Originally posted on ArtWay, Visual Meditation
(Since we’re ‘grounded’ and can’t travel to Italy, this post highlights an amazing art work from Venice)
This week is the Feast of the Ascension of Jesus Christ, also called Ascension Day or Ascension Thursday (May 21st), as recounted in Acts 1:1-11. As John van de Laar says, ‘The Ascension is one of those significant days in the Liturgical Calendar that is also really difficult. There is so much meaning, so many ways of approaching the readings, and yet so many questions that can potentially bog the day down in controversy, theological debate or heavy academic discourse. Yet it remains a day of celebration and an invitation to deeper encounter with God”. Ascension Day marks the end of 40 days when the risen Christ was present with the disciples. When those mysterious angels show up again after the Ascension and speak to the disciples they are almost reproachful of them; why are you looking to heaven your work is here on earth? The apostles return to Jerusalem to watch and wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit (which we will celebrate on May 31st). The writer of Acts tells us that the apostles, the women, and Jesus’ own family gathered together frequently to pray, waiting and anticipating.
Meryl Doney, an art curator in the UK, has written about an impressive art installation called Ascension.
Set centrally below the impressive dome of the Basilica di San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice is a white drum-like pedestal. There is silence. Then, suddenly, a rushing sound and a turbulent blast of air. Smoke begins to pour from the centre of the drum, twisting as it goes, ascending towards a cone-shape high in the dome. The feeling is of an overwhelming upward thrust. The piece is called Ascension by British sculptor Anish Kapoor.
Kapoor is well known for Cloud Gate (2006, colloquially known as ‘the Bean’) in Chicago. In 2006, he installed arguably his best-known work, Sky Mirror, a three-story stainless-steel sculpture for the Rockefeller Center, reflecting the New York skyline. He described it as a “non-object” because its reflective surface allowed it to disappear.
With Ascension, the immaterial becomes concrete. He says of it, “In my work, what is and what seems to be often become blurred. In Ascension, for example, what interests me is the idea of immateriality becoming an object, which is exactly what happens in Ascension: the smoke becomes a column. Also present in this work is the idea of Moses following a column of smoke, a column of light, in the desert …”, to guide the Israelites tthrough the wilderness. The column of smoke was the powerful, material evidence of God’s presence with them.
In naming the work Ascension, Kapoor is also making reference to the ascension itself – Jesus’ last moments on earth, when as Luke’s gospel describes, “While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven.” (Luke 23:51)
This pivotal moment has been a perennial subject for artists. The earliest direct depictions date to around the beginning of the 5th century. One of the earliest, an ivory generally dated 400AD, shows Christ climbing a mountain towards the outstretched hand of God. Later images, particularly in northern Europe, show Jesus’ feet ascending into the clouds, while some include his two footprints left on the earth.
Kapoor’s Ascension is different. Wholly abstract, yet uniquely challenging in conveying something of the experience of the Ascension. The images of the piece can convey something of its power, but in the absence of the work itself, it is even better to experience the sound and moving image captured in videos made at the time.
Visitors gaze upwards, as Jesus’ disciples would have stood. In the cathedral, as on the Mount of Olives, something strange and unprecedented is being witnessed. Immaterial smoke has become a twisting, rising column. Because of its very size and materiality the piece evokes a powerful sense of upward movement and force, capturing for the individual onlooker something of the sense of awe and mystery that must have overwhelmed those first disciples.
And what do we do after we’ve been transfixed by this installation?
If the Ascension has led us to faith in a disembodied, removed God who is watching us “from a distance”, we have missed its message. Whatever the disciples actually saw happen that day, the facts of the experience are far less important than the meaning. The Ascension certainly does not mean that heaven is “up”, hell is “down” and God is looking down on us from some far removed place. Rather, the Ascension offers us crucial truths that, in this world of injustice and inequality, we desperately need to reclaim. Jesus did not die, but was seen to “return” to the Godhead physically is a continuation of the story of incarnation. God does not despise the human body – rather God embraces it, inhabits it and glorifies it, making human flesh part of the Godhead! This means that the needs of the body – for food, clean water, sanitation, shelter, and loving, intimate touch – are all part of the Gospel and are included in God’s gift of salvation. The Ascension comes with the promise of the Holy Spirit’s power which tells us that God is not absent and removed from us, but continues to be completely immersed in the world and in the lives of human beings. The gift of the Spirit also assures us of God’s resources and God’s inspiration and God’s guidance to strengthen and enable us as we seek to live as faithful followers of Christ. It may be tempting to make this celebration about Christian triumphalism, but that would be to deny the meaning of Christ’s earthly life. Rather, the Ascension is the necessary next step in that life, ensuring that God remains involved with human beings, that God’s presence continues to be available to us, and that we know that everything that makes us human – including our physicality – has been embraced and welcomed into God. It’s less about “Christianity” defeating all, and more about Christ drawing all things into the life of God. (John van de Laar, Sacredise)