Responding to Art

By The Rt Revd Graham James, Bishop of Norwich - 21 April 2017
A picture of the Antony Gormley sculpture at UEA
Tomorrow sees the official unveiling of sculptures by Antony Gormley on the campus of the University of East Anglia here in Norwich. One of them, a human figure put in place before Easter, stands at the edge of the roof of the University Library. The choice of location has been criticised locally as “inappropriate and offensive” and even “reckless”. It’s been suggested the sculpture should be relocated somewhere the figure seems less at risk, and argued this would be more sensitive to those suffering mental illness or their anxious families.

It’s a serious point. It highlights the way art has an inbuilt capacity to inspire very different interpretations. My own first impression of Gormley’s figure was of its dignity, standing so upright and seemingly confident. There’s something majestic about the human form crowning the rather severe library building, implying human values are greater than utilitarian ones.

But I realise I’m not looking at it when under intense personal stress or anxiety. Since so much of Antony Gormley’s work is about our relationship with our own bodies, it seems inevitable our own self-image will shape our response more than we think. Even to raise such issues is already to respond to the artist’s creation.

Just before Easter another sculpture of a human figure was placed at the top of the steps outside St Paul’s Cathedral. Mark Wallinger’s Ecce Homo will be there for six weeks. It was the first work to occupy the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square back in 1999. Jesus stands with his hands bound behind his back, wearing a crown not of thorns but of barbed wire. Naked, bar a loin cloth, he seems extremely vulnerable, the victim of injustice and a braying crowd. It’s not really a sculpture for a happy selfie. Some even turn their eyes from it. It’s a disturbing and vivid reminder of a
world where show-trials and corrupt regimes as well as the torture and execution of the innocent are still commonplace. Although he has a robust physique Jesus seems defenceless and fragile. Ecce Homo means “behold the man”. The words are those of Pontius Pilate. He was mocking Jesus, as those with arbitrary power are liable to do with the weak and disposable.

Our human bodies are very frail when set against the powers of the world. Yet somehow Ecce Homo also conveys human dignity rather than diminishment. Both Gormley and Wallinger, in their different ways, invite us to explore what it is to be authentically human.

This blog is an adapted transcript from a BBC Radio 4 Thought for the Day, broadcast on Friday 21 April 2017 by The Rt Revd Graham James, Bishop of Norwich. To listen to and read more Thought for the Day features, please visit the BBC website.

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