Monday, December 1, 2008

Mapping Purgation—The Ritual Art-making of Craig Goodworth

Art, as we know it, was born out of ritual and religious ceremonies. In his seminal work, Art in Action, the philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff explains that the essence of what art once was changed when Western cultures began to remove the artifacts and objects of ritual from their primary functionality. Once monarchs in Europe began amassing artwork in collections built for aesthetic contemplation alone, the founding of public museums was quick to follow.

By the 1950s and 60s this trend of aesthetic contemplation had transformed modes of art making. One of its purest forms was Minimalism. This work left some cold and it objectified art to a certain extent so that it existed as little more than a commodity. A reaction against a purely aesthetic style eventually arose in the format of process and performance based artworks. Artists sensed that the new religion that art had become to some was lacking the spirit of art from the past. The ritual of making the art—the process and not the product—became the essential artwork.

Ritual is at the heart of Craig Goodworth’s art. Like many conceptual and performance based artists, Goodworth relies on documentation of his acts through photographs and videos. The bold, primal, and masculine nature of the work is a reflection of its author. An imposing and intense figure, Goodworth does not produce art for traditional aesthetic effect. In fact, many would object to his work as offensive and perhaps inhumane. Surface, however, should never detract from the underlying substance. The work is, in his terms, a sacred offense.

Goodworth’s rituals are rooted in Eastern Orthodox traditions and bound to the natural world. The activities are tied to a rural and ancestral heritage. They have been documented at locations as diverse as Pennsylvania, Slovakia, and the American Southwest. The practices are built upon asceticism with an overriding theme of sacrifice, emptying (purging), and filling.

Mapping Purgation is Goodworth’s journey through a series of rituals that embody this concept of emptying and filling. The opening sequence is a genesis, or literally birth, of the artist’s vision. The camera captures the birth of a calf. Like any birth, one senses the miraculous. A farmhand assists in releasing the newborn bovine from the heaving hulk of its mother’s body. Elements coalesce to make the occasion more solemn. The crisp air is accented by the steam of new life. As the calf is ejected from the safety of the womb its mother instantly rises to lick the amniotic sack from her offspring, in an act that is both instinctual and tender. She gently prods the calf to a wobbly stance within the straw covered stable. Even while we recognize these as ordinary farm animals there is an undeniable connection to the circumstances of the miraculous birth of Christ—among the lowly beasts of burden and in the obscurity of the ordinary.

The video then proceeds to chart the slaughter of various animals in locations around the world. It is graphic but it is not senseless. Whether on farms or ranches, most of these events are built purely upon sustenance. The animals were raised as food. The slaughtering of the animals—and this is a word that now holds more connotations of violence and unjust war than food supply—is a form of sacrifice. The animals die that we might live.

Of particular note is the emptying of the bodies of their internal organs. Although what one views are not religious rituals, Goodworth has imbued the ordinary with spiritual significance. The interior of each carcass is painstakingly purged of its vital organs until all that remains is a hollow, or even hallowed, form. The emphasis on purging is inextricably connected to the filling of that which has been emptied.

One particular early segment of the video—Concrete Cruciform—begins to hint at the more sacred purposes of the artist. In a simplified, almost Bergmanesque framing, Goodworth emerges from the cool late autumn air in hooded coveralls. This figure is on a journey or pilgrimage with a wheelbarrow laden with the carcass of a deer. The cowled figure is reminiscent of a medieval monk. This fitting comparison signals the months that the artist has spent with a group of Eastern Orthodox monks in a secluded region of Northern New Mexico.

Eventually the hooded pilgrim arrives at what seems to be a pyre made from the branches of felled trees. He secures the carcass atop the pyre in an inverted cruciform. One immediately associates the sacrificial parallels to both the Abrahamic tradition and the story of Christ. The interesting twist is that this deer has already been gutted. It is not simply left as a decaying stand-in for sacrifice. Instead, Goodworth counteracts the purgation with a ceremonial filling. He mixes enough concrete to fill the void left in the deer. Once the carcass has fully decayed what will be left is this fullness—the literal volume of the once living elements of the dead beast.

Goodworth’s quest in these ritual acts was initially linked to the aesthetic theories of beauty. In conversations with the artist I questioned him on his choice and emphasis on the beautiful when the subject seemed to, increasingly, be leaning toward the category of the sublime. As his concept began to change in consideration of this, the separation between life and art began to break down. Spiritual quests (his stays at the monastery) aligned with personal quests focused on his heritage (trips to his ancestral home of Slovakia). All of these were interrelated within the work he had been producing in the studio and in natural settings.

The offensiveness of the sacrificial acts was minimal compared to the precepts of the artist’s faith. The scandal of the Christian faith is bound to the belief that a perfect and sovereign creator became his own creation and subjected himself to the limitations of the physical human form. While other ancient religions had rather anthropomorphic dieties, it was a rather outlandish claim that a god would sacrifice his power and life on behalf of humanity. It was offensive to the contemporaries of Christ and this sacred offense, that makes the hideous the object of ultimate beauty, is exactly what Craig Goodworth is after in his work.

However, one should not see the scenes within the video as voyeuristic. The work is not produced by Goodworth for us to simply gaze upon in disgust, even when he is the cameraman documenting the sacrificial acts of others. He is actively performing these rites and rituals in most cases. He is acting as an intermediary or like a high priest (in much the same way Christ is referred to as a high priest in the biblical passage in the book of Hebrews) on our behalf.

Near the end of Mapping Purgation Goodworth performs one of the most tasking and revelatory acts in a three day event entitled Triduum that takes place over Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. When he discovers the empty and desiccated carcass of a deer in the desert the artist pierces it with forty or fifty steel rods. The interpenetration of a corpse makes us aware of the way an eternal God, through his son Jesus, intersected time, space, and humanity. By the time Goodworth found it, the corpse had already been life giving. In the death of this animal other scavengers were nourished. Again, the comparison can be made to the sacrament of the Eucharist, in which the body and blood of Jesus become nourishment for his followers.

Traveling to and from the remote location of the animal, carrying the steel rods, is an ascetic practice. It is like the completion of the forty day purgation of the Lenten season. After the exhausting task of pulling the rods back out of the carcass, Craig documents how they have changed the shell of the deer. Certain views show light piercing through the hide. Within the interior, a place of darkness and death, light is now streaming. Once again, Goodworth is allowing us to see that it takes the darkness of purgation to reveal the fullness of God.

In the final scene Goodworth is found in the beams of car headlights on the side of a remote highway. He has come upon a wounded deer that can no longer walk. The fear and pain are evident in the darting eyes of the deer. The beast is now only suffering until it can ultimately die. Goodworth realizes that this event is the bookend to the opening scene of the birth of the calf. He performs his final sacrifice as a mercy killing, cutting the animal’s throat that it may finally be free of the pain. The mercy shown is what is referred to as a severe mercy. Sometimes the difficult path is the best for us.

Through all these scenes Goodworth reminds us that the physical is inextricably linked to the spiritual. He denies the Manichean and Gnostic notions that humanity is called to shed the physical in order to come to some super spiritual state. Instead, he reveals that we only understand the spiritual through the physical. The physical is our primary language. It is through the ugliness of the sublime that we have a proper foil against which we can perceive true beauty.

1 comment:

redsammy said...

Excellent, insightful article on Goodworth's unorthodox art.