I went to see two pieces of installation video by Mark Wallinger at the weekend. Wallinger is the artist who exhibited the sculpture Ecce Homo on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square in 2000. His new exhibition is at the Anthony Reynolds Gallery in London and is well worth a look. One of the pieces is called Via Dolorosa, and it is a large screen that shows a film of the crucifixion of Jesus, but with a large black box covering about 90% of the screen. All you can see are the edges of the film. There's a review of the exhibition here.
I spend the first few minutes looking at the edges and trying to work out which film version of the crucifixion it was. As it turned out it was Franco Zefferelli's Jesus of Nazareth, the crucifixion scene of which I've been showing to the youth group of the church I serve as part of a Youth Emmaus course. This is both well known and sticks closely to the Gospel account of the crucifixion. Having patted myself on the back for spotting this, I settled into watching what there was to see. Strangely the action is exaggerated, it's as if the camera moves and editing cuts are all there are to see. This is disorientating and seems to make the piece even more violent than the original. All you can see is the edge of the sky, the top of someone's head, a hand, the top of the cross. After a while I thought I could identify where I was in the story, after all I know it quite well. All too often, however, I found myself getting it wrong and having to rethink where the story had got to.
The best conceptual art gets me asking questions, I think it's supposed to do that. I found myself asking a range of questions about how much I actually know of the story. Looking at nothing but a black square and the edges of a film, hints to the story, made me think that it's easy to work with a sort of conglomorate of the four Gospel accounts (which Zefferelli's film actually does), rather with the detail and differences of the four evangelists. In creating a smooth account, it's all too easy to create a version of the crucifixion that owes much to my own prejudices.
Another question that I found myself asking is about the way in which we try to block out the crucifixion, and the more unpleasant side of Christianity in general. On Good Friday last year, I found myself being told off by a parishioner for having too many hymns about the blood of Christ! Similarly, themes of judgement and sin are often difficult to engage with. Yet without this we have removed much that is vital in Christian faith. The cross is not only an image of judgement and death, it is an image of redemption. Could it be that in looking away from the cross, we look away from redemption?
Finally, I found myself asking about those who would watch this without knowing the story that lies behind the black box. Is this piece suggesting the way that Christianity is being erased from our culture leaving only a trace around the edges? The speed and disorientation that seeing only the edges of the picture evoke is not a very positive comment on the portrayal of the gospel by the church (although a strangely appropriate one for the Church of England at present). Does it suggest a nostlagia for religion, or a blindness to it?
More questions than answers here. A sign that Wallinger has produced something very interesting indeed.