Friday, 8 September 2017

Are We Never Coming to the Kernel - Giacometti's Small Sculptures

In my mind’s eye, I see Alberto Giacometti sat before a model and a mighty slab of clay. Slowly he pulls away at the slab in search of something true - something irreducible. As he continues to peer at his model he continues to peel away until, like the wonky table shortened by shaving down first one leg then the other and so on, all that is left is one tiny scrap of a grasping at the truth.

Looking at these characteristic often tiny sculptures reminds me of one of the great images in Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. Our hero, now old, has spent a life in search of his true self and finds himself in a field of onions. He begins peeling away at the skin of the vegetable;

“Here's the passenger layer, scanty and thin;-
Next underneath is the gold-digger ego;
the juice is all gone - if it ever had any.”

He keeps on peeling off what in Kabbalistic terms we call Klippot (literally husks) in search of the irreducible truth of his existence - the Ikkar. But to no avail.

“There's a most surprising lot of layers!
Are we never coming to the kernel?
There isn't one! To the innermost bit
It's nothing but layers, smaller and smaller.”

And he throws the layers and, his life’s work, away.

It turns out this isn’t, as a matter of record, how Giacometti, records his intent, in these tiny sculptures. But in these posts, I’m after religious insight, not academic verisimilitude. And certainly, Giacometti did a great deal of searching for truth, and a great deal of peeling back the layers of falsity. I’ve also seen photos of the floor of his studio - there’s a lot of Klippot discarded on the floor. Bear with me.

The problem, as it so often seems to be, is looking in the wrong place. You can’t find irreducible truths of existence in the bones and flesh of humanity. The bones and the flesh of humanity are Klippot in their entirety. Our true essence is other than material. The point is most powerfully made in an awesome passage in Talmud Niddah, where the Rabbis discuss the embryo in the womb; “There are three partners in creation,” they record, “The father, the mother and the Holy Blessed One.” The father and mother provide the white stuff and the red stuff - the flesh and bones - and God provides that which cannot be seen and cannot be touched, “the spirit and soul, the luster of the face, the eye’s sight, the ear’s hearing...” I’m not making a point about evolution or biology, but religion. Religion is a training in bringing attention to the non-material, it’s a space to reflect on what cannot be seen and held by a lump of clay.

Perhaps this is at the heart of Judaism’s wary relationship with sculpture - it’s too easy to present clay as if it does capture a true divine essence - that would be an idol. But since clay can never capture ultimate truths any such presentation would, by necessity, be a deceit. Cue the Marxist theoreticians who would tell us that such presentations are designed by the bourgeoisie to extract obeisance from the workers. But religious insight is not found in clay. At all. It’s found in ‘not-clay.’ To find religious insight you can use clay - for me art is a great pointer in the direction of deep truth, but ultimately we need to transcend all material, corporeal stuff. A person needs to open a space in which to feel the contribution of that third partner in creation - God. 

And it’s not just clay that is a problem.

To open to the possibility of religious insight a person has to put down the phone, stop checking social media, stop talking about the stock market, or the football or the latest cultural offerings. As a faith, we even make the call for a person to leave behind food and drink - for one day - to leave behind, truly, the material plane to which we are so tightly bound. To open to the possibility of ultimacy a person needs to sit, still, in silence or in response to the ineffable miracle of existence. That’s why there is so much sitting and responding to the ineffable in our faith, at this point of the year in particular.

To search for irreducible truths of existence in the material stuff of the world is to be like the drunkard who seeks their lost keys in the pool of light thrown by the streetlamp - since this is the only place where they can see. It doesn’t mean the keys are there. They almost certainly aren’t. 

No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...