From VISUAL THEOLOGY
- Seeing God in All Things, by David Perry
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God
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
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.
In the face of such injustice and harm the Bible prophetically kicks
away the ladders and gives the lie to seductions of ladder climbing and
ladder making. Seen through a biblical lens Alexandra Bircken’s Deflated Bodies
the horrific cost and the appalling waste of the thinking which
blighted our world then and which continues to do so now. It makes plain
all that God desires us to subvert and overthrow.
Looking at these deflated figures pitifully draped across the ladders
and hanging forlorn from the rungs one is brought face to face with
everything that breaks the heart of God. Here are the ones that Jesus
came to save.
Here are the lost, damaged and dispirited ones who gathered around the manger on the strength of a promise.
And to those who have made it to the top, who sit aloof from the carnage
below them, Advent brings them down to earth and challenges them to
repent of the cost of their privilege and power and to recognise that
they too are in fact deflated as people and diminished by every empty
life that lies behind them on their way up.
No more should women and men, our sisters and brothers, hang limp and
lifeless in our midst from the rungs of oppression and exploitation
which God is always doing so much to tear down. This is the narrative of
hope and life which takes shape in the darkness and which calls us to
the heart of Christmas again. For our own sake and for the sake of
others it is a journey we simply have to make. When the ladder climbing
stops we are ready to gather around the manger.