How can a veil cover, yet reveal?
And so, with our eyes fixed on the image of a veil, the veil as a tent and the tent back to a veil, coalescing layers of symbols and bringing together a host of transcendent messages (as revealed in Part 1), we begin.
The meaning to this question will emerge in passages from 2 Corinthians and the subsequent description of the assemblage called “The Veil is Removed”, reserved for the last half of this essay. For now, however, please keep this in mind as a prelude to the essence of the piece, remembering that strong symbols can serve opposing purposes. An umbrella protects from the rain, but also protects from the sun. Protection is the abiding characteristic. If we look for truth in a message, carried by a symbol, we need to allow ourselves an insight into that imaginative environment, then accept what has been provided. Accept the elements of the symbolic meaning and accept the source, as well. As artists, we like to think of ourselves as truly creative and associated with creative thinking. A certain expectation follows this as being unique and visionary to human endeavors. When I was in art school one of my instructors had a storefront for his studio. He created a neon sign and placed it in the window. It was composed of words spiraling out from the center, saying “The true artist helps the world by revealing mystical truths.” (Bruce Nauman). The statement was thought provoking both in its wisdom and its satire. Imposing our own meanings for symbols in order to satisfy a scheme of ideas can provide a certain range of acceptance, but it can also lead to what becomes a beautiful lie.
The paradox for an artist is to promote one’s self and then, in turn, embrace humility. To really humble one’s self is to surrender to the true Creator. That means surrendering my will. I must then agree to receive what has been provided for me. Agree, then accept. This is often the forgotten step to real change. Receiving implies an agreement has been made. It does not mean just taking. If I humble myself enough to receive what has been revealed to me and accept the creative gift, I should be thankful to be selected. But, as we know, human nature will move us to capitulate about that exchange, introduce the notion that our abilities alone have coaxed some creative manifestation into being, and tell us we are, indeed, the brilliant force behind our work! To finesse the gift of creativity is not the same as receiving the gift of creativity, and we are tempted to assert an entitlement to it. Recognizing the power of creativity is recognizing that, “Imagination is evidence of the divine”, as William Blake so aptly put it. Humbling myself to that notion then, leaves no room for harbored resentment toward the source of my imagination. But, I readily go back on my agreements, and in not really surrendering my will, I might acquiesce to some notion that all ideas are not mine, yet still feel justified in accepting any praise for my work. In the process I quickly agree to finally being recognized for my talent, while ignoring the source and expressing gratitude for the gift. You see the dilemma.
Symbols have universal meanings, as Carl Jung has testified. Symbols that have been received and accepted across cultures and across time become archetypal. If they are to coalesce in their presentation and provide deeper meaning, they need to maintain their intended purposes, within expanded use. Imposing my will on a universal symbol will not change how it’s received. Viewers, too, might allow to set agreements aside for the sake of artistic freedom, but revising symbols usually carries a weak response because on some level it’s been compromised. So, if I, in my creative process, were to rearrange the materials I had on hand (drawings, photos and prints), and attend to their symbolic qualities and their aesthetic design, would I also be rearranging their meanings?
And, what is the one message I hoped to convey in the artwork that was incubating throughout the contents of my portfolios? I was poised for a commemoration of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. The subject was too important. Too intense. Too intimidating. Sitting in my appointed hours with apparently disparate works of art, I sifted through their intended meanings. Would individual meanings combine with others and still serve to impact the larger good? You might decide.
The Veil That Covers
“We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to keep the Israelites from gazing at it while the radiance was fading away.”
Such are the words in 2 Corinthians 3:13, referring to Moses’ appearance after returning from Mt. Sinai, where he encountered God and received the Ten Commandments. Our imagination is illuminated just by the one simple sentence. The event itself was staggering, to the point that every line in the passages in Exodus or 2 Corinthians is beyond our scope. And, further references to a veil in Paul’s letter lead to a deeper understanding of what seems like a veiled meaning itself. However, my focus on the veil is only a piece of the story that I hoped would provide a sensory connection with the touch of fabric on skin and radiating light. The meaning is deep. Deep as the heart of our own existence and the depth of our understanding. I could only begin to fathom the magnitude of the event through the one element that came between Moses and those who saw him. The veil was alive with light. All other references could take on transcendent meaning if I could focus on that one symbol. And still, the leitmotif of a veil crisscrossed my thinking until ideas began to form about how to approach a work of art. Using the elements in front of me (printed fabric, x-rayed torso, drawing of leg bones, hands and a pencil), I began to engage the concepts of transparency, translucence, and transcendence. And myself…transpiring.
The Text of My Heart
As I began to read from Corinthians, starting with chapter 3, my interpretation of the words reflected a personal interest. The script was speaking to me on a different level.
“Are we beginning to commend ourselves again?”
I was working with global missions in the Lutheran Church at the time and sensitive to how I was perceived in the Chinese culture of Hong Kong.
“You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everybody.”
I felt led into the next three chapters with this;
“You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.”
Suddenly, the encouragement to manifest the Spirit came through in the words,
“Such confidence as this is ours through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant – not of the letter, but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”
From thereon in, these words jumped out at me: engraved, letters, stone, face, glory, fading. Then all the rest of what I needed came with these passages;
“Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold. We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to keep the Israelites from gazing at it while the radiance was fading away…for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. Even to this day…a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away…And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness…”
By the end of that chapter, which had given me the introduction to the Spirit inherent in Paul’s writing, I was prepared to invest my thinking in a response to Tiananmen Square. Thinking with the heart. Thinking about the transient nature of humankind. The vulnerability of life. The next biblical section of the chapter began with the title, “Treasures in Jars of Clay.”
I was reminded that we are only here a short time. That the supremacy of Christ came through a death, his death, and without it the Spirit would not come. And, to rise again, as Christ is our witness, our earthly tent becomes our heavenly home when we embrace faith in this promise. The epic nature of the events at Tiananmen, in all their graphic horror, remain pale to the supremacy of a veil that is removed. Because when it is removed we see,
“He is the image of the invisible God, firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”
An assemblage is a composite work of art using a combination of materials, like a collage, often on a larger scale and may involve installation within a room. “The Veil is Removed”, my centerpiece for this essay, was constructed to the scale of a door and created for the “Doors Exhibit” commemorating the Beijing student massacre in 1989. The piece was installed in the Hong Kong Art Centre and accompanied a visiting exhibit from the Asian Art Center of New York’s Chinatown, originally hosted as an open art show. The title of the exhibit was based on the irony of the name Tiananmen Square – translated from Chinese as “Door of Heavenly Peace.”
The overall scale of this piece suggests a narrow door that widens at the top. This accentuates the lifting movement of ascending bird images whose wings span the width of the form, printed on muslin fabric. One continuous piece of fabric with the printed bird, repeated and mounted to a wooden base, forms the backdrop for the rest of the imagery. The same birds are printed on organdy fabric and are wrapped over the front of the “door.” A play on words, using organdy, as a veil we see through, is linked to a chest x-ray fastened at chest level, revealing organs and bones. The x-ray is my own, and behind it is a life-sized photo of my arms and hands, suggesting a view of the inside and outside of a person at the same time. The photo portrays the act of sharpening a pencil and relates to a drawing partially obscured by the x-ray. Under the x-ray is a drawing of a pelvic bone and upper legs of a skeleton.
Beyond the x-ray are the legs and feet of the skeleton with one foot not completely drawn. Together, these elements suggest an interrupted process, interior and exterior space, a creative intention, revealed meaning. Then, from the pencil sharpener, as though it is emerging while the handle is turned, comes text, printed on clear acetate and scrolling out from the surface of the photo, curling down in front of the x-ray. The words are chapters 3, 4 and 5 of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, which include the words “You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts…”
The human scale of chest, arms and hands is intended to draw the viewer into the intimate level of meaning in the words, exposed by the clear text, peeled back like the x-ray and drawing of skeletal bones. The bones of the text are laid bare, then cut off like the unfinished drawing of a foot, like a footnote. The outstretched wing feathers of the birds are aligned with the ribs of the chest, and seen together with the pelvis and legs, the design becomes a cruciform. The pencil, like a spear in the side. Ascending birds transcend the vertical from behind and also in front of the “door.”
The doorway, doubling as a cruciform, has above it a photograph of a fish under an umbrella. The paradox is that an umbrella is designed to repel water, but a fish lives in water. Certain death comes to the fish out of water and under an umbrella. The historical Christian symbol of a fish is evident, and the form of the umbrella has characteristics of an inverted crown, alluding to the title “King of the Jews.”
In these symbolic associations we see transformation, transcendence, and ascendance in the translation of image to text and text to image. Revelation is found in the transparent and translucent rendering of material, metaphysically and poetically portrayed. The entire work carries with it the overarching likeness to Jesus Christ, echoed in his words, “I am the door.”
What Does This Mean?
For the Chinese student, trapped inside a tent in 1989, on Tiananmen Square, the meaning of life is bound to one short breath. We don’t know what was in the heart of that one soul, what agreements were made that led to the rise in spirit and the decision to act; but everything suggests the longing to free that one heart, alongside those who died. The immanence of God in his creation is what lives on. And the world, as we know it? It’s only the voice of the invisible; yet we take it to mean what we call “real.” God, within his own creation, is inseparable from it. We think we separate ourselves from the phenomena around us and give credence to that by our pronouncements about the reality of our experiences. Outside of that, we are suspect of what lies beyond. Can there be an Absolute Truth? Were our hearts not burning at some point, to find out? And, are we not captured in the tent of an earthly body, longing for a heavenly home?
I am again reminded, there is one who came to testify to the truth, and bind up the broken hearted. What would I have to give up to receive that?
As I came to the close of these thoughts, I picked up the Book of Common Prayer today, and in keeping with the daily lectionary, I read the following:
“He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has appointed me
to preach good news to the
He has sent me to proclaim freedom
for the prisoners
and the recovery of sight for the
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’”
The veil prevails today…in its numinous meanings. Will we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear? So many of our questions result in more questions. The beginning of these two postings made reference to the veil as a covering, but as we can see, the true meaning lies beyond the veil. Art will portray the veil as an object that points to something else. Or, perhaps, remain staid to the notion that there is nothing else beyond what we alone can see. What we decide, in the place where decisions are made and in the deepest part of ourselves, can make all the difference in the world: whether we live for this world or become the presence of another.