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2020 by Artists: Looking forward to new things

In an interview a few years back, the American installation artist Theaster Gates said this:

“There are two ways of approaching the plight of a place. You could either focus on the absolutely negative and curse the government and curse the people and curse the apathy. Or you could focus on the possibilities, you could focus on the hope of a place.”

I don’t know whether Gates’ hope is simply a humanistic hope for the best or something more than that, but his focus on looking forward to a better future rather than wallowing in a less than satisfactory present is a very Christian one.

As Christians we are people of hope. Like Gates, we understand that the future mostly consists of possibilities, not certainties, but we do hold on to one as-yet-unrealised state of affairs with some force. As followers of Jesus, we have a firm confidence that good will ultimately triumph. A confidence not based on wishful thinking but on verifiable facts of history, deep reflections on the nature of reality and personal experiences of interactions with our creator.

Many Christians, especially Christian artists, land here too quickly and their hope can come across as a flimsy optimism. I was so pleased to see that, in the work submitted to the ‘in the rough’ exhibition, the hope communicated was a little more rugged and I’d like to end our review of the year by highlighting four pieces that lead us out of our present plight into a future of glorious possibilities.

Gunwall Stretch by Jeremy Bunce

‘Gunwall Stretch’ – Jeremy Bunce

“The hills are alive!” sang Julie Andrews as she whirled around the green pastures of Salzburg. I’m sure she’d have repeated the sentiment if she’d ever had the pleasure to witness Jeremy Bunce’s Gunwall Stretch. I have nothing particularly profound to write about this painting except to say that it reminds me that there is life out there amidst all the death. There is vibrancy waiting to peep through our sorrow. There may be dark clouds on the horizon (note the top left corner), but you hardly notice them when you see the crazy energy and joy that God has injected into his creation.

‘Veni E’ – Finglestein

‘On those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned’ Isaiah prophesied about 2 and a half thousand years ago. About half a millennium later, that light came. God with us. Immanuel. John Mason Neale’s famous advent hymn ‘O Come O Come Emmanuel’ expresses the rugged hope I wrote of earlier. It is mostly a desperate plea to God for deliverance but, of course, each verse concludes with God’s answer, the promise of His own dramatic intervention to not just rescue his people but come to live with us. However, despite this explicit call to celebration, this is usually the reflective, somewhat sombre scene setter for the carol service (and a fine scene setter it is too!). Not for Mark Farrin, a.k.a. Finglestein. This is boogie around your kitchen music. And when that crunchy guitar solo comes in at 2:30, I’m forgetting the loneliness and captivity of the pandemic and I’m rejoicing. Jesus dispersed the gloomy clouds when he came to us once before and He will come again. Rejoice!

Apocalyptic Lockdown Blues

Rounding all this off, I want to finish with two of my favourite COVID motivated pieces from the Sputnik stable, and they both feature David Benjamin Blower. At the end of April, one of two lockdown EPs appeared, entitled ‘Apocalyptic Lockdown Blues’. It’s all gold, but for me the title track shines the brightest. Though it was written less than a month in, it is the most penetrating and profound reflection on the Coronavirus crisis that I’ve come across anywhere.

On one level, listening to it simply plonks you straight back into that ‘strange hiatus’ of the first lockdown as David reminds us of the days when we all applauded from our windows, tried to suppress coughs in supermarket queues and suddenly noticed the deafening birdsong that had been drowned out when cars were allowed to leave their driveways.

But David heard something else. A groaning going on within our ‘Sabbath of grief’ that did not go away when the first round of lockdown measures began to be lifted.

For many of us in the last year, we’ve stared vacantly out of the windows of our isolation bedrooms and we’ve also gazed wistfully out of the windows of Jozef Pyper Egerton’s beachside apartment. David calls us now to a new posture. He pictures us…

‘… praying out of windows
for the soul of the earth
Oh for a New Thing
Oh for the Day of Rebirth’

For him, the experience of seeing the natural world come alive just outside our windows, but somehow still remain painfully out of reach to us while locked inside, awakens in us the desire for the coming kingdom that is nearby, but still not yet. The final verse gives us an encouragement to remember that groaning, but for me, it strikes me more as a warning not to forget:

And all are awaiting
For the world to awaken
From this strange and apocalyptic dream
but not back to how it used to be
Remember what was seen
In this sabbath of griefs

But what do we do as we wait, as we pray and as we groan? Well, one of the things we do is make art. This is far from a futile gesture. It is not even just assisting our own mental wellbeing. We’re documenting moments, infusing them with meaning and casting new and hopeful visions of what is to come. But we can’t do this on our own. Even in our creative practice, we must refuse to give in to the loneliness and separation of lockdown and embrace a new thing. We must cross borders and connect with like minded practitioners and allies.

Making art is far from a futile gesture. It is not even just assisting our own mental wellbeing. We’re documenting moments, infusing them with meaning and casting new and hopeful visions of what is to come.

In the first post in this series of reflections on 2020, I shared a lesson I’d learnt this year, and I want to finish with another one, before illustrating it with a final piece of art. I end this year convinced that art is very important. I also end it convinced that artists need to be connected together, and perhaps Christians need these connections even more. So, I look back on a year when Sputnik have done all we can to connect artists who follow Jesus, even though all of our normal ways to do that were blocked. We put on our online Industry Notes events, we moved all our Hubs on to Zoom and we started our Sputnik Slack, which is already proving to be a great environment to facilitate genuine, meaningful relationships. (Want to find out for yourself? Be our guest!)

Cabin fever is not fertile soil for good art. We need to cross borders and we at Sputnik HQ are very much looking forward to taking the skills we learnt this year into 2021 and beyond to help you do that.

And why do I think that may be a fruitful enterprise? Well, because of pieces like Sarah Rabone’s ‘From The Windows’ (inspired by David Benjamin Blower). Even when we’re locked up in our houses, we can be inspired by other pieces of work to create our own ‘new things’. Our lockdown kitchens can become dance studios. Our separation can still breed collaboration.

I’m looking from the windows and I’m praying for new things. Yes, the fulfilment of that groan will come when Jesus returns, but in the meantime, I’m expecting many other deposits of the new creation. New things that his groaning people create along the way. New things that you could bring into existence as a secretary, a commentator or a hope bringer.

Here’s to 2021. A year of new things.