Exhibition by John Harvey: ‘The Pictorial Bible III and The Aural Bible II: The Bible in Translation’
Aberystwyth University School of Art Gallery,
16 February – 19 March 2015.
Reverence or biblioclasm? Marginalising or spotlighting? This is the bible as you have never seen it, or heard it, before.
Floating a few inches off the floor, a bed of fifty four white panels inscribed with elegant black markings responds to a newspaper article found in a Californian publication in 1996 marked out by the phrase ‘the miracle of the risen word’. Starting off by taking the phrase literally, the work hovers over the gallery floor accompanied by a sound sculpture that is at once intriguing and forbidding. Visually it is graceful, austere, hypnotic. The whole, both the visual component and the aural, are using a text of 1285 words. These are scanned and visually stretched for the visual component, and made up of stretched spoken words for the audio version.
“I challenged myself to represent the image sonically and to literally float a bible, but with the aid of science and technology rather than divine intervention”, the artist explains.
The sound element adds an ethereal quality to the work, although one which is sinister in its alien rhythms and subtle use of dynamics. It is difficult to tolerate the aural work for long. Is this dwelling on the alien nature of the biblical God who speaks in this book, the God in whose presence men feared they would die? Or is it a comment on the nature of the content of the book, one which we find difficult to hear these days in our pluralistic, atheistic society?
In keeping with these thoughts, I notice that the bulk of the exhibition is black and white. There is very little colour. The whole is characterised by straight lines and corners. There is no softening of contours, no organic curves, but a strict adherence to the polarities of light and shadow, up and down, left and right. Right and wrong?
There is no shortage of intelligence on display, in the witty nature of some of the titles, in the codifying of historic theological topics, as in ‘A Wordless Gospel: Mark’, in the systems employed to generate visual image such as the concept of a sundial, as in the four panels that make up ‘Image and Superscription’, based on four biblical texts, for example, Matthew 27v37. The exhibition is equipped with explanatory information sheets, which I found essential for finding a way into the work. Is this also a deliberate part of the exhibition? Is it to raise a question about our need for written help, for extra instructions, to understand what is around us, whether that is inside the gallery or outside in the world? Is it a way of suggesting that without additional information, we cannot make proper sense of it all?
Other works involved writing or drawing on actual bible pages. As Harvey explains:
‘The printed, spoken, and heard word is subjected to a hermeneutical process that deploys systems of codification, excision, and redaction, and techniques of collage, superimposition, and abstraction. By these means, the source material yields significances, connections and resonances that are not ordinarily evident.’
All of this begs a raft of questions about the nature of the sacred text. Is a bible as a physical object sacrosanct? Is the ‘desecration’ of its pages by ‘excision and redaction’ one which does not ultimately affect the existence of the text itself? Could it be that the bible reflects a reality which is both bigger and stranger than its own physical existence, one that cannot be contained within the pages of a physical book? I walk away from the exhibition with questions echoing.