Shadows of the Divine Exhibition

The Shadows of the Divine exhibition, an interview with Jolyon Mitchell.

Today is the final day of the Shadows of the Divine exhibition and our coverage of it concludes with an interview with Jolyon Mitchell. Jolyon is Professor of Communications, Arts and Religion at New College, University of Edinburgh, and Director of the Centre for Theology and Public Issues (CTPI), the research centre that is hosting the exhibition. Public Faith talked to him near the beginning of the exhibition about CTPI, peacebuilding and the arts, and his own research.

PF This exhibition is the public launch of CTPI’s new research project, Peacebuilding through the Media Arts. Can you say more about how the vision for the exhibition fits into that project?

JM At the heart of the project is the belief that there has been extensive work about how different media contribute towards violence; but there has been very little work looking at how different media might contribute to building peace. Part of what this exhibition is doing is not just marking the beginning of a project, but marking the beginning of a conversation. Many of the pictures in the exhibition are actually not explicitly about  peacebuilding. What they are about is suffering, pain, desolation, violence within communities…. In some ways they are quite intriguing places to start the conversation about peacebuilding, but in some ways they’re quite a logical place to start. What is it  that peacebuilders are trying to do? They are trying to bring an end to the necessity of  violence in all its different forms. Another reason why it’s good to start with a public exhibition is because it shows a different model of theology. There is a model of theology that means you sit in the library for four or five years, researching away and then you come out with the ideas–which can work and be very useful. But in this case it begins with a public conversation, and a public conversation which isn’t just rooted in words but rooted in visual signs and symbols. It’s playing with forms or dialects of theology.

PF In the exhibition description it says that artists with various viewpoints are represented. Yet one of the recurrent themes is the cross, of Christ suffering on the cross. What do you think is the role that image can play in inter-religious or intercultural peacebuilding?

JM For some people a visual representation of a crucifix, of a man dying on a cross is deeply problematic, it carries with it significant luggage. It is problematic not just for theoretical or theological reasons, but also for emotional reasons. It’s such a shocking image. It also has a history of shocking abuse attached to it, whether that’s the crusades in the Middle East or the Ku Klux Klan in 20th-century North America. So there’s a recognition that this image is not without its difficulties and problems. Theologians and historians are aware that each representation of the cross emerges out of a specific historical context and therefore reflects that context. For example Graham Sutherland‘s Deposition is from 1947, when the world was staring in silent disbelief at photos from Auschwitz and from the other concentration camps. You can see within the painting that artist attempting to come to terms with what he’s seen in photographs and express it visually, and relating it, in this case, to an empty cross and this skeletal form in front of the cross. That representation is from a specific historical moment. Another example is the black and white representations from 1970s southern Africa–again, these are emerging out of a regime where for some people the cross was turned upside down and turned into a sword. And yet here it’s trying to right it, to put it back and show how black and whites are both made in the image of God, how they are made together and can live together. How black and whites can fight peacefully a regime which is built upon divisiveness and violence. It’s very interesting to think about how the cross is being used in each individual picture. There’s a sense which you might say there’s too much blood in this exhibition for an exhibition about building peace. I think that’s a fair question to reflect upon, but the flip side of that is, to represent peace do you sanitize it? Do you put lots of beautiful Monet pictures up? Those pictures are stunning, but they obscure injustice, poverty, the violence that is going on.

PF Another potentially divisive aspect of the exhibition is the King James Bible. We’ve talked about the cross, but the Bible has it’s own history with creating violence. I wondered what your vision was in bringing that Bible into this exhibition.

JM The origins of many of these pictures are rooted in stories emerging out of the biblical text, that is clear. Not just the crucifixion, but other moments such as the Annunciation, the Epiphany, or the Garden of Gesthemane. In other words there are moments within the pictures that are connected to the stories within that text. They don’t emerge ex nihilo, but from a literary text which has a living impact not just on belief, but on arts, culture, history…. I suppose the idea was to illustrate that that is a form of conversation as well. Having said that, in a similar way to how the cross has been turned upside down–the many voices within the biblical text have been put to different uses, and some have been put to very violent uses. That may be because embedded within that text are some violent traditions as well. You can’t simplify to say this book is a magic wand you can wave to bring peace–of course it doesn’t and it hasn’t. But you’ll notice that there is a selection of texts placed above this ancient Bible that evoke memories of stories within both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. These stories point towards peacemaking, towards a world where violence and picking up a sword is not the way to sort out problems, towards a world where you use new kinds of imagination for envisioning new kinds of practice that may bring about different forms of healing together.

PF In your own work you’ve written about media as a form of hospitality to bring about conversations that support peace. Do you see this exhibition as a form of hospitality within the city?

JM There is a sense in which this exhibition welcomes outsiders–we are literally opening the doors of New College to anyone who is passing by and they are welcome to come in and enjoy the space. Today for example we had people walk in from Ireland, from Alaska, from Iran…. Each have been struck in different ways by the exhibition. A number of them have commented on the atmosphere of the space, as a place they feel they can actually catch breath as well as reflect on some of the difficult issues within the paintings. Some of these paintings are not easy, and they may also not be aesthetically your cup of tea. I think that’s the case with books as well as paintings. It’s interesting to think about what are the particular images that speak to different people.

PF Do you think the exhibition’s location in a School of Divinity gives it a different flavor or role than if it were, for example, were set up in the National Gallery? 

JM This is a location where words really matter. A screenwriter told me that this is a very healing exhibition, because here is a place where words are dominating all the time, and yet the exhibition is communicating via images primarily. There is a reticence in this exhibition–compared to some exhibitions where there is often a lot of explanation, there is not much explanation given here. There are a lot of connections that viewers are encouraged and welcomed to make themselves (although there is a guidebook that provides historical, political and personal insights). This is not just a School of Divinity, but also a school which studies different religious traditions. Clearly this exhibition is emerging out of one tradition, yes from lots of different perspectives and beliefs, but nevertheless it is primarily reflecting on the Christian tradition–but that is not therefore meant as an exclusivist or imperialistic claim. It’s owning the tradition that has been the form that has been taught here at New College and the University of Edinburgh [since their foundation], but that’s not to exclude other religious traditions. I am delighted to see people from other religious traditions come and enjoy the exhibition. One other point is that this place was founded at a point of disunity and division–the Great Disruption. This is New College as opposed to Old College. This College emerged out of religious division. An exhibition that touches this building but ignores the divisive quality of religion is a form of sanitized viewing. That’s not stated in the exhibition, but in a way you can’t get away from it.

PF This exhibition coincides with the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. Do you think this exhibition has a specific message to the churches today?

JM Yes, there are a couple points to make here. One is to emphasize how theology can be expressed through a range of arts. Churches and individual Christians know that, but it’s interesting to see how you perform that. Secondly, this General Assembly is anticipated to be a divisive Assembly because of the issues around sexual ethics. It’s intriguing to think about which of the displayed texts viewers take away–I take away “Blessed are the peacemakers,” but not in an easy way, not in a way that ignores the genuine suffering and pain that goes on around those words. The call to be peacemakers may actually not be a call to a bed of roses, but may carry with it forms of suffering and difficulty.

PF You have worked in radio and written extensively on radio, television, film and other “modern” media. This exhibition, however, is about more classic forms of media–what role do you think these more classic forms can play in peacemaking today?

JM It’s absolutely vital not to define media as purely modern or “new media.” It’s important to have a historical perspective. The communicative environment that we live in now is partly shaped and informed by what’s happened hundreds of years ago, by the development of manuscripts, printing, radio, television and so on. These older forms raise questions about the use of contemporary media in peacebuilding. One of the things I enjoy about painting for instance is that it forces you to reflect on something that is still. Often a lot of ways in which contemporary films are made is through very fast cutting, so your eye is taken from one image to another image and another image and so on. But this exhibition is encouraging moments of reflection on a single image. Each image is a moment in time, but it’s saying, “what happens if we stop the clocks now? What do we capture and what does that raise?” Now, if we stopped it two minutes later it might look differently. There’s a sense in which these pictures are capturing moments in a narrative that moves quite swiftly. That is quite valuable for peacebuilding because it encourages reflection on decisive moments without ignoring the hours, weeks, months and years that have run up to that moment.

PF CTPI has been around for over 25 years and has looked at a wide variety of issues, but rarely at visual art with this kind of intensity. What do you think is the importance of this exhibition for the work of CTPI? JM One of the aims is that this exhibition will draw people from communities that don’t go near art galleries. There will be community groups coming in. That replicates something that CTPI has done before, which is to listen from the ground up. It’s not that this exhibition provides answers, but it is about listening to the grass roots. It’s about initiating a conversation with groups that don’t normally go to exhibitions and seeing what happens. … Also, the arts resonate with every single issue that CTPI has covered, whether that’s poverty, justice, prison, prostitution, violence, peacebuilding, security, sectarianism…. Artists engage those issues: sometimes they are motivated by them, sometimes they are passionately angry about them. It’s quite useful to think about what artists contribute to those conversations, not just theologians, scholars and practitioners. Perhaps also the tradition of the creative outsider is important. There’s a foolish quality to some arts, in a very positive sense, in the sense of the “Holy Fool.” By looking at things from a very different perspective you shed a new light onto an old issue. Sometimes that can take the conversation forward. A number of artists and people linked with galleries have been struck by the quality of the light in that room. Not just the artificial lighting, but the light coming through the windows and the views. That’s an interesting metaphor for what we are trying to do here, to shed fresh light on old issues.

PF You have a book coming out soon, Promoting Peace, Inciting Violence. Can you say more about the book and how it might illuminate some of the issues in this exhibition? JM In the first part of the book, I explore how different media arts are used to contribute to the creation of communicative environments where violence can be incited. In the second, I analyse how various media can be used to promote peacebuilding. In these contexts, I consider the ambivalent, some would say ambiguous, and often hidden role of religion within these processes. Through the book I consider a number of international examples of inciting violence and promoting peace. These reveal the complex interactions that occur when various media and different religious traditions are brought together. I draw on examples from contrasting cultural and historical contexts, such as First World War Europe (in chapter 1), Iran during the 1980-8 Iran-Iraq War (in chapter 2) and Rwanda before and during the 1994 genocide (in chapter 3). Through detailed case studies I explore how violence can be celebrated through a range of media, including stained glass windows, posters and radio broadcasts.  The second half of the book includes an exploration of how documentary films can bear witness to past acts of violence (chapter 4), what feature films can reveal about the search for truth and reconciliation in Southern Africa (chapter 5) and how new media can be used for promoting non-violent responses to terrorism and government oppression (chapter 6). I believe that given the number of recent and ongoing actual conflicts, as well as blatant, hidden and structural violence, it is important to understand more clearly the roles that media, arts and religion can play in both promoting peace and inciting violence.

PF If you could highlight one image from the exhibition that captures the theme of peacebuilding, what would it be?

JM There’s a sense in which I’m drawn to different pictures at different times, and at differenttimes of the day–and I think art works like that. But the one I would be drawn to would not be one of the haunting crucifixions, but Ceri Richard’s painting The Super at Emmaus, because it’s pointing beyond crucifixion, beyond violence, to a moment of hospitality and welcome. It’s pointing to a moment of transformation and resurrection, to the discovery that the world is very different in light of the resurrection. It transforms how all of this violence can be looked at, not as a form of putting our heads in the sand and sanitizing it, but there is a considerable hope. This hope is rooted in the everyday things of life–bread and wine–and embodied in ordinary, everyday people, with big hands and big feet. And then interestingly Christ is there looking straight out with these big hands. What I find really striking about it is that he’s disappearing into the yellow, a bright, joyful yellow. There’s a sense in which you think you’ve caught Christ in the resurrection and then he vanishes. That’s how it happens in the resurrection narratives in the gospels–there is no way in which you can capture God, there may be moments of insight, moments of resurrection that change how you view the world. There is a withdrawal [after Christ vanishes], but within that you’ve got the disciples working together, and what do they have? They’ve just got large hands and big feet and that’s what they have to get on with and develop the risen life.

Read more about the exhibition: Shadows of the Divine. Artist Profile: Craigie Aitchison