As one of the more ancient disciplines, theology has gained a reputation in the public imagination for being either a nostalgic or a sectarian practice. There are clear historical reasons this prejudice has developed, and, truth be told, it is not altogether inaccurate. However, those who see theology in line with the Second Vatican Council know it can be much more than this––it can offer fresh perspective on the signs of the times by reading them in light of the Good News of Jesus Christ. But in order to do this, theologians must engage the creative arts and artists of their age, seeking therein expressions of the profundity of the human condition.
Knowing that it is a theological imperative to plumb the depths and surfaces of the human soul, I was happy when asked to contribute to an art project last year. The Lithuanian street artist AWK was kind enough to encourage my participation in his recent project entitled "The Constellations", which was a multimedia installation in Penang, Malaysia. The piece was conceived to reflect on the integration and interpenetration of technology, biology, and cosmology in the Anthropocene. It consisted of stencil work, 3D rendered images and animations projected on walls, with accompanying atmospheric audio. My contribution was to offer a theologically-inspired "reading" of the installation, which functioned as a kind of script for the audience's encounter and interaction with the work,and was handed out during the event.
With the permission the artist, the video and music of the project are posted here below, as well as the text of my "reading". (NB: The video is a little over 15 minutes in length. For the full experience, be sure to turn your speakers on. )
“Constellations”: an interpretation
Compelled by a primordial sense of wonder, humanity has long sought direction and inspiration among the stars. In ancient cosmologies, the heavens were associated with divinity, the stars with gods and goddesses to be feared or worshipped. More than physical phenomena, the greater and lesser lights were embodiments of social mythology. Heaven’s dome was the pantheon of the gods whose machinations governed terrestrial affairs. Clever minds sought to chart the course of history by the declinations, eclipses, and ascensions of the celestial spheres. The revolutions of stars foretold revolution on earth, wars contracted and suspended on the authority of heavenly warrant. In the premodern frame of mind, microcosm imitated macrocosm, and the key to that subtle analogy could only be found, with the meaning of the universe, among the stars.
A paradigm shift occurred at the dawning of the modern era. Social theorists often describe this change as a process of “disenchantment” whereby the microcosm becomes a thing unto itself, a surface laid flat. The heavens no longer “declare the glory of the Lord”; the vertical horizon is severed. As if the stars had all fallen to earth, the heavens lost their luster and spoke no more.
Some lament the loss of transcendence, while others view it as the necessary prerequisite for the next stage of evolutionary development. Divine providence is replaced by poetic license, the meaning of existence now bears the sign: “Under Construction”. Technological developments, no longer mere innovations external to the human, carry with them the future hopes of mankind; they are instruments through which man reaches for dominion over the stars that eluded his grasp in infancy. The modern was not, after all, a loss of faith as such. It was the loss of faith in human powerlessness.
The last two centuries have seen the rise of the Anthropocene, an era in which human artistic and mechanical production has achieved such scale as to influence substantially the basic environmental conditions of the habitable world. From the Industrial Revolution through to today, mankind has come into its terrestrial kingdom by achieving greater control over the cosmos in which it lives, seemingly dictating terms to life itself.
But this mastery has yet to fulfill its promise to usher in man’s halcyon days. The metanarratives of unimpeded progress, like the constellations of old, have been brought low, and a new disenchantment has arisen: modern malaise. We sit like W.H. Auden,
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth
AWK’s “Constellations” is an exploration of this bright and darkened landscape. Its foci are surfaces, fissures, and fractal articulations of the light and shadow, form and formlessness. Like all art, it is a search for meaning based on an intuition: ‘There is something here, some connection, some pattern or meaning that must be named and brought into view.’ It looks to the structures, both natural and manmade, that undergird reality, as if in search of some clue – the secret index by which the world might again become intelligible to us. That index, whatever shape it might ultimately take, must inevitably be a constellation.
At their most basic level, constellations are points of light standing out against an undulating surface of darkness. What is of interest with respect to the Anthropocene is that they are at once both natural and man-made, both real and imaginary. Without man projecting his experiences and understandings onto the heavens, what are stars but pulsating clouds of gas, the deaf and dumb carnage of some pre-historical accident? And yet, we know that we are not dreaming their deeper significance. It is the same activity of mind that sees purpose in the world which re-collects the scattered light into some cognizable form. Stars are natural phenomena, but the imaginary lines of the constellation that connect them are the product of the human ingenuity. Constellations are embodiments of human imagination seeking to render nature intelligible.
The images that compose this project were “found” scattered on the internet, a fact which provides a twofold insight: first, it speaks to the nature of art as an alternative economy, as a collaborative and interactive exchange of meaning. Second, it indicates the fact that nothing is without meaning, not even the detritus of yesterday’s dreams. The act of recycling these images constitutes a radical denial of the throw-away culture all to frequently encountered today. The windmills and solar panels stand as totems of what is possible to achieve when mankind seeks harmony with nature.
In this respect there is a subtle irony in the project’s concluding depiction of the solar panels: what hope there is for a better future for ourselves will depend on our ability to reorient ourselves to the stars. For this is the basic meaning of “con-stellation” ––with the stars.
“There will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth dismay among nations, in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves, men fainting from fear and the expectation of the things which are coming upon the world; for the powers of the heavens will be shaken…But when these things begin to take place, straighten up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
For more on the art project, click here.
For more information on AWK, visit here.