In an article in Quadrant (September 2006), Tim Pemble-Smith reviews Crisis, Catharsis and Contemplation, an exhibition of contemporary art held in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. He sets the exhibition within the cultural wars that "bedevil the Catholic Church".
His own judgment of the exhibition was that its advertised themes "have been used in a Catholic cathedral as a masking device for mockery of Christ and the Virgin Mary and covert promotion of the Goddess and the ‘sacred feminine’." He concludes by reminding the reader that a bishop and a religious sister have not given an explanation of their support for the exhibition, and that the curator is still employed by the Church.
His judgment, it must be said, was not shared by those who wrote public comments on the exhibition. Many, like myself, thought that the exhibition offered an opportunity to reflect more deeply both on the artworks, and on faith, than would have been the case in a more conventional setting. Those who criticised the exhibition generally believed that it is inappropriate to show secular art in a Church.
Mr Pemble-Smith supports his claim by offering interpretations of six of the twenty two works of art exhibited. I argue in the extended form of this article that his interpretations are idiosyncratic. Nor, where they can be consulted, do the artists themselves endorse them. It will be sufficient here to allow the reader to see a representation of James Waller’s Icon Chamber (The Visitation), and to compare the critic’s and the painter’s interpretation.
Mr Pemble-Smith claims this work represents the visit of the pregnant Virgin Mary to Elizabeth. "The womb of the Virgin is presented in the form of a tabernacle covered in soft black cloth parted in front as a lighted vertical slit. This serves as a mocking reference to the Virgin…Around the icon chamber on the floor are place four gold squares. Four feathers can be seen inside the chamber. Numerologically, this is four squared by four squared… Four cubed is a reference to the goddess and particularly to her genitals." The cockatoo feather lying in front of Icon Chamber is "a simple, common and uniquely Australian wordplay—‘cock or two’—the cock or two being a clear reference to one or two males: the Child Jesus and whoever impregnated the Virgin."
To me and to other viewers I consulted, the opening seems more like a window than a slit, and the attention is drawn to the blue light and what is lighted within. Nor do genitalia instantly come to mind. This line of interpretation was certainly far from the artist’s intentions. For him, it has nothing to do with Mary. It is a meditation on the nature of the Icon, and on the divine visitations that icons evoke. He is fascinated with the play of light in icons, and the parallel that the iconographers of the Eastern Church have long seen with the relationship between the Uncreated Light of God and the created lights of the world. Divine visitation is represented by the blue light and the blue feather in the chamber. The blue colour is also a tribute to Rublev, who used blue so powerfully in his icons. The tradition that God visits humanity through angels is hinted at in the clutch of white feathers in the chamber, and the single white feather outside. White evokes purity and closeness to God. The gold squares exemplify the central place that gold has in icons, of appearing as a source of light, rather than being illuminated by it. The arrangement in four squares is aesthetic, without further symbolic importance.
From this comparison, it appears that when Mr Pemble-Smith claims that this work mocks the Virgin, he bases his claim on an idiosyncratic interpretation, unsupported by the artist. He sees what he is disposed to see, and projects it on to the artefact. This is also true of the other charges that he makes.
Mr Pemble-Smith situates the exhibition and the response to it in the context of Catholic culture wars. This is an unhelpful phrase, because it suggests that issues of faith and culture can be arbitrated by the use of power. Argument is about winning, not about truth.
It also suggests that arguments are interchangeable, like artillery shells: they demand a response, even if worthless. It puts on an equal basis those who make and those who would destroy.
I do not wish to suggest that this was Mr Pemble-Smith’s intention, but the effect of articles such as this is to offer those who enjoy the power that comes out of wealth, influence and ideological passion a colour of faithlessness and salaciousness with which to marginalise and intimidate those who do not share their prejudices. It is more like a mugging than warfare.
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