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Religious yearning for salvation through extremes





Le pécheur est au coeur meme de chrétiene…

Nul n’est aussi compétent que le pécheur en

  matière de chrétieneté.  Nul, si ce n’est le saint.


(The sinner stands at the very heart of Christianity…

No one is as competent in the matter of 

Christianity as the sinner.  No one, except the saint.)



Salvation lies in extremes.  Either/Or.  Either black or white, sans permitting tolerance for the bourgeois compromise that is grey.  Either Augustine, saint, order, man of action.  Or Pelagius, sinner, chaos, man of thought suffering from the disease of consciousness – the malady of seeing too deep and too much, the dead end of Eliot’s Gerontion: ‘After such knowledge, what forgiveness?’ 


Heaven or hell.  


Yet are extremes really opposites, or just the same side of a different coin?  The last fifty years or so of critical theory seem to point to the second option while discarding opposites as a basic fallacy of logocentrism.  In truth, even the greatest of existentialist outsiders, Nietzsche, seeking the equilibrium of dance on the verge of the abyss and finally making a tentative jump, has Christian roots – both the saint and Nietzsche share a passion for truth, for eternity and engage in the quest for a higher man.  They simultaneously repudiate the universal and are essentially ahistorical and irrational in that they make movements of faith on the strength of the absurd.  Again, the existentialist outsider, endowed or enburdened with a thought-riddled nature, is committed to truth, just like the saint.  And both are hoarse and hoary voices in the desert, symbol of purity and escape from the human, be it T.E. Lawrence’s sandy plains in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Faulkner’s wilderness in Go Down Moses or factories and cheap allotments in most Angry Young Man literature. They are both unable to live in the comfortable, insulated world of the bourgeois, accepting what they see and touch as reality – both Camus’ Meursault and the Christian saints are martyrs for the sake of truth.  Both seek salvation in extremes, finding it difficult to see grey anywhere, thus joining Norbert Francis Attard in an ideal, existentialist Place called Paradise. 


Either one or the other extreme allude to the other or to the one.  Taking the most extreme of extremes, life and death, it is only the latter which is the clue to authentic living.  This is the kind of extremity Freud stated when he invoked the pleasure principle and the death instinct respectively.  There cannot be one extreme without the other – one extreme alludes to the other and vice versa, bringing to mind the extreme which is not present, and hence, as Lyotard claims in ‘The Postmodern Explained to Children’, belonging to the aesthetic of the sublime.  Each extreme is a thauma to the other, a moment and a sense of wonder and recognition that impels philosophisation and creation of any form of art, including that of installation.  


Installation art in all its guises definitely explores the notion that space and time are, in and of themselves, fodder for artistic consumption.  An artist takes over an installation space like a temporary squatter whose clutter of possessions challenges boundaries and sparks dialogue between the space itself and its contents.  A site-specific installation is created, beholded, then dismantled, itself showing the two extremes of man who is bent both on creation and destruction.  In some of Attard’s installations, the space itself is a religious context and in most of them, the dialogue is a reflective one – both in form content and meaning.  The extremes on which Attard’s installations are based are each reflected and refracted {yet never Clone(d)} to a different density, be it the waters of the Noosa River, the upper and lower layers of an Earth Temple, a shallow basin of water in a church, green and red cloth in Beyond Conflict, even the projection itself of AND SMUFF2603.


This reflection in itself is a eulogy of repetition, an existential preoccupation with time.  Reflection represents an eternal recurrence, a salvation and renewal for man, the eternal lack of telos in the universe, so that to will Sisyphus’ eternal cycle with enthusiasm but without hope is the ultimate attainment of affirmation.  Todorov claims that reading is a passive type of writing. Similarly, beholding can be a passive type of creating – two extremes in esse est percipi, to be is to be perceived.  This concept of one extreme using the other as a vehicle for self-knowledge is continuously explored by Beckett through his philosophy of pairs – Vladimir and Estragon, Lucky and Pozzo going to extremes in tormenting and consoling each other. Esse est percipi is the Cartesian dichotomy between the res cognitans and the res extensa, the thinking mind and the physical object.  It is a reflection of extremes that is in itself a Christian salvation.  Karl Jaspers himself claims that being awakened by the Other is like Christian salvation – ‘my uniqueness is elicited by and requires the uniqueness of others…one becomes oneself and brings the other to himself in thus opening oneself to him.  It is…the struggle of beings who recognise themselves as united but have as a condition of their reality to assert and maintain their difference’. As though one could know man simply by being a man.  Granted.  The other is always an extreme, another subject – yet not in an egocentric but rather in a subjective communion.  


This notion of to be is to be perceived is explored by Attard in Tolerance of Ambiguity – a see-saw in which vision that would enable One to see the Other is hindered by a stairway-wall.  Given this precept, it is impossible for them to achieve the necessary balance between extremes that would enable them to ‘live’. In Tolerance of Ambiguity the esse est percipi malfunctions and both ‘players’ are never actualised  since their eyes never meet.  Which brings to mind Ferral, in Malraux’s novel Man’s Estate, who during his pleasures in one of the houses of Nankin road, admits that ‘he needed the eyes of others with which to see himself, the senses of another by which to know his own touch’.  An extreme encounter will only be possible when the two ends of the see-saw meet.  On one side of the Tolerance of Ambiguity, there can only be man, loneliness, and the unknowability of others.  The Meta di Borgo and the Terebinth of Nero have to meet in order for Peter to be crucified and saved.


Going a step further, the reflection of the One in the Other’s eyes offers only the consolation of a limited self-knowledge - a third reflection has to be imposed.  For Sartre, the direct reflection of the self by the self, as in a mirror, is never an adequate source of self-knowledge – the self must be seen reflected in the eyes of the Other before it can be known.  I have to see being seen – therefore I am.  Since the I as I can be perceived through the Other’s eye, we as we is realised only in relation to others.  The realisation of humanity as such can only take place by positing the existence of a third, distinguished in principle from humanity, in whose eyes humanity is considered an object.  This is simply an ideal concept and corresponds to the idea of God as the being who sees, is not seen and does not deceive us.  Nowadays, this function of God has been taken over by the world of manufactures and public signs.  As is shown in Ora Pro Nobis, which posits the two extremes of  religion and consumer culture, not so much different in that they both require the consumption of a divine body for salvation.  Pray for us, in an age of affluence politically induced in the mid-1950’s, when housewife and teenager started being identified as target markets, terms such as ‘lifestyle’ were coined, and the shift between a need-culture and a want-culture registered.  Pray for us in an age of affluence, where our existence is reflected in a heap of undancing shoes, of plastic consumer culture and large amounts of false urban texture. With no trace of us having survived what seemed to be the final consumerist solution, a Last consumerist Supper.  Here, man is neither black nor white – a grey which is too late for the gods and too early for Being.  


In the same way that Nietzsche introduces Thus Spoke Zarathustra with his undermining of morality by exposing its non-moral basis and rationality by exposing its irrational basis, so does Attard use language to condemn it as a false reflection and as a metaphor of the absurd.  Unlike the true or possible regenerative 


reflections in Salina’s Lament, Palestrina and Hell, Tolerance of Ambiguity, Balance, Beyond Conflict and Cycle, Back to Babel presents language as a multiple and false reflection of a truth that becomes, literally, beyond words.  Attard condemns the ‘unreligious’ use of the word, in that it does not reflect the real, strives yet clings to the sensuous and moreover, it multiplies or divides it into a plurality of tongues.  Even one single word from one language can have more than one meaning – it can have two, each meaning at the extreme of the other.  As an example, Derrida uses pharmakon, a word taken from ‘Plato’s Pharmacy’ in the Phaedrus, a Platonic dialogue.  Pharmakon in Greek can mean both ‘remedy’ and ‘poison’, two extremes such as life and death.


In what seems to be a Pongean exercise, Attard tests the misuse of the word, the absence of any referential significance and the passing along of the word in what Gabriel Marcel, in Problematic Man, describes as ‘the anonymity of everyday chatter’ in the they-world, the world of everydayness in which all of us find ourselves, lost in the making present of the today and understanding the past in terms of the present, thus violating the basic structure of the temporality of Dasein.  The word as a bourgeois compromise.  A misuse of the word going against the duty of the writer, which according to Sartre, should be to call a spade a spade.   The misuse of the word in everyday language, which in constant use loses touch with the objects to which it ostensibly refers - as Bacon claims, words are substituted for things.  Language in this mode spreads untruth and establishes inauthentic existence.  Instead of mediating my being-in-the-world by revealing intelligible objects of use and enjoyment, it obscures them by covering them with itself – the intermediary becomes the principal and the true principal is displaced.  Language becomes eikasia, the lowest form in the realm of illusion



Il n’y a pas de hors-texte – given that we see only because we have langu



age, and that it gives life, purpose and the possibility of preference, one might continue contemplating whether what we see is actually what there is to see.  Language, as Attard sees it in Back to Babel, is a terministic screen and a false reflection that conceals Being.  As it were, language is a grey matter and a matter of grey, passed along in habitual chatter.  Just another narcotic effect of habit, the grey area where Pechorin, Lermontov’s hero in A Hero of our Times, resides, welcoming the grey dullness of physical fatigue which prevails over mental unrest.  It is a limbo, a lukewarm day against which Steppenwolf vents his anger – the bourgeoisie’s enjoyment of middle enjoyment, the araucaria of surface realities.  This is Zeus’ condemnation, in Sartre’s The Flies, of the grey monotony of provincial life and the long days of mild content.  This is the grey of limbo and prison, where the essence is neither arrival nor departure – neither of the two extremes but the numbness and greyness of waiting.  The waiting room metaphor, neither heaven nor hell, saint nor evil.  It is the grey zone which is terrifyingly represented in Pascal’s prison – “imagine a great number of men in chains, and all condemned to death; some of them have their throats cut in the sight of the others, those who remain see their own condition in the fate of their likes.  This is the image of human condition”.


In I See Red Everywhere, Attard puts man and nature in an unhealthy and blind relationship of extremes.  For man, the 20th century is the first collective encounter with the absurd.  It also signals the time when humanity, no longer knowing with certainty where it comes from, nor where it is going, finds its relationship with the universe transformed.  For thousands of years man and the cosmos were, to a greater or lesser degree, in accord.  Since the eighteenth century they have been at variance.  Western man has conquered the planet Earth and began an exploration of space.  Can man exist while bound to the universe only by the dominion he attempts to exercise over it?  Pink Floyd’s lyrics to Take it Back from their 1994 album The Division Bell, and Malraux’s existential novels reply in the negative.  Attard’s dead, yet still standing, tree, affirms and dwarfs man and all human conflict into a vain and tawdry thing.  The religious exaltation that comes from a sense of identity with the universe is gone.  The withering tree is still the fulcrum for an excess of red.


Choose a colour.  Take blue, for instance - either a period or a mood.  Following Siegfried Gohr’s Die Hand des Künstlers and hand studies of artists such as Chillida, Lüpertz and Baselitz, New Yorker Jack Pierson took blue oil stick and painted hundreds of hands, all representing the actual artist’s hands in odd, desperate hours.  The hand is engaged in ashing a cigarette, hitch-hiking and other gestures showing the hand’s concern with being an evocative, expressive tool, rather than the colour itself.  Blue is there just to behold, literally, just to colour.  Now choose another colour.  Take red, for instance – neither an either nor an or.  An Unsimply red, the prote ousia omnipresent as the harbinger of a whole plethora of emotions.  Not a period or a mood but a condition of conditions as can be traced in the history of art, from the red figure technique in Athenian vase painting to the tragic dark red drama in Caravaggio.  Red in Rubens, a bloodbath of colour out of which spectacularly voluptuous bodies rise up from a sea of Baroque turbulence.  The shimmering summery red of the boy’s cap in Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières and the outrageous and lascivious red in Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters.  The blood-red Norwegian skies in Munch and the angry monstrous red Max Ernst uses in L’ange du foyer.  The red Christian baroque and the blood-red pelican sacrifice or martyrdom which blindfolds St Peter’s dying eyes.  Red is the colour of extremes which swathes the lumpy roughness of an ancient carved stone to the smoothness of a precast modern block in Tu Es Petrus II.  The angry red bed of knives in Caravaggio and the red swathes in I See Red Everywhere which seem to have drawn all the blood from a lifeless tree and absorbed it.  An ambiguous colour, deadly and life affirming, sensual and excessively vulgar, decorative both in immoral districts and moral churches. Peaceful red and clockwork-orange angry red.  Extreme red.


Red as the colour of blood, of the menstrual cycle.  As feminist poet Judy Grahn chronicles in her Blood, Bread and Roses – How Menstruation Created the World, men fear and envy women’s capacity to bleed.  We hold her in awe and terror because she bleeds and does not die and becomes a woman.  The blood of the male Zealot and that of the female Cycle lie in a polar, extreme relationship.  It is not the blood that men shed in hypocritical wars but the blood women suffer month after month that creates, purificates and leads to the rebirth of the world.  It is the extreme of Christ’s sacrificial blood that Christians celebrate and acknowledge, rather than that spilled for the sake of Crusades and Inquisition.  It is the Cycle’s painful yet regenerative reflection that leads to salvation, not the Zealot’s doing the right deed for the wrong reason.


Like Existentialism, Attard’s installations are not concerned with points of school doctrine but with the recall of philosophy to the existing individual striving to live in the light of reflection, literally.  The whole life of Attard’s installations is an epigram calculated to make people aware of extremes, and strive for salvation.  Installation art feeding upon the extreme tensions of the artist and translated into a maintenance of consciousness for the beholder. Like Christopher Isherwood’s novels, Norbert’s art wishes to enact the religious searching of identity and in the process gives an insight into the existential.

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