Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Tongues of Fire

As I have already mentioned, there was a significant public and religious holiday while I was away in Austria, namely Pfingsten, the equivalent of our abandoned Whitsun and Whit Monday holiday, which marks the celebration of Pentecost.

Early on, I thought this might be a useful thematic peg on which to hang my picture-making.  Pentecost has some useful iconography -- mighty rushing winds, cloven tongues of fire, descending doves, the spontaneous gift of languages, the colour red, green branches, and so on.  I'm sure you can see how that might work, and I still haven't altogether abandoned the idea.  Oddly, though, when I described to Austrians how the protestant Pentecostal churches in Britain routinely induce a state of glossolalia in celebrants, they hadn't a clue what I was talking about, and I suspect they thought I was pulling their leg, Martian-style.

In the process of scouting for Pentecostal imagery, I began to notice the occasional presence of more "exotic" i.e. non-European iconographies, something which is so familiar in self-consciously post-modern, multi-cultural Britain as to be unremarkable, but, scattered among the plentiful and rather insistent markers of Tyrolean identity ("overdetermined" is probably the technical word), they stood out as conspicuous points of interest.

I think I may have been primed to notice this on my first day, when I was filmed for TV in a state of post-travel exhaustion, pretending to photograph in a courtyard garden near to the gallery.  The owner had installed what I took to be Tibetan prayer flags and other distinctly non-European decorative touches in a very European space.  It was intriguing, and rather beautiful.

Whether those things were in that garden out of a spiritual or an ornamental impulse, I can't say.  Beyond a certain point, the difference between the two is moot.  Despite what horror stories would have you believe, a fancy "devil" mask hanging on a suburban wall has no residual occult powers, out of context. Where do you go to see the great mediaeval altarpieces, or the religious masterpieces of the Renaissance?  The vast majority are now in museums or galleries, removed from the churches or cathedrals that commissioned them. Which is just as well, as I am constitutionally allergic to ecclesiastical interiors, probably because of my radical protestant roots and pagan inclinations:  I feel positively repelled by that cold, damp, sepulchral force-field emanating from most churches. But, more to the point, what are you supposed to feel or do, standing before these decorative relics of religiosity?  Do you pray, repenting the miserable imbalance of salvation and damnation in your life, or simply admire the choice of colours and brushwork?

Pentecost seems to point back, symbolically, to a real but dangerous desire for an overwhelming and unmediated experience of some ultimate but quite possibly savage Real Thing (just ask Semele).  Despite its claims, it has always seemed to me that religion is fairly poor at putting us in touch with any such Real Thing; indeed, much of theology seems to comes down to sophisticated ways of explaining away its absence.  The fakery and hysteria, the glossolalia, snake-handling and fire-walking of fringe sects do have a certain vitality by contrast, but have rather too much in common with self-harm for my taste, rather like someone deciding to set fire to their local mobile telephone mast, in order to get a better signal.  Hey, it could work!

And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.
Acts 2:17
Funnily enough, I have been having a lot of dreams lately...  Though if my kids are prophesying, they're keeping very quiet about it.

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