“[McPhee] was pressing on me…with such questions as ‘So you think you’re going to have guts and palate forever in a world where there’ll be no eating?’ when Ransom suddenly burst out with great excitement, “Oh, don’t you see…there’s a difference between a trans-sensuous life and a non-sensuous life?” (A conversation on the nature of paradise in C.S. Lewis’ book “Perelandra”)
What is sculpture? According to Dictionary.com, it is “stone, bronze, wood, or any other hard material fashioned into a three-dimensional figure.” According to the modernist painter Barnett Newman, “Sculpture is what you bump into when you back up to see a painting.” Makoto Fujimura, a Christian Japanese contemporary artist, suggests sculpture affirms and celebrates the physical while also showing its eternal significance. It tells of the “gospel of incarnation” by fusing spirit and mattter, heaven and earth, whispering of God becoming flesh, giving incalculable worth and meaning to this physical world.
How can sculpture such as “To Fix the Image in Memory XIII,” (Vija Celmins, 1977-82) consisting of one rock and one identical image made of bronze, display worth of this magnitude? Replicating the smallest detail of this ordinary rock, the sculptor helps us “fix the image” and understand its value through her incredible amount of care and time. “Back Yard” (Liza Lou, 1995-99) is a life-size picnic scene that took three full years to make, assembled with millions of glass beads, forming all the details down to the clothes-line, laundry, and more than 250,000 blades of grass. She transforms this ordinary scene into a “heavenly” one of joy and dazzling color, expressing the importance of matter in her own way.
Adding plants to sculpture seems to make the meaning more profound. “Everything that Rises Must Converge” (Sarah Sze, 1999), part of an exhibit we saw at the Contemporary Museum of Art (MOT) in Tokyo, consists of ordinary objects like lamps, ladders, Ziploc containers, and bottle caps strung together along with wires and lights, stretching all the way up to a power outlet on the second floor. Plastic plants randomly appear here and there throughout the work, but right next to the outlet sits a single living potted plant, the “true” plant, if you will, from which the exhibit emanates and receives its “life.” As a Christian, this plant speaks to me of the fullness of life that all matter will one day possess.
Aren’t plants themselves a kind of sculpture? Walking around Santa Fe, New Mexico, the third largest collection of art galleries in the world, we saw many artists use real seeds to represent potential for life. The most powerful use of plants I ever saw was “The End of the Twentieth Century” (Joseph Beuys, 1983-5), part of Tate Moderns’ permanent collection in London. Consisting of enormous horizontal columns of basalt, it had the look of a ruined ancient city. In each column, a hole had been drilled and filled with dirt (not pictured here). One of these holes contained a sprouting plant, symbolizing life bursting forth in the midst of ruins. From a Christian perspective, we know that from this broken world, life will come with such vibrancy that all life as we know it will be essentially dead in comparison, like that plant compared to that rock.
In sculpture, artists flesh out the relationship between the physical and the “trans-physical” (see above Perelandra quote), the imminent and the transcendent, the temporal and the eternal. They increase our passion for seeing the reality of heaven, where things are more solid, not less, and the smallest rock is of infinite worth. Through sculpture, we can glimpse heaven “through a glass darkly,” the glorious completed state of life and fullness God will one day bring to all of creation. How can we not be in “wonder-full” awe anticipating such a world?