Leaning In

Over the last couple of months I have attended two art installations attending to the topic of tornados. The first took place in The Museum in downtown Waterloo, and the second was nested in a exhibition by the Belgian artist Francis Alÿs at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

I first saw the former. This exhibit involved a 360 degree film that was shot by a multi-camera device on the ground. The film proper was displayed in a fashion whereby you stood in the middle of a screen that wrapped you round while you assumed the position of the cameras. From this spot you could see, in every direction, the storm approach and pass over. What I most remember about this piece was the manner in which I could see the grass at eye level, and the increasing fury with which the blades and other greenery flailed under the wind, until a kind a brown and gray Pollock-like canvas in motion raged for a time in every direction. Once the storm passed, all that was to be seen was fields, trees, and a landscape stripped bare.

The second installation was Francis Alÿs’s “A Story of Negotiation” at the Art Gallery of Ontario. It included a number of pieces, one of which was “Tornado (2000-110).” This was shot south of Mexico City and records his encounter with these forces of nature, of varying size. In a way this work was like the former in the “what” of the subject matter but utterly unlike it in the “how.” The artist carried a camera on his body and walked into the storm. Here, the perspective was not one of the storm approaching, but one of approaching the storm. What made this especially potent was a handful of shots where the viewer had opportunity to see the artist walking toward the tornado from afar: leaning in, and pressing against his own fear, and the fury of nature. This presentation was further intensified in that it sat alongside of other works of Alÿs addressing themes of immigration and war. The artist’s refusal to give in to the utterly natural and soundly reasonable propensity to turn and run spoke to me, expressively, of the kind of tenacity that under-girds the human condition in certain iterations. How is it that some find a kind of spirit that pushes them against the chaos, while other run from it, or negotiate it with political expediency, or perhaps fail to notice the approaching darkness? And when is which the right thing to do?

Great art, it seems, raises more questions than it answers about the human condition. In this way it echoes the work of theology, which – at its best – enables us to see how our seeing is ever conditioned and always incomplete: fractured and yet oftentimes beautiful in certain ways. Of course, the subject matter is differently explored, but in both theology and art the very act of exploration can be experienced as a grace. And the project’s “completion” is perfected in its birthing a curiosity that commences yet another immersion in the Mystery enfolding the mystery of creation and creativity both.


8 thoughts on “Leaning In

  1. shoreacres says:

    I wonder how either of those pieces of art would play in Joplin, or Oklahoma City, or Lubbock, or any of the hundreds of other towns that have been wiped off the map by tornados? All I can say is, if you’re ever in the position of confronting a tornado — don’t walk into it, even for the sake of art!

    • shoreacres says:

      I’ve been thinking about this — clearly, I have more fear of tornadoes than I do of hurricanes. You can watch a hurricane’s movement, and get out of the way. A tornado? Not so much. Say “tornado,” and a midwesterner is looking around for the basement or storm cellar!

      • agjorgenson says:

        I have little direct experience with either, although both are fascinating in the same way that I find other “big” environmental events fascinating. All the same, I’m with you, I won’t be walking into any tornadoes or hurricanes!

    • agjorgenson says:

      Probably not so well, is my guess, although the first one was not so much an art installation as part of science display at The Museum. There is something fascinating about seeing what the inside of Tornado looks like, but I could well imagine it being traumatic for those who have been through the real deal

      • shoreacres says:

        I was surprised by my visceral reaction to your post. After even more thought, I think I somehow associated the artists with the news media who show up after an event and want to interview people who’ve just had their worlds torn apart. That’s clearly not fair, but still — it’s what I thought of. I still can’t think about the evacuation for Hurricane Rita without feeling all the anxiety of that little experience. 🙂

  2. agjorgenson says:

    OK, that makes sense. These experiences sit deep in us, and rise up at surprising times and in surprising ways.

  3. shoreacres says:

    Speaking of things rising up at surprising times, I thought of this post when I read this article about intellectual diversity in the academy. There’s something very much like a tornado ripping through colleges and universities these days, and whether or not to “lean in” obviously is a question that has to be addressed.

    • agjorgenson says:

      The link didn’t work, saying I need to be a subscriber. Yes, there are all sorts of problems in universities these days, with arts and humanities drawing lines in the sand over identity politics and science faculties scratching their heads over the degree to which support can or should come from funders with particular interests in certain results, not to mention ethical quagmires around certain technologies etc. I’d say the world is going to hell in a hand basket but I don’t believe it. It looked drastically different 100 years ago, and will look drastically different 100 years from now. I think the wise generally try to skirt around tornadoes.

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