This past week, I was honored to participate in a panel responding to an exhibition at IWU that paired the traditional icons by the local icon writer Brian Matthew Whirledge with contemporary installation work by Jer Nelsen. Both think of their work as inviting viewers into an encounter with or contemplation of a reality beyond the physical, using the metaphors “windows” and “wormholes” to express this relationship. I here give my theological response to these descriptions:
I am particularly interested in the images of the images that you both use in describing your work. “Window” and “wormhole” are two linguistic images being used to describe visual images. Moreover, insofar as Christ is the original “image of the invisible God,” the true icon in which all other icons participate, “window” and “wormhole” are in fact images of images of an image. This may sound like I am just trying to be clever, but I think it’s actually significant for a couple of reasons. The first is a question: if the nature of the image as icon is a result of its participation in the nature of Christ, then are images that are invoked to talk about these images also attempt to depict something about the nature of Christ by participation? Is there a way in which Christ himself is in some way a kind of original window or wormhole such that all human-made windows and wormholes to eschatological realities are such because they participate in the nature of Christ? In other words, can this idea of Christ as image become an arbiter of the sorts of linguistic images that we use to talk about visual images that participate in the incarnational nature of Christ? If so, I think this helps us to determine some of the virtues and limitations of each of these images, window and wormhole.
On the one hand, describing an image as a window onto the divine suggests that we, as viewers, do not have to be taken out of space-time in order to have an encounter with the divine. The presence of the divine is immanently present to us as Christ is immanently present to our humanity and history, first coming to us rather than requiring us to leave our reality and somehow ascend to him. In this respect, the image of the wormhole could be problematic in maintaining a dualism between where we are here and now and somewhere else that we need to get to if it is intended to refer to a passage way from one reality to another.
On the other hand though, the wormhole very helpfully suggests the role of time as an irreducible dimension of our relationship to the divine. An encounter with God does involve us moving through reality, perhaps even moving through an image, taking time with it. This is especially true of installation art, in which one is always literally inside the art. As temporal creatures, not everything is present and available to us at once. This is one way in which the image of window might be problematic if it suggests that everything is available to us at once. The divine is not a reality that we can stand back and survey. Therefore, if the wormhole suggests not a passage to an alternative reality but an alternative configuration of space-time, which is one way that we might think about Christ’s resurrected body, then this may provide a helpful corrective to the image of window.
And this points to the second reason that I think the fact that we are using images to describe the images of an image is important. It suggests a necessary proliferation and multiplicity of images and types of images involved in the encounter between creatures bound to space-time and the divine. No one image sufficiently captures everything such that we could stand still and survey. The proliferation of images keeps us moving and it is in this movement, which is to say in our reality as creatures embedded in space-time, that we are opened to an encounter with the divine.
As such, if I may add some theological qualification to these images of window and wormhole, I would like to emphasize the plurality of the windows that requires movement between them, such that the window is very helpfully supplemented by the image of the wormhole if by this we mean, not that we magically bypass our creaturely reality and are taken to an alternative divine reality, but a very unique kind of organization of our experience of space-time involved in spiritual experiences with art. Thus, it is not independently of each other but perhaps together that these images suggest something about the nature of the religious experience of art.