘The Travelling Symphony,’ a caravan that goes from village to village, performing music and Shakespeare. The lead wagon is painted with the troupe’s motto: ‘because survival is insufficient.’ That quote is lifted from Star Trek: Voyager. Its ‘low-culture’ origins is a sore spot for one of the caravan’s members. ‘It remains my favourite line of text in the world,’ shoots back Kirsten, their lead actress.[1]

I did not pick Station Eleven because it is about a pandemic. Rather, I chose it because it finds hope in art from all corners of culture. The Travelling Symphony performs Vivaldi and A Midsummer Night’s Dream in an abandoned Walmart parking lot. It quotes pop-culture television and comics. The book itself is a literary novel in the guise of dystopian sci-fi (or is it the other way around?).

As we look forward to the 2020s, my hope is that Transpositions will approach art with similarly open arms. It is perhaps too obvious to say the artistic landscape has drastically changed in 2020, much less over the past decade. Television has gone prestige. Films have gone streaming. Music genres are being upended on Bandcamp and SoundCloud. Independent video games creators are increasingly bold in experimenting with story, form, and deconstruction. The intersection of theology and art will often, I suspect, be found in the unexpected.

I hope that we approach these transformations, in all their diverse particularity, with attentiveness, even wonder.

James is a doctoral student with the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts. He is researching the imagination and theological writings of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), with a particular focus on the darkness of Coleridge’s own imagination, the poet’s subsequent yearning for God, and his hope that, through this darkness, the imagination may lead one to approach the divine. James comes from Vancouver, Canada, where he most recently studied and worked at Regent College. 

 

 Ewan Bowlby Television Past and Future

The increasing prominence of television as a socially and spiritually significant artform was, arguably, one of the defining trends of the previous decade. And, as budgets, ambitions and audiences continue to grow, this pattern looks set to continue. The emergence of the idea of ‘quality TV’ during the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of television has elevated the medium to a new status. Whilst these concepts are not uncontroversial, it is hard to dispute Kutter Callaway’s claim that television is ‘more central to contemporary life than it ever has been before,’ or his assertion that it “often serves as an important resource for our spiritual lives’.[2] The decade we have just entered may be the one in which we come to understand more fully the implications of this. As the scope of the televisual medium expands further, each new show or series could enhance our appreciation of what television can offer viewers as a spiritual ‘resource.’

In her reflection for Transpositions on Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad, Mary McCampbell observes that this ‘masterful’ series exposed its protagonist’s failure to ‘see the imago dei’ in other humans, insisting instead that the mystery of life can be reduced to a scientific equation, because ‘it’s all just chemistry.’[3] At a time when lives are frequently, of necessity, treated as part of statistical calculations concerning, unemployment, hospitalisation, or death, series that remind us of the precious, intangible depths of our existence will be sorely needed. The potential for television to resist the devaluation and disenchantment of reality is also what Gavin Hopps drew attention to when he wrote for Transpositions about the ‘emergence of a tentative openness to the divine’ in Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag. This Bafta-winning comedy is an excellent example of what Hopps refers to as the ‘post-secular tendency in contemporary culture’:[4] an illustration of audio-visual art inviting us to entertain the possibility that life is something greater than ‘just chemistry.’ Perhaps, in the 2020s, we will learn more about how television can draw viewers further up and further into reality. Whether it will be through fantasy series that allow us to inhabit mystical, enchanted versions of our familiar world, such as the forthcoming Lord of the Rings adaptation or season four of Stranger Things, or through those documentaries that will continue to compel us to confront the inescapable challenges of our time, like Planet Earth or Hospital, television can afford new, enlightening perspectives. And through these different lenses, television may help us to rediscover what lies beyond the cold, brute facts of life, and to shape a more, hopeful, humane, and enchanted decade.

Ewan is a doctoral student at the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts (ITIA) in St Andrews, under the supervision of George Corbett (ITIA) and John Swinton (University of Aberdeen). He is researching ways of using popular artworks (novels, films and television series) to design new forms of art therapy which provide emotional, psychological and spiritual care for cancer patients. This involves using fictional narratives, characters and imagery to reflect and reframe patients’ experiences of living with cancer, helping them to understand and articulate the affect of cancer on their lives. He is developing the impact of his research through an ongoing collaboration with several Scottish centres run by the Maggie’s cancer care charity.

 

Karen McClain Kiefer – Banksy, Love is in the bin, 2018 and Playback Theatre, timeless

On 5th October 2018 a famous Banksy print, Girl with Balloon, was sold at auction for just over £1M and as the gavel came down on that winning bid, the artwork instantly became even more famous (and valuable) as it slipped on cue through a shredder built into its frame.  The famous self-destructing-art stunt, which drew both gasps and cheers, immediately generated a new work of art–live at the auction–which Banksy christened with a new name, Love is in the bin.

I appreciated the artistic spirit, innovation and provocation of the antic then, which displayed a reality of hope slipping away as the girl’s heart-shaped balloon descended toward annihilation.  Reflecting on the spectacle now, I find it even more relevant, especially in the wake of the harsh year just ended.  Like this self-destructing painting, any hopeful titles anticipated for 2020 as that new year dawned were likely shredded by March.  Before then, my labels for the year did not include pandemic, quarantine, self-isolation, virus or lockdown, and by December, I looked forward to discarding the year ‘in the bin’.  But just as the bottom half of the painting remains hanging above the bin after the shredding mechanism locked up, remnants of 2020 also linger.  The pandemic still rages amid escalating political unrest and division.  We wait for these remnants to descend into the bin so we can fully embrace a new, hopeful title for the freshly inaugurated 2021.

In the remnants, however, Banksy’s heart-shaped balloon remains intact.  ‘Love’, as it turns out, is not ‘in the bin’, and that partially shredded work can represent a new image of hope in occupying and moving on from challenging times.

Looking ahead, I believe the arts have a continuing responsibility to address cultural reality, however harsh.  The alternate realities being lived in these times present opportunities for artists to expose and help shift longstanding, oppressive narratives; give voice to people, stories and issues that have been dismissed for too long; and glimpse a way forward…

An artform that by its very nature allows for all these things through the timeless need to give voice to our stories is Playback Theatre – an improvisational theatre form enabling community conversation, healing and the exploration of reality through artistic re-enactment of personal stories.  In this time of distance, great upheaval, uncertainty and disparate realities, Playback models a way forward.  At the beginning of the pandemic, practitioners swiftly adapted the artform for performances over Zoom, representing the most significant phase of its evolution since its origin in 1975.  As the past decade gave way to the next, Playback gave voice to people stuck in isolation, to black Americans lamenting the pain of senseless killings and hatred against black bodies, to those mourning loved ones from a distance due to Covid-19 restrictions, and to those alienated from family members in a politically polarised climate.  As a practitioner myself, I have heard and played back heart-breaking stories of injustice, loneliness, fear and grief uniquely rooted in the reality of this current time and cultural climate.  As those stories were told and played out, not only did they foster connection among sometimes disparate groups of participants, each one also revealed glimmers of hope.

For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it. [5]

We need the arts more than ever to help express the truth of our time and find a way forward. The arts persist.  And Playback persists, providing not just a glimpse but a catapult into the future of theatrical artforms, and reassurance that, in the remnants of 2020, artists are not only ready for the challenges ahead but responding to the call.

Karen entered the PhD program in the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts after careers in corporate management and consulting, followed by service in pastoral, social and theatre ministry.  Under the supervision of Trevor Hart, she is exploring theological and theatrical contexts of ’empty space’ and general human disposition toward it, with emphasis on improvisation and Holy Saturday. Since 2017, Karen has led or advised ITIA’s Transept group, a postgraduate student-led group of multidisciplinary practicing artists.  As Editor of Transpositions, she is fostering a closer partnership with Transept.  She is an advanced Playback practitioner and a director and advocate of community theatre projects.

 


 

Image Credits

Karlee Lilywhite, Fading Meconopsis, graphite sketch digitally colored, 2021.

Album cover art for Carrie & Lowell by the artist Sufjan Stevens under the label, Asthmatic Kitty Records, 2015, https://music.sufjan.com/album/carrie-lowell.

Book cover, Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel (Picador, 2014), http://www.emilymandel.com/stationeleven.html.

Photo of television by Gaspar Uhas on Unsplash.

Love is in the bin, Banksy (photograph by Sotheby’s), acrylic paint, aerosol paint on canvas and board, 2018, https://www.sothebys.com/en/articles/latest-banksy-artwork-love-is-in-the-bin-created-live-at-auction.

Photos of Playback Theatre by Playback Edinburgh, February and December, 2020.

 

Notes

[1] Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven (Picador, 2014), 119.

[2] Kutter Callaway with Dean Batali, Watching TV Religiously: television and theology in dialogue (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016), pp. 5, 11.

[3] Mary McCampbell, reflection on Breaking Bad (2008-13) for ‘Transpositions Ten-Year Anniversary Series Part 2: Significant Art from the 2010s.’ Transpositions Ten-Year Anniversary Series Part 2: Significant Art from the 2010s – Transpositions.

[4] Gavin Hopps, ‘The Religious Turn in Fleabag,’ Transpositions, The Religious Turn in Fleabag – Transpositions [accessed 11/01/2021].

[5] Amanda Gorman, excerpt from The Hill We Climb, recited at the Presidential Inauguration, Washington, DC, 20th January 2021.

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