“And we, who with unveiled faces…”
(A reflection on 2 Corinthians, chapters 3-5, NIV)
Today, the image of a veiled face is present in all the media. Yet, it’s nothing new.
In some societies it’s legal to wear a veil, and illegal to not wear a veil. In others, it poses a threat to society if you wear a veil, making it illegal if you do, legal if you don’t.
Our association about the veil, of course, is with Islamic tradition. Radical Islamists appear not with a veil, however, but a mask. This is not about that. Nor is it about the history of the veil; although we could mine a rich vein of meaning there. No. It goes deeper. And the radical departure begins with an appearance to Moses.
Veil as a Tent
The veil is a powerful symbol. The word alone carries power in our language code and the associations we place on it. Put in a fertile context, words move us from the immediate world around us to the immanent layers of the unseen world, inherent in our inner being. And, as with any symbol, there lies a paradox. The veil, typically regarded as a delicate fabric, can separate the force of human identity behind it.
This essay is about making one’s self known, and keeping one from being known.
It began in Hong Kong. June 4, 1990. The first commemoration of the Tiananmen Square Massacre in Bejing, China. I found myself faced with a work of art for the Hong Kong Art Centre, ready to install, and no idea of how I assembled the pieces. This was to be my contribution to an organizational exhibit that I helped to create. It became, for me, what can only be described as a divine appointment.
Already I hear some say, “Here we go.” If reference to the immanent world view made earlier jarred some people’s sensibilities, the expression “divine appointment” will carry skepticism even further. However, if I may include a clause to my remaining thoughts, and frame them with what I recognize in this quote by David Powers in his book, Unsearchable Riches:
“The differentiation of consciousness typical of the contemporary era has uprooted persons and civilizations from psychic roots and has made them suspicious of transcendental significations which appear to be explained by projection of the unconscious.”
You could call the phrase “divine appointment” a projection of the unconscious, signifying a transcendental experience. Being uprooted from my understanding of consciousness in the ordinary realm wasn’t what I was seeking when creating artwork for the exhibit. I was more concerned about presenting images and references not found in Chinese culture. Framing ideas within the context of my faith and recognizing that that itself is a culture brings me to the remainder of Powers’ thought:
Cultural differences show up markedly in symbols of the holy, as do clashes within cultures and in cultural approaches to Christianity.
Symbols of the holy, I discovered, were waiting in my portfolios and poised for another encounter. More “differentiation of consciousness”; the culture of art. I felt confronted with an overwhelming sense of challenge, coupled by the realization that I might be out of my league. All the other artists seemed so accomplished. They hadn’t seen any of my work, yet they trusted my judgment about presenting together with them. We were all Christian, but we needed to be invested in the integrity of our calling as artists. This would be the first exhibit of Christian artists in the Hong Kong Art Centre. A lot was riding on how we represented ourselves.
Did I know I had symbols of the holy, in hand, while assembling my artwork? Not exactly. There were, however, portions of work that I had collected as evidence of sparks that illuminated further work. I kept these to remind me of their legacy. Drawings, studies, photographs, prints. I pulled them all out, laid them down in various arrangements, then I sat with them, in my appointed hours. We all showed up. Then waited. My thoughts at the time steeped with images of Tiananmen Square. That’s when the layers began their immanent shifting.
Do we know when God shows up? Is it when we sense we aren’t alone, and afterwards become aware of having been in a transient state? My thoughts at the time carried me back to the early morning hours, a year before, inside a tent on Tiananmen Square. Suddenly the sound of tanks crushing other tents. And screaming. Darkness. Silence.
Words flooded an inner light. I was reading:
“Now…we know…if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God,… an eternal house… in heaven,…not built by human hands… we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling,… when we are clothed we will not be found naked.”
I had placed myself inside a tent, to imagine what was happening to those who realized they’d been trapped. Emotion overtook me. I was caught in a sea of helplessness. The instantaneous finality of that moment transported me beyond any sense of place on earth. It happened in an instant, like that final moment inside a tent.
There must be more. What else does it say?
“For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wished to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.”
“So what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.” That was too vivid. The tent was a mere symbol of the life within. Many of the tents on the square were red. Swallowed up by life, with life inside. Families left on the outside. Nothing more could be done.
Then the questions. Then the tears. Then the sorrow. Lingering sorrow. The world watched. There must be more:
“Now it is God who has made us for this purpose and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. Therefore, we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. We live by faith, not by sight.”
Being in the tent, they didn’t seeing it coming. We will never see it coming. And the passage ends with this:
“We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.”
We become the phenomenon of life. Life is revealed in us.
And Christ? The Word made flesh? Spoken? Died? Risen. Dwelling in us now. Word and Word. The same. Nothing more could be done.
Tent as a Veil
I later purchased a red tent, like those used on the square, and placed it in the exhibit with that whole passage printed in Chinese, against a gold square painted outside the tent door. Four white flowers laid next to it. It was the custom. In Chinese, the word “four” rhymes with the word “to die.” I didn’t know I was going to make that piece. It just happened. A contemporary dance troupe improvised around it at the opening.
The veil…the tent…our heavenly dwelling? Dwelling among us… words… the Word? I hadn’t really started to gather all the resources I wanted before images and words began to build. The symbols were powerful and seemed to increase exponentially. It caused me to cycle back to the essence of symbols and integrate my sensibilities about words and images, how to express them in a Chinese culture. There were layers, in communion with each other, calling on presentational symbols to occur simultaneously, as an integrated expression,
“…the purpose of which is to allow thoughts and things to interpenetrate, come together so that the whole is perceived as one, and to express…the kind of understanding associated with feelings and values.” (Susanne Langer, Language and Symbol)
Symbol, by definition, in the Greek origin, sum-ballien, means “to throw together.” In the material I had collected for my artwork, now extending into layers of symbolic images, it felt like I had just thrown these things together. Yet, there remained a presence about each that I wasn’t able to cast off. I kept coming back to the starting place for each piece, thinking that a value inhabited its meaning. Again, Susanne Langer:
“The distinction (with presentational symbols) is true to the fundamental polysemy of every image, word, thing or action, to the nature of knowledge as originally symbolic, to the structure of being that is revealed in the capacity for multiple significance and for a multiple relation to reality that is practical, theoretical, and reverential.”
That’s where this is going, I thought. Symbolic language is reverential. It embraces feelings and values and insight into meaning. Communion and communication of an interpersonal nature was my intention.
“Things of nature and human artifacts are not simply being put to a purpose, but their very nature is being revealed within and through the language of art. Reality is not expressed in a single image but in what can be called an image-schema, or symbol system, where various images and symbols coalesce.”
I knew, also, that within the Chinese culture, as with any culture, the values represented in the symbols I was presenting were shared values, with reverential meanings. Accepted agreements as to the power and presence of symbols are rooted in the desire for communion with the awesome and transcendental. Carl Jung will say that symbols, as points of intentional contact, exist in stored images held in memory of an archetypal design. The Christian culture and the Chinese culture share in the psychic rootedness of the transcendental and certain symbols will signify a depth of meaning, particularly when multiple symbols are seen together.
My divine appointment hasn’t actually been realized on all levels. It never will in my lifetime. In this writing, even as I chase after the coalescence of symbols, the events surrounding the creation of the assemblage and the ensuing purpose of events surrounding my continual fascination with developments, I see evidence manifesting in circumstances that have become symbolic for me. The significance of my own veil of understanding has been revealed to me multiple times. The work of art that symbolizes this engagement is has called me out, once again, at this particular time, to receive another layer of immanence. In a following account, as the second part to this essay, I will unfold the details of an assemblage called, “The Veil is Removed.”