In London last weekend, we went to see the exhibition by the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. He has been persecuted by the Chinese government for his art, and has only recently been given back his passport. One of the very impressive works is one called “Straight” * [See the picture below. ]This work was made after the earthquake in China which killed over 5000 school children when their school collapsed because of sub standard building practices. Ai Weiwei made the piece out of the remains of the reinforcing rods that were used in the concrete. The rods were a tangled mess, and over four years, Ai Weiwei and his team straightened them all out by hand, 90 tons of them! He then arranged them in this way to show the space left by the deaths of the children. The government did not want to publish the names of the dead, so Ai Weiwei did it himself. Part of the installation is a placard on the wall with as many names on it as he could find out, by personal investigation.
Three things about this piece made an impression on me. First, it is aesthetically impressive. Good art has to be skilfully made, and look good. But then come for me the next two most important things. Art is the bearer of meaning. So we can look at ‘Straight’, on its own, and ask ‘What does it mean?’ Much of modern art answers with ‘What ever meaning you can find!’ But Ai Weiwei operates differently. Without knowing about the earthquake, we would never have known to what this piece refers. Knowing that the steel came from the collapsed buildings, knowing that he spent four years straightening out the tangled ruins of the steel makes all the difference. Putting the piece next to the names of the dead children puts it in context. Now the piece ‘Straight’ becomes a sacrament of the earthquake.
How does this work? Well, by collecting the pieces of steel, and making the piece, Ai Weiwei is remembering the event. Just as our stylised meal in the Eucharist brings to life again the last supper, because we remember it, so Ai Weiwei is using the same human process to ‘remember’ the earthquake. This physical object is a ‘not-forgetting’ (Anamnesis) of these events. But the important thing for me is that the sacrament consists more in the action of producing the straightened steel bars, than in the viewing of the finished product. This is the same for us. The Sacrament of the Eucharist is not about the observing of something (like consecrated bread and wine for example) but about the actions of hearing the word of God, the actions of coming into contact with where we fall short, the actions of forgiving and being forgiven and the actions of sharing at the ‘Welcome Table’. The Eucharist and Ai Weiwei’s piece share this common structure: the meaning of what can be observed is in the actions we do to produce them, and in the story that we tell ourselves about these actions. That is how meaning is made and we are shaped by it. This process is the same in Icon writing, where the importance of the Icon is also in the prayer that is said by the person producing it.
But there is more. The Common Testament is full of what are known as ‘prophetic actions’. Jeremiah puts on a yoke, and says ‘This is going to happen to you! You will all be yoked up and sent into exile. He sees the early blooming almond trees (their name means ‘watchful’), and sees in it a sign of God’s ‘watching’ to carry out his word to Israel. And Jesus’ own life, from the entry into Jerusalem to the cleansing of the temple, is full of prophetic actions. That is, that the meaning of a persons words is bound up with how they spend their time, and what they do. We have a branch of art called ‘performance art’ today, where the ‘work of art’ is not in something external to the artist, but in the very life of the artist themself. This is true for us in the Church and in the Eucharist. The meaning of these actions is not in an article about the texts that we use, but in the lives of us who perform them. Just as Ai Weiwei is making art by his spending his time straightening out the steel from the building, so we too are ‘straightening out’ our lives and ‘straightening out’ God’s path with us as we ‘act out’ the drama of the Eucharist.
The last thing that came to me from my visit to the Ai Weiwei exhibition was that I reflected on the idea of surveillance. Ai Weiwei talks a lot about the culture of surveillance in China, and has a lot of images and sculptures of cameras and so on to demonstrate this. But it came to me, that in the gallery, we who are watching the exhibition are also watched! There is a particular ‘culture of surveillance’ within the gallery itself. In England, I felt as though the ‘watchers’ were not there, expecting that something would be done wrong, ever ready to spring into action against the person who touches the wrong thing or looks too closely at the art or looks like they are enjoying themselves too much! On the contrary. They looked relaxed, and tried to be invisible. They seemed to say ‘The important thing is you and the art, , we don’t want to get in the way of that experience by being too intrusive.’ In Australia and Germany I have noticed the opposite! The ‘watchers’ are on the look out for any deviation from a quiet and restrained movement about the gallery. (I was once asked to show my entrance ticket because in hurrying to catch a train, I was moving briskly through the gallery, diagonally.)
This made me ask myself, as I am ‘observed’ by God each day, as I live my life in the company of God, how am I ‘surveilled?’ Often my own view of myself is harsher than God’s. Often when that is the case, I hide from God. My own prayer for myself is that by living before the face of God more and more, it is that loving presence that determines how I am ‘surveilled’.
Thank you Ai Weiwei for offering yourself to me.