I Am My Own Judas

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"I am my own Judas." So declares Oscar Wilde, in a scene from the incredibly beautiful but tragic film, The Happy Prince. The film, directed, starring and from a screenplay written by Rupert Everett, follows Wilde into his exile after his release from Reading gaol, where he served two years with hard labour for "Gross Indecency. Everett's Wilde is a broken man, ostracized by friends and from society he makes his way to France to find respite from the vitriol and the scrutiny.

It's a sad, sad tale, interrupted by moments of desperation as Wilde attempts to make his exile work. But the man, at least in the film, is presented as something of his own worst enemy-hence the 'Judas' declaration. His love for "Bosie," the son of the Marquess of Queensbury, destroys even his post-prison life. Cut-off from a small income from his wife's family because he re-ignites his relationship, he soon finds himself, penniless and alone, a long way from the dizzy heights of his pre-prison fame.

There are flashbacks and moments of reflection about his former life and family, but essentially this film lives inside Wilde's head as he falls deeper and deeper into decline. As I said, it is a tragic tale, and Everett's Wilde is played, as film writer Peter Bradshaw so beautifully notes, as broken yet poignant in his ruined magnificence. In The Happy Prince, we meet a shell of a man, still desperate for fame and acknowledgement, still prone to the same larger-than-life, and potentially destructive, actions that got him into trouble in the first place.

A couple of months back I gave a talk about self-betrayal, and the need at times to enact self-betrayal, when we need to be true to ourselves. Wilde's self-betrayal is another kind, it is self-destruction, something I am sure most of us are familiar with. Wilde's self-destruction was grand and very public, his post-prison life reveals that in spite of the awareness of his own folly that he gained whilst in prison, he is still capable of similar actions. Everett pulls no punches with his portrayal of Everett, this is no hagiography, he gives us Wilde at his lowest. But we are also made aware of the terrible and unnecessary brutality of his punishment. Wilde's crime was to publicly display his homosexual relationships, and particularly the one with the son of a member of the aristocracy. As the film notes at the end, 75,000 men were eventually posthumously pardoned for their crime, all those lives ruined for the 'crime' of homosexuality, tragic indeed. 

A second quote from the film is also both theological and heart-breaking. As Wilde lays dying his last two companions send for a priest to administer last rites and offer extreme unction. The priest asks Wilde when it was that he lost his way, when he 'departed from Christ?' Barely conscious Wilde opens his eyes and says, "Clapham Junction." Clapham Junction was the railway station where Wilde, who had been sentenced for his crimes, was forced to sit in public, head shaven, shackled to a guard and clothed in prison garb waiting to be transferred to prison in Reading . As public awareness grew that Wilde was the prisoner on the platform, a hostile crowd gathered round him. For half an hour he was forced to sit through public ridicule and verbal abuse as well as being spat upon by a number of members of the public. This was the place where Wilde declared he lost his way, where he lost god if you will, and it came at the hands of people who added to his punishment by heaping scorn and abuse upon him. It was indictment of humanity, a telling reminder to all of us that we can so easily be emissaries for evil and not for good. Wilde was already humiliated and about to embark on a prison sentence that would ultimately destroy him physically and gut him emotionally. In a very Christic way, Everett captures the essence of how man's inhumanity can do immense damage to a person's life. We forget so easily that we are all broken, that we all can perform acts of folly, that we can all be our own Judas.

The Happy Prince was a children's story that Wilde wrote and the film is wrapped around that story which only adds to the pathos in front of our eyes. This is not a film to see if you are not in a good headspace, a mistake that I made, but it is a film that should be seen, a triumph for Rupert Everett, but more than that a very real glimpse into the abyss of another person's brokenness. In this age of blockbuster comic book movies and re-make after re-make of movies that weren't so great the first time around, it's good to sit in the dark of a movie theatre and come face to face with oneself and each other in our full humanity.

California Dreamin'--God's Got A Rock Band

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There is a lot of buzz around Wild Wild West, the Netflix documentary series about the Baghwan Sri Rajneesh community that took over a town in Oregon in the 1980s. As crazy as that all sounded I remember the events unfolding and it was as mad as the documentary shows it to be.

There is another documentary worth tracking down called, The Source Family. It's about a restaurant in LA on the Sunset Strip that was an entry point into a cult/community created by an ex-Marine named Jim Baker, one of the early proponents of health food and healthy living in the US, who changed his name to Father Yod, got himself 13 wives and started a commune in LA based on healthy living, healthy eating, utopian ideals and a little bit of rock and roll.

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They had a band, led by Father Yod and played up and down the Sunset strip in the early 70s when the Strip was the locus of all kinds of counter-culture action. This is same area where evangelist Arthur Blessit used to walk the streets puylling his cross and evangelizing hippies and druggies and anyone else who would listen. It was the era when this kind of thing was almost de rigeur. 

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The restaurant was one of the first natural food restauranrs in the US and was at the forefront of the mainstreaming of health food and healthy living that has become such a part of what it means to be an Angelino these days. It was a different world than today's vegan restaurants etc. but in its day the Source was the hippest place to be in LA. 

LA has a rich spiritual history, even Christian history. It is the land of spiritual innovation whether it be Aimee Semple McPherson's Angelus Temple, one of the first media driven mega churches ot the broader Pentecostal movement that also got its start there. And much of contemporary Christianity owes a debt to the dynamics of the Jesus people who emerged from their psychedelic haze and drifted down to the ocean to get baptized and bring their vision of a loving, revolutionary, hippy Jesus into mainstream religion.

California itself is notable for many things in American cultural history. In a remarkable book called, The Visionary State, Erik Davis chronicles the psychogeography of LA and other places up and down California,

"In the American imagination, California’s shores stage both the fulfillment and decline of the West, its final shot at paradise and its perilous fall into the sea. That is why the California dream encompasses both Arcadian frontier and apocalyptic end zone, Eden and Babylon. As Christopher Isherwood put it, “California is a tragic land – like Palestine, like every promised land.”

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Documentaries like these seem so far away from the way we experience religion and spirituality these days, but in many ways they echo many of the dynamics and concerns many still feel towards religion today. The lust for power and control coupled with the desire for some sense of meaning or shape to life that drives so many is a potent cocktail for potential disaster, as these documentaries so evidently show. Of course, it doesn't have to be a 1970s or 80s cult in order for these things to happen. 

Horses: Patti Smith and her Band

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40 years on and Horses, the debut album from Patti Smith is given a visual tribute. As Mac Randall wrote in The Observer, 

"The historical importance of Horses is inarguable, above and beyond any particular aesthetic considerations. It introduced, fully formed, a daring new mystic voice in popular music. It referenced a classic persona, that of the androgynous poet/rocker, and gave it an exciting twist: the poet/rocker in question was a woman. And for listeners outside of New York, it was the first real full-length hint of the artistic ferment taking place in the mid-’70s at the juncture of Bowery and Bleecker. "

I remember when this came out and I recall all of us listening over and over to what was a revelatory musical gift. I've loved Patti Smith over the years for her albums, for her books, for the fact that she walked away from rock stardom to live in domesticity with her husband Fred 'Sonic' Smith, and for returning to music after his death and making great albums all over again.

Live she is electric, her romantic and poet belief that transcendence could be found in rock and roll still firmly held in her outstretched arms and a voice that roars and screams and rages. "before rock and roll you only had God," said David Bowie and you can't help but know that captures some of Patti's perspective as well. It might seem naive in these cynical times where all the ideals and romanticism of the early decades of rock and roll seem trite and silly, but she still believes and she'll make you believe too.

The documentary is fairly straightforward. A few occasional backstage outtakes give us glimpses behind the scenes but this is a documentary about an eight track album that inserted itself into the rock pantheon and still thrills today. "Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine," is the opening line and that is not the best one on the album. There are moments in this documentarty where the electricity is palpable. It's streaming on AppleTV.

Torbjorn Rodland

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My friend Jeff alerted me to a great article in the New York Times on the photographer, Torbjorn Rodland. His works are so interesting, usually kind of dis-orienting, and surely some of the best photography out there today. There are some great observations about his process and perspectives. His work can seem to have a religious quality to them and sometimes look like contemporary icons. There are also allusions to the Second World War in his work which prompted this reply/obersvation, 

"The photograph is one of a number of works Mr. Rodland has made that allude to World War II. As with the religious and pop-cultural imagery that appears in some of his work, his interest in the topic, he explained, stems from his fascination with the myths that shape contemporary society. In his view, the war has replaced the New Testament as society’s vehicle for understanding good and evil. “The Holocaust,” Mr. Rodland explained, is “the main mythical story of our culture.” He said this explained why “movies dealing with that story are seen as Academy Awards contenders, while ones dealing with biblical stories are laughable.”

The shaping myths of modern society have been in flux for a number of years, perhaps since Darwin et. al. when alternatives to the common imagination emerged. I thought Rodland's comments about the Holocaust as a means of understanding good and evil is an interesting one. I think for some of the post-war generations it would definitely work as such, I'm not sure about those who have come of age more recently, as the WW's retreat further into history, but it's a salient point that shaping myths change in modern societies and we would do well to consider that when we think things through theologically and philosophically.

You can read the whole article yourself here: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/05/arts/design/torbjorn-rodland-photography.html

 

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Breathe

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I was at a conference this week sponsored by the digital knowledge management company Yext. One of the speakers was Ed Parsons, the Geospatial Technologist for Google, who essentially is a geographer and works on all their mapping projects. In the course of his really interesting talk he mention a concept called 'contextual literature' and cited an author by the name of Kate Pullinger who had created a piece of online literary experience delivered through your smartphone that responds to your presence by internalising the world around you. Using APIs – application programming interfaces – the story leverages data about you, including place, weather, time, in order to create, so the site says, an experience that is personal and uncanny.

So I went to the site and followed the instructions and launched the book on my phone...

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As soon as I accessed the site, the story integrated bits and pieces of my life and surroundings in to the story. It's an experiment in personalizing a story and blurring boundaries between writer and reader I guess. I'm not sure that I need that, or that I actually like it very much but it ties very much into the shift towards an experience economy which is where we seem to be headed in virtually every area of our lives.

Let There Be More Light

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One of the UK's richest people, Mike Platt, a hedge-fund investor, is also a patron of many contemporary artists and has taken over a deconsecrated church in Marylebone as a base for his collection.

The work of sculptor Paul Fryer was supported by Platt and in 2008, Fryer put on a solo show of his amazing sculptural works. The show was called, Let There Be More Light, and featured a series of sculptures, all exploring the dual themes of agony and human folly. These themes were worked out by the artist through the appropriation of religious themes and symbolism. The striking image above is, Lucifer, and pictures the fallen angel, trapped in a web of telephone wires, fallen to earth and fallen to technology. The works were lit to amplify the play of light and shadows and each of the sculptures showed a character in some degree of self-generated agony-the 'terror and chaos of one's own making' as one reviewer noted. 

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The formerly religious space, with it's stained glass windows and curved walls and arches only seem to amplify both the dynamism in the sculptures and the troubling issues the artist is exploring. Of course, the use of religious imagery in the service of contemporary art is contested by many, and cries of blasphemy are usually hard from some quarters.

I am exploring the role of religion and religious imagery in the contemporary arts in a book I am co-writing which is called, The Aesthetics of A/Theism. I am looking at the notion of making revelation out of profanation, an idea drawn from the poetic works of French philosopher/poet, Michel Deguy. The profane is not always a resistance to the sacred and in these times it seems that the profane might be the place where the sacred is most apparent. It seems that art has taken up some of the slack in a post-religious world to address the dilemmas and dichotomies of human existence. As Mark C. Taylor notes, religion is the most interesting where it is the least obvious.

Fryer continues to create spectacular sculptures, most of which explore religion and science in a variety of ways designed to confront the viewer with the complexity and beauty of life.

 Hydromorph, Murano crystal.

Hydromorph, Murano crystal.

Free from the Net of Meaning: Larry Harvey and Burning Man

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Burning Man founder Larry Harvey has passed away at the age of 70. It has been virtually impossible to live on the Westside of Los Angeles, as I did for the past few decades, and not have conversations about two things-Coachella and Burning Man. Burning Man, which began as an annual ritual on the Northern California coast became a seminal counter-cultural event. black Rock City, the site of the annual 'burn' in the Nevada desert drawing thousands of people from all over the world for an experience like no other, a TAZ event (temporary autonomous zone, driven by a gift economy and a commitment to an avoidance of significance and what writer Erik Davis called the 'insidious net of meaning.

Almost everyone has an opinion about BM, it runs from dismissal of it as a New-Age bacchanal, to hopes that the ideas of behind BM would take hold in the wider culture and 'really change things.'

The questions that are raised in many of the circles I move in relate to issues of religion, spiritualty and the sacred/profane dynamics so prominent in most conversations about religion today. I knew a girl who used to tout the spiritual dynamics of BM, she also used to go there dressed only in blue latex and a commitment to explore sexuality and hallucinogenic experiences. I also know of a few groups of Christians who go, some to evangelize or be a presence for God, whatever that means.

Unbridled sexuality, wide use of drugs and lots and lots of wild goings on muddied the waters for many people who were somewhat confused as to what exactly Burning Man was or was trying to do or be.

What makes the event sacred is its very profanity, or perhaps I should say, the way in which the sacred and the profane intersect and join up. “Beyond belief, beyond the dogmas, creeds, and metaphysical ideas of religion, there is immediate experience,” this is what Larry Harvey wrote and perhaps provides a clue to the essential dynamic of BM--its an experience. And it's this dynamic at the heart of Burning Man that links to it broader and perhaps more accepted forms of American Spirituality. American Spirituality is many things and takes many forms, but it is essentially built on experience. William James, who wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience, noted that it was experience rather than belief that was at the root of religious life. Burning Man's experiences may seem a long way from traditional religious expression, that is partly because traditional religion has continually domesticated its experiences (think Pentecostalism, Charismatic movements etc that very quickly saddle experiences with dogma and order which ultimately turn them into virtual parodies of themselves), and also because of the conditions under which things are experienced at Burning Man. Because it is wrapped up in a healthy dose of hedonism and other physical dynamics, the event doesn't present a singular experience and consequently the myriad experiences people have at Burning Man become its currency its ritual form and its means of sustainability.

Like many forms of American spirituality Burning Man's perspective is riddled with the apocalyptic. Burning Man, which it should be noted has now become a well-laid out, temporary city, is haunted by the conditions of the playa-the consumerist, capitalist, military-industrial world, that rules the outside world, acknowledges, dismisses and mocks that world through its gift economy, its artworks, its hedonism, and throws itself wide open to the void that exists, but that void is not nothing, it is chaos, creative chaos. Chaos is a reminder of impermanence and this of course lies at the heart of the event itself. It lasts a week and then disappears without a trace, leaving the empty desert playa as though nothing ever happened. It's not that there is no meaning, there just isn't any meaning except that which lies beneath the creativity and the chaos, between the apocalytpic and the utopian--it is spirituality gone wild, perhaps the only form of spirituality that might survive in the times in which we live,

The Last Supper/Giles Walker

Giles Walker spent a year constructing the remarkable piece, The Last Supper. It is a fully animated sculpture consisting of thirteen mechanical figures who interact around a table. It's quite funny at times and a bit scary, it is also extraordinarily human, which you realize as the robotic nature of the piece gives way to the lurking humanity beneath it. if you are unfamiliar with Walker, he is a UK-based artist who has created sculptures for almost thIrty years. He is a member of the guerrilla-art group, The Mutoid Waste Company, and he started building sculptures from materials found in scrapyards as they travelled around Europe. Walker also creates collages, which he contends is a link to his scrapyard work.

 

HORSES

This has been a great time for music documentaries. They used to be little more than puff pieces or extended music videos really, but lately a slew of documentaries have been released from artists like Iggy Pop and Nick Cave that delve deep into the artist's life and psyche. The latest addition is Horses, a documentary celebrating the 40th anniversary of Patti Smith seminal album. It's a concert film but with depth, capturing the humanity and fiery creativity of one of rock music's legendary figures. Smith has had a resurgence of late, largely through her literary offerings (Just Kids, M Train and Devotion), but her live performances are still something to behold. Shot at LA's Wiltern Theatre, this will be available on May 22nd on Apple Music and elsewhere I presume. Check out the trailer and then while tyouy are waiting for the release date, do yourself a favour and rent American Valhalla, which chronicles Iggy Pop and Josh Homme's musical collaborations.  

The Apocalypse Will Blossom

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I spent the past week in Belfast participating in a boutique festival hosted by my friend Peter Rollins called Wake. It's been running for six years now and draws about 80 or so people from all over the map. The theme this year was Apocalypse-the cataclysmic event that brings upheaval to the existing order of things and open up the possibility of a new horizon. 

I gave a couple of talks and hosted a screening and discussion around Catherine Malabou's theory of destructive plasticity and a documentary called, One More Time With Feeling, which explores how the singer/songwriter, Nick Cave and his family and friends dealt with the tragedy of the loss of one of Cave's fifteen-year old twin sons. I'll be posting the talks over the next couple of weeks on my Patreon site: www.patreon.com/barrytaylor