Advent in Art 2011: Andrew Rockell, Tahrir

Andrew Rockell
Sunday, 11 December 2011

To watch the video piece, click here


To view this talk on video, click here


[After playing the video] 

You may be thinking the title of this piece is ‘WTF?’ Technology has not been kind to us today. We’re somewhat minus vision, clarity, colour, definition . . . 

The actual title of the piece is Tahrir. Tahrir is an Arab word meaning ‘liberation’ and is a term arising from the political upheavals in the Middle East over the last year.

The longer title, and I will regret saying it, is Christmas in Orc-Land. That’s Orc, O-R-C, as in Lord of the Rings. Christmas in Orc-Land or William Blake’s Holidays Down-Under. I’ll explain as I go along, the references to ‘Orc,’ to William Blake, and to the great Down-Under.


So for those who missed seeing anything on the screen - which is very likely - it was a series of candles going off in a wok filled with sand. The series of candles eventually form a series of shapes, so the shapes metamorphose. Eventually they arc into a question mark. Then, from a question mark, into a koru [1]. Then from a koru into something vaguely physiological. Then into a snake’s head; then a snake with a forked tongue flicking in and out. Back to a koru; question mark, etc. Variations on those basic shapes. 


Ok. So. I shall go at it like a bull at a gate. This is the non-linear but high-speed version. 


I was thinking about the Magnificat, having no idea that Christina [Partridge, curator for Advent in Art #3] would be using it in the service. Some years ago I was working for a Christian channel on SKY TV, which was a very, very weird experience and a weird thing for me to be doing. And I was struck, in fact possibly even overwhelmed, by the Republican content of the programming. As I was coming to the end of my Buddhist phase at the time, I thought, ‘Hm, Gospels. I might look at them myself, now.” And when it got to the really right-wing programming at Christmas I decided I would read the Gospel of Luke. And I was shocked to discover what seemed to be basically a Marxist document, and the Magnificat in particular, Mary’s song, being a kind of a Communist chant about overthrowing the powerful and sending ‘the rich empty, away. And all that kind of thing. So I was really impressed by the kind of revolutionary dimension of the Magnificat. And then suddenly curious about why I don’t hear much about that in churches where you [do] hear lovely things about very sanitised Marys having very sanitised births. Completely leaving out all the body-horror and violence involved in such things. And completely leaving out the second half of the Magnificat - the overthrow of the powerful, etc. So I was interested in the idea[s] of Magnificat and revolution. 


To return to the image: the series of flames, I was thinking of trying to get the idea of  the old, very old, form of communication of bonfires on mountain-tops. Like in Lord of the Rings . . . One goes off and this one goes off and the message is picked up and relayed. And for the particular message being relayed, I was thinking of the unfolding of the Biblical revelation. This is the first ‘Blake-ish’ bit. The idea that there are phases of communication through the unfolding of the Bible. So - the ‘Creation’ bit; the Exodus bit - which is a ‘Re-Creation’; formalising of the new freedom in a Law; the Law internalised in the Wisdom section; back out into a community in a ‘prophecy’ section, etcetera, etcetera. And the idea that, in this way of reading the Bible, called ‘typology,’ each successive phase of revelation transforms the one before it.


And in transforming it, it’s kind of - questioning it, saying ‘That’s not the whole thing, is it? There’s a different way of reading this. We don’t have to be stuck with this.’ So in the same way that, in the 21st Century . . .  20th Century, 21st Century where many of us like to ‘dis’ fundamentalism as an old, literal way of reading, the Bible, in Blake’s way of looking at it, is a series of leavings-behind of literalisms as the Bible is, as revelation is understood in a successively different, expanded sorts of ways. And as each illumination, each new piece of consciousness or ‘illumination’ -  a little candle goes up, forming a question mark questioning the previous things. And forms a question mark. Implicit in the idea of the question mark is “This is unfinished.” Or is it? I don’t know . . .



And with revolutions the idea that each revolution questions, by its very nature, the status quo. Questions everything that has been before it. And is subject to questioning, itself. Like every revolution is: Is this it? Is this going to be it? Is this the final phase of revolution in how we read the Bible? Is this the final phase of revolution in transforming society? Is any revolution ever enough? Does any revolution ever get to being anything more than a freshened up version of the old thing? The question is turned back on itself, as well. And so, applied to the Magnificat itself. Is This It? Like the question from [the Gospel of] John. John the Baptist’s disciples say ‘Are you the one we’re waiting for? Are you? We may have been here before. Do we keep waiting?’ And the line from Psalm 6 about “How long?” How long do we have to stay in this state of anticipation?


The next Blake-ish bit in his ‘holiday down-under,’ is the idea of ‘Orc’ - O-R-C. We know that name from Lord of the Rings. Which is part of a fight, I think, Tolkien was having [retrospectively] with Blake. In the same way that Tolkien’s good mate C.S. Lewis was having a fight with Blake. Blake wrote the poem The Marriage of Heaven and Hell; C.S. Lewis didn’t like it and wrote The Great Divorce. Blake invented this character called Orc [2], which is a revolutionary figure, which is about . . . It was his way of trying to give a person-shape, a mythical person-shape to the French and America Revolutions he was living through. And Orc was this kind of fusion of Christ and Prometheus and Oedipus. Mostly Christ and Prometheus - the idea that the Divine could be on your side and change the status quo. But the idea of a revolution is that it’s really threatening. It’s really threatening to everything you know and everything you think and how you think about it. It seems that Tolkien was somewhat threatened by this and turned his bad guys into ‘Orcs.’ And the sad thing is that the Orcs are the figures with all the energy and the innovation and propensity for industry in Lord of the Rings. And the good guys are just the ‘forces of order,’ bringing back ‘order.’ So, I was always disappointed with Lord of the Rings on that front. I would have made the Orcs the good guys . . . 


But what Blake is doing with that idea of the ‘Orc’ is that revolution, or newness, is intrinsically threatening. And he’s also picking up on a Jewish mystical idea that the Messiah is a serpent . . . Which is a radically offensive sort of thing to be thinking, at first blush. But in Biblical Hebrew, the letters of the alphabet are also numbers. So you do your maths with your letters. So each word is also a set of numbers. And it turns out, that the same numerical value of the word ‘Messiah,’ in Hebrew is also the same value for the word ‘serpent.’ So the Messiah ‘is’ a ‘serpent.’ In my brief phase of Satanism in the early nineteen-nineties I thought - “YES! That’s really cool! Thrilling, in fact . . . ” But I think Blake’s doing something other than irresponsible antagonism. It’s the idea that even a Christ is going to be threatening to the status quo. As of course, Christ is, when Herod mobilises forces to go and annihilate children. In the same way that Pharaoh mobilised forces to annihilate children. So hence, the snake, emerging out of the question mark. 



On its way to becoming a snake . . . a koru. ‘It’s just like - New Zillun?’ It’s traditional at Cityside to mention [New Zealand artist Colin] McCahon, so I thought I’d - sneak that in . . . ‘Can Christianity happen in New Zealand?’ And then . . . so, what’s a piece of art without a phallic symbol? . . . So this is like, you know, when I was growing up and we were subject to endless health videos at school about ‘I Am Joe’s Urinary Tract,’ or  Joe’s seminary vess - semin- yes! ‘Seminary’ vessels! Yes! ‘Seminary vessels’ Hah! . . . As was said in a British comedy programme once where somebody said “If you think that’s a phallic symbol - you have my sympathies . . . ”


So there’s the head of the snake and - here he is: his forked tongue. Happily, the forked tongue is a flame. So the forked tongue . . . [interruption] is a tongue of flame which means this is the point at which the snake is turning into a dragon. And a dragon is the traditional symbol of the status quo! In fairy tales, the handsome prince comes along and ‘slays the dragon.’ The dragon is kind of, by association, the land, the environment, as things have been. The prince becomes the new king, replaces the old king, marries the daughter, etc. But the dragon is ‘Things-As-They-Are,’ and in all their oppressive weight. 




At this point, where the serpent is at its most vigorous - shooting out its forked tongue - it’s also [by way of the flame] at the tipping point of becoming the status quo. Which is, you know, historically what Christianity did. It started as a revolutionary religion that questioned - everything. And was a profoundly threatening thing to the Roman Empire, and then ended up becoming the Empire. And part of that ‘becoming Empire’ was the squashing of desire. Squashing desire, per se. The desire for anything different. In the squashing of desire goes - political impulses, and sexual impulses. And Christianity has a really good ‘rep’ as being the religion most down on sexuality. Another good reason for including Joe’s . . . anatomy. 

The snake imagery is also explicit in the Bible with Moses lifting up the serpent on a pole. The bronze serpent in the wilderness to heal the masses. And Jesus is explicitly picking up on that item in the Gospels, himself as ‘serpent.’


I was trying to figure out a way of getting a cross flashing in there, during the serpent coil bit but it was all a bit too [esoteric at that point].

The viewer position, looking at this sequence, which is kind of the stretch through time of Biblical revelation. It’s looking at kind of the whole of history as a spatial item. History’s a  ‘linear’ thing and space is a ‘static’ thing. So we’ve got the ‘static’ view of a linear item [process]. We’re kind of looking at the world, as ‘history,’ from somewhere out in space. So I’m voting: We’re on the Star of Bethlehem - looking down! Have you ever seen a piece of art do that before?! . . . 


And also the idea of looking down on earth, doing that in a black space. It’s kind of a womb sort of thing. So I was trying to get as much ‘organic’ stuff happening in the video as possible. There’s that pulsing thing, like a respiratory rhythm, or a pulsing of the blood. Like the Blake line: “There is a moment in each day that Satan cannot find.” However you read the idea of ‘Satan,’ - whether as ‘boogey man’ outside or a destructive impulse inside, the idea that - there is a moment of illumination, of inspiration that negativity can’t overcome. And the rest of the phrase is “less than the puls[ation] of an artery.” I was trying to get that inspiration thing with the pulse. And the gap between the pulses . . . 

And the idea that I was always fascinated with in Blake’s pictures of . . . He does metamorphosis in images, that plants are always turning into flames, and flames into serpents, and so on. Oh. I’ve done it. Just figured it out. I’ve done that! . . . There you go. Good . . . 


So - all of that in the context of Christmas. Will anything change? Does the Nativity happen? Does the Nativity continue to happen? Is it just a memory of something that’s occurred a very long time ago? Does it have any real  . . . liveliness to it, in 2011? 


And particularly, towards the end of 2011, which has been a year of ‘Magnificats.’ Beginning with the Arab Spring and the revolutionary movement across the Near East and North Africa. And, more recently, with the, I believe I’m supposed to say ‘hash-tag O-W-S.’ The ‘Occupy’ movement challenging power. Does that amount to anything? Will it amount to anything? Is that a ‘Magnificat’? 


[In sum:] First, creating space for the idea of revolution and the Gospel as ‘revolutionary.’ Then the question of ‘does it have application further on in time?’ With the koru stuff: Does it have application in New Zealand? Can we localise it? And with the tracer lights at the end I was just having fun with the editing thinking - ‘Franklin Road! Coo-ool!’ So we’ve got a very local element.[3]


And finally - with all those candles . . . It’s a ‘birthday cake.’ Yeah . . . 

The end. Thanks.



[1] Koru: New Zealand fern, distinctive for its inwardly spiralling contour and structure.

[2] Orc: William Blake appears to derived the word ‘Orc’ from various sources, including Latin for ‘hell’ or ‘underworld’; Greek, orkhis, for testicle; and a Latin anagram for ‘cor’ i.e. ‘heart.’ With these elements, Blake’s Orc is the world of desire as everything suppressed and seen by conventional wisdom as ‘hellish’ as a result.

[3] Franklin Road: A street in Ponsonby, Auckland, NZ, famous for its collective commitment to flamboyant Christmas light decorations, usually involving intricate patterns woven out of tracer lights.