Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God (Isaiah 40:1)
Alexandra Bircken’s site-specific installation Deflated Bodies in the Hepworth Gallery, Wakefield, forms part of her Eskalation 2014 exhibition. As Curator Eleanor Clayton says: "Five ladders run up the gallery walls, spanning eight metres to reach the sunlight spilling down from an unseen source. On the ladders are multiple figures, male and female, made of cloth sewn to real-person specifications and covered in black latex. The work is theatrical, presenting a scene that longs for a narrative.”
For me, transfixed and awe-struck by the raw power of this extraordinary piece of art, Advent is that narrative. The deflated figures and the ladders which beguile them express so immediately, so vividly and so accessibly the whole panorama of human folly, frailty and failure which the Advent texts speak out of and into with such clarity and conviction.
Take the following image as a starting point and ponder all those points of connection with the texts at the heart of Advent. Reflect on the heartfelt truth that it portrays.
This is how Advent always begins. In the place where everything seems lost; where the human condition is experienced at its most starkly bleak. It is only within this manger of dread, desolation and despair that Christmas makes sense. Only there can we feel its new born warmth for ourselves and cradle its living truth in our arms. Nowhere else. God invites us to journey into our darkness on the strength of a promise, daring to believe that the incarnation of love will become real in the wombspace of our fragile faith.
This is always a collective endeavour. In Advent we travel for ourselves and we travel for the sake of others, always these two held together as one redefining purpose. The dread, desolation and despair may not be our own this time around, but it will be somebody’s truth, somewhere very close and somewhere far away. Advent is the great collectiviser of God’s economy: our imagined separation from the desperate plight of others is destroyed by the inclusive ardour of the divine will which places the manger where we would be least inclined to welcome it as gift.
To me Deflated Bodies provides an holistic visualisation of the narrative trajectories of human being along which Advent leads us and into which Christmas speaks. Here are the people of the prophets. Here is all the agony, angst and ennui out of which the Old Testament gives testimony to God’s alternative world view and the passionate single-minded creativity with which God pursues it through people of faith. Here is all the deflated misery of the human soul.
Here too are the ladder-like temptations, false promises, misguided schemes and malevolent strategies which lead us astray and set us against each other. Here also is the politics of the ladder constructors which promises the world to everyone, yet delivers misery to the many. The 1% who climb to the top do so at the cost of the 99% who lie strewn in their wake, deflated, empty, and abandoned to their fate.