‘What do you think of this?’ asked my friend. My first glance at the screw sliced in half then separated and held together with a needle hooked me. It was Richard Frater’s perplexing piece in Assume Nothing an Auckland exhibition.
As attention-grabbing as the piece itself was Sait Akkirman’s photo. He’d caught its stolid sense of importance, presenting it as a kind of portal to the rest of the room where unknown people gathered, just out of focus and understanding. Context matters.
Thinking about it wasn’t going to help but living with it for a few days offered inspiration potential. Just in case none arrived, I asked Tim, an art student friend of mine for his opinion. He reckoned it was like an un-event, no bold statements, more to do with subtle gestures, undertones. That fitted the ideas about gateways that were percolating away inside.
I decided to try them out on my best friend. ‘What do you reckon to this being a doorway into, well, um, the Divine?’ I began cautiously as I slid the image in front of him. No audible response.
‘Well, you know, a kind of entry to something familiar but not completely known,’ I added tentatively. He looked at me. ‘It’s from an exhibition called Assume Nothing,’ I muttered, aware I wasn’t making much headway.
‘That’s extremely good advice,’ he said dryly, peering at me over the top of his glasses and daring me to expand on my theme. I didn’t have words for it; only subtle inklings so I backed off into silence.
Dame Julian of Norwich knew a lot about subtle inklings, gestures, and the undertones of silence. She lived in the 14th century, a mystic and theologian who wrote the classic Revelations of Divine Love.
Mystics sound otherworldly but what may be more accurate is that they see things differently. Able to see through the certainty of belief to a more complicated and nuanced world of unknowing that waits behind. People who get beyond human projections of God and can live with the empty space that that uncertainty opens up. A not knowing that has to be cautiously crept up to, lest we’re tempted to concrete it into a five-point plan for salvation.
Mysticism is a gift, an art form and a capacity that can be entertained by most of us. Unfortunately, it’s a path less well travelled, often missed on the spiritual search; too subtle, too many undertones, and a bit of a burden with its irritating inklings. It’s an accident that happens to us rather a direct course of action.
With its own life force, mysticism dwells deep within the spiritual impulse of humanity, religiously appearing in the work of artists inside and outside the church. It comes alive in mythology, liturgy, prayer and the theatre of the mass, wafted aloft in music and clouds of incense if we let it. Stealthily, it tiptoes across stage and screen, lurks within the plot of a novel, is shaped into sculpture and brushed onto canvas.
Trouble is it’s only apparent if you assume nothing.