Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God (Isaiah 40:1)
Alexandra Bircken’s site-specific installation Deflated Bodies in the Hepworth Gallery, Wakefield, forms part of her Eskalation 2014 exhibition. As Curator Eleanor Clayton says: “Five ladders run up the gallery walls, spanning eight metres to reach the sunlight spilling down from an unseen source. On the ladders are multiple figures, male and female, made of cloth sewn to real-person specifications and covered in black latex. The work is theatrical, presenting a scene that longs for a narrative.”
For me, transfixed and awe-struck by the raw power of this extraordinary piece of art, Advent is that narrative. The deflated figures and the ladders which beguile them express so immediately, so vividly and so accessibly the whole panorama of human folly, frailty and failure which the Advent texts speak out of and into with such clarity and conviction.
Take the following image as a starting point and ponder all those points of connection with the texts at the heart of Advent. Reflect on the heartfelt truth that it portrays.
This is how Advent always begins. In the place where everything seems lost; where the human condition is experienced at its most starkly bleak. It is only within this manger of dread, desolation and despair that Christmas makes sense. Only there can we feel its new born warmth for ourselves and cradle its living truth in our arms. Nowhere else. God invites us to journey into our darkness on the strength of a promise, daring to believe that the incarnation of love will become real in the wombspace of our fragile faith.
This is always a collective endeavour. In Advent we travel for ourselves and we travel for the sake of others, always these two held together as one redefining purpose. The dread, desolation and despair may not be our own this time around, but it will be somebody’s truth, somewhere very close and somewhere far away. Advent is the great collectiviser of God’s economy: our imagined separation from the desperate plight of others is destroyed by the inclusive ardour of the divine will which places the manger where we would be least inclined to welcome it as gift.
To me Deflated Bodies provides an holistic visualisation of the narrative trajectories of human being along which Advent leads us and into which Christmas speaks. Here are the people of the prophets. Here is all the agony, angst and ennui out of which the Old Testament gives testimony to God’s alternative world view and the passionate single-minded creativity with which God pursues it through people of faith. Here is all the deflated misery of the human soul.
Here too are the ladder-like temptations, false promises, misguided schemes and malevolent strategies which lead us astray and set us against each other. Here also is the politics of the ladder constructors which promises the world to everyone, yet delivers misery to the many. The 1% who climb to the top do so at the cost of the 99% who lie strewn in their wake, deflated, empty, and abandoned to their fate.
In the face of such injustice and harm the Bible prophetically kicks away the ladders and gives the lie to seductions of ladder climbing and ladder making. Seen through a biblical lens Alexandra Bircken’s Deflated Bodies portrays the horrific cost and the appalling waste of the thinking which blighted our world then and which continues to do so now. It makes plain all that God desires us to subvert and overthrow.
Looking at these deflated figures pitifully draped across the ladders and hanging forlorn from the rungs one is brought face to face with everything that breaks the heart of God. Here are the ones that Jesus came to save.
Here are the lost, damaged and dispirited ones who gathered around the manger on the strength of a promise.
And to those who have made it to the top, who sit aloof from the carnage below them, Advent brings them down to earth and challenges them to repent of the cost of their privilege and power and to recognise that they too are in fact deflated as people and diminished by every empty life that lies behind them on their way up.
No more should women and men, our sisters and brothers, hang limp and lifeless in our midst from the rungs of oppression and exploitation which God is always doing so much to tear down. This is the narrative of hope and life which takes shape in the darkness and which calls us to the heart of Christmas again. For our own sake and for the sake of others it is a journey we simply have to make. When the ladder climbing stops we are ready to gather around the manger.
Today’s post is contributed by David Perry, a Methodist minister in East Yorkshire in the U.K. A passionate photographer, he is keen to use visual imagery as a way of brining faith alive. He has recently published two new books, Quandary and looking up looking around and looking closely. He blogs at Visual Theology