Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may have her young (Psalm 84)
Take a look at the first picture. This is recent work by Rachel Whitread, the British sculptor famous for casting empty structures with concrete, making something solid, impermeable and haunting out of absence or perhaps, presence. I recently watched a short film about her lockdown pieces such as this one called ‘Doppelganger’ and found this new work deeply evocative and moving. Their strength despite, or perhaps because, of their fragile vulnerability said something profound about our human predicament, maybe brought home to us more acutely over the last year and a half.
The second picture shows an artwork by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, who regularly wrapped large buildings and landmarks. The act of wrapping made what perhaps had become invisible through familiarity, visible and noticeable again. It almost as if they were wrapping up what we see like a huge gift. Unlike Whiteread, who usually fills an object from within, they cover a structure, making its presence precious. As Christo’s website says: “The artists temporarily use one part of the environment. In doing so, we see and perceive the whole environment with new eyes and a new consciousness.”
I have chosen these two pictures because they are about structure and how we perceive it metaphorically as well as physically. I have recently been reading a book about silence by Sara Maitland. In it, she contrasts two world views; one that might relate more to Whiteread’s sculpture, and one perhaps more to Christo and Jeanne-Claude. “In the West, we tend to see ‘normal’, healthy people as firmly, though not exclusively, boundaried. A person is, or should be, autonomous, integrated, whole rational and independent… Permeable selves, on the other hand, tend to be less rationalised.. Weakened ego boundaries do not protect a person the way a sense of autonomy does; they let things in, because they are designed to. Undefended, these can be devastating to the self. But equally there are negative effects of constructing identity around romantic ideas of authenticity. Under an ascetic, disciplined spiritual model of identity, in which the ego is stamped out and the self made available to the Other, the ego fights back.. however, 250 years of being nice to the ego, paying attention to it, indulging it and valuing it, does not seem to have strengthened or secured it at all: Identity is more at risk now that it has been for centuries.”
In my hometown, we presently have a few buildings where scaffolding hides their façade as part of vital repair work. A few residents have put up swallow boxes because the birds have lost their usual nesting sites under metal grids and plastic wrapping. The contrast between the rigid but necessary framework and the vulnerable freedom of the swallows led me to write the following short reflection.
The swallow lives a peripatetic life, swooping between continents, always on the wing. It thrives on movement but also keeps specific nesting sites. If a traditional nesting site is lost or made inaccessible, it will not settle and may not nest.
The scaffolding has been carefully erected to restore an old building and make it both safe and useable. It makes sure the structure is in place. The scaffolding hides the building but eventually it will be removed when the building is finally complete. Unfortunately, the swallow doesn’t know this. She returns from Africa to find her nest site hidden behind a wall of metal and plastic. She swoops and swoops but cannot find a way in. The scaffolding is too complete in its protection.
This swallow needs the freedom of travel and space, but she also needs to be able to come home to her nest. She knows she relies on the structure that provides for her adventures. But she has found the layers of metal too complicated, too thorough to penetrate. The scaffolding works hard to keep everything safe for the future but needs to allow a way in so that its life can be kept going. It has a purpose, but it needs to allow space for life to get in. The swallow needs to be willing to settle. What is a building without being a home? Just real estate. What’s a bird without a home? Prey.
Maybe we all need both the vulnerability that allows us to journey, explore and be open to new things but we also need the security and structure to frame this freedom and to ground us.
- Which image speaks most to you and why?
- Do you feel the need for more structure or more freedom in your life?
- How can you balance the need for both?
You will need a piece of cloth and string:
- Try wrapping up a few familiar objects in your home using the cloth, a different one each day. Use the string to secure this. How does this affect your relationship with that thing?
- Towards the end of the week, try cutting up the cloth and tying it to a tree or branch near where you live using the string. Watch how it flutters in the wind. When you go, how does it feel to leave it behind?