David H. Rommereim
"For people, generally, their story of the universe and the human role in the universe is their primary source of intelligibility and value," Thomas Berry wrote in The Dreams of the Earth. "The deepest crisis experienced by any society are those moments of change when the story becomes inadequate for meeting the survival demands of a present situation. ... We live in such a moment." (i)
I arrived at the Roof Garden of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met) in New York City with my beloved. We meandered through long, daring, hot tempered city traffic so that we would be able to step on the roof of the Met and feel the exhibit whose mystery called us to encounter.
To get to the gallery we moved to the 4th floor then walked up the stairs through a mirrored hallway. Visitors got a chance to see themselves. We could fix our hair and see how we presented ourselves to the art public. It almost felt as if the exhibit was the mirror.
Entering the final door we were hit with the hot, muggy, sunny Sunday afternoon. The rooftop garden consisted of baked cement under the urbanized sky. The exhibit was from the artist, Imran Qureshi, a Pakistani, born in 1972. The public notice says that this exhibit is "Imran's response to the observation that the world's citizens are numb to violence as a daily occurrence." My immediate impression centered on the idea of this exhibit as a triage to the pervasive invasion of violence touching every sector of our society. Health Care workers know that triage is a medical process in the Emergency Room developed to care for the most severe injury to the less as quickly as possible.
As you may tell from the photographs shared in this article the spilling of blood touches this esteemed museum. With that exhibit all the elegant grandeur of the Met has, at its uppermost foundation, the notion of the spilling of blood into the heart of public life.
The roof garden comes alive with red splatter transformed into blossoms. Can violence be transformed? Can a world afraid of blood be transfixed so that it morphs into life and hope? Can the sight of blood become more than death? Does it flow toward death or coagulate into life? Which side are we on?
As a biblical theologian, I read about the organic interaction with the sacred texts fixed on a metamorphosis that embraces dead ends so that they may merge into open vistas. Themes such as "silence to speech" emboss the ritual of Pescha/Passover. The experience from the "Cross to Resurrection" is an event which changes your soul.
My biblical hermeneutic is fixed on the experience of transformation and transfiguration. The former works on society. The latter works on individuals. Society is renewed, purposeful. The person is alive and hopeful.
I am not interested in the phlegmatic folk who distract us from penultimate questions. I do not mind inquietude, nor the complicated challenges of emotion and collegial partnership.
So, I step on the canvas at the Roof Garden of the Met. Most of the crowd was standing on-line waiting for an order for some drinks and museum food; crepes, fancy wraps, or expensive bites of sugar, chocolate, mostly. Any of the gallery residents were standing at the edge of the roof looking over the ledge to the city below. The city is massive and clever. It captivates your attention and avoids detail.
The Roof Garden, however, tends to detail in such a way that only a few remained able to stand on the blotches of blood smeared into blossom. Too dangerous to handle. Should Imran provide surgical gloves for both hands and hearts of each participant?
When I touched the edge of Imran's canvas I felt the skin of my feet burn through the sole of my shoe. I felt the salt in my body pour out through my eyes. Both stung. I stopped dead and wanted to leap back to the safe zone of the unspotted cement. I wanted to get on line waiting for a cold beer. I wanted to look beyond the canvas to the edges of the city below to avoid the detail and challenge of this convergence of violence and hope.
Yet, I stood still in the midst of the blood that is shaped by the violence of the world. I was silenced by the intimacy of death mingled with life; an intersection we all yearn toward.
I love the Met. I love to get lost in that expanse of art. After a couple of hours my feet ache. I look for a bench to rest upon. Then I ritually meander toward Cezanne and his Impressionists colleagues. I love the fact that Paul Cezanne was a man of color and shade who helped art enter the modern world. He too painted at the radical juncture of societal change. He spent a life inquietude, yet painted his way into hope. It appears that his art of the late 19th and early 20th century, like Imran Qureshi of our 21st century, makes that confident bow to uncertainty that lets cowards like me step on the canvas of my own living.
Thus, when I am privileged to stand on a canvas like Imran's I become disturbed. The soul of inquietude surfaces. I long for an end of the cycle of pervasive violence and lean toward hope.
This was the experience on the Roof Garden exhibition of Imran Qureshi. I could not hide from the disturbances of our violent world. It touches the soles of my feet and moves to the core of my being. The cycle of violence leaves no one innocent. Because of that, I am aware that the only way to rid the world of violence is to change the cycle, remove the motivating triggers that are mindless and soulless. Imran does this with the blossoming of blood in the middle of an America that loves to hate before it turns hate into dialogue.
Imran is on an errand. He passes that errand to us. The errantry is part of our will to live this inquietude brought by such violence as we bring our storehouse of faith into focus to stop the cycle and give our children a chance to live without fear.
I believe we are able to enter this bloody world and seek to heal the wounds with a triage dedicated to resist the most severe violence (sending our loved ones into harms way) and all the ramifications of violence as it touches our lives. Perhaps we may blossom the graves of the blessed dead. That errand is worth stepping on and walking with into hope.
Go see the exhibit and give me your own impression. Until then, I remain,
Pastor David H. Rommereim
[i] This quote comes from the article by David Korten (The Author of Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth, The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community.) This quote is read in: "Religion, Science, and Spirit (a sacred story for our time)."