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Floor tiles, theology, and divine interruption

Today I have had quite a cultured day: we had a family trip down to the Tate Gallery at Liverpool's Albert Dock. It was a welcome relief after a long and difficult week. One of the exhibits at the gallery got me thinking - as I guess art should - and also got me chuckling. Finally it got me theologizing. The exhibit was this:

It is, as you can see, a series of floor tiles laid out in a square pattern. It's called "144 Magnesium Square" by American artist Carl Andre (b.1935). If you are thinking that there must be more to it, you are wrong. That's it. Tiles laid out and cemented to the floor (not exactly very well either - my dad, who is a professional tiler, would not be pleased). And that's what got me thinking and chuckling. The inevitable question to ask when you witness something as plain and ordinary as floor tiles is "is this art?" For many people viewing the exhibit alongside me today, it plainly wasn't: they were saying so quite audibly. It was clearly a concern to the gallery too, since the installation was accompanied by a video made by Mike Figgis in which members of the public were asked what they thought (interestingly the interviews were conducted in the tiles section of a hardware shop in Liverpool - the installation had also been sent there temporarily whilst the interviews took place). Two views seemed to come out: it is the most significant piece of lived art (you are permitted to walk on it) of the twentieth century; or it's not art at all.

The dissenters argued that it wasn't special enough. In the middle of the tile section of a hardware shop it seemed positively mundane. The enthusiasts thought it challenged our conceptions about place and context. I still don't know - but I enjoyed the furore it was causing.

And so to the theologizing. Part of the problem surrounding the installation concerned expectations about the object, and the appropriate context in which it ought to be viewed, and so the relationship between the two. Tiles belong in a hardware shop, not in a gallery (except maybe in the gents). Transferring tiles and reinterpreting them as art messes with our sense of what we think we know about the world and where things belong. You could say that's what art is for (and I'd agree). Putting the tiles down as an exhibit was and is for some an interruption of our sense of how things are with us and the world. I don't think that is too dramatic a statement.

I love the idea of interruptions as a theological description: the concept is potent. God interrupts us. The history of God's dealings with His people - both the Jews of the Old and early New Testaments, and non-Jewish Christians - could be described as perpetual divine interruption. The purposes, plans, and performances of God encroaching upon a misguided human sense of self, history, and purpose. "Divine Interruption" is a summary of grace: God breaks in and people are changed. There are countless examples: Abraham; Jacob; Joseph; Moses; Saul; David; The Prophets; Mary; Zechariah; Martha; Jairus; Nichodemus; Peter; Paul...the list goes on beyond the written Testaments to the lives of Jesus' disciples today. God is good at interrupting us, always for our own good and His own glory. Interruptions create something new: a way of seeing and thinking that critiques the status quo and offers a new perspective. We see things differently when we're interrupted, and when we're interrupted by God we begin to see things His way.

The floor tiles Andre has cleverly crafted are not God; they're not religious symbolism either. That's not what I'm saying. Rather, I think there's something in the ability of artists to interrupt our way of thinking about life etc. that is analogous to the work of God, and by extension the theological vocation. The artist brought something so common and domesticated and known into a context in which it arguably simply doesn't belong, and to some was perhaps offensive, but in doing so - defiantly - Andre has interrupted and challenged our normal perception of things. The artist says, this is appropriate. This must be considered here. Floor tiles belong as a gallery installation. So too the theologian challenges our sense of perception, of what is important, and of context, when she defiantly states that God-talk is appropriate in all areas of life and indeed adopts a form of life in which it is so. There is no space - physical or intellectual - in which thought of God is wrongly placed (though the content of such thoughts may be wrong, the act of thinking-God in those spaces is not) or in which God Himself ought not to be. And the theologian has a good reason for thinking this: the witness of the scriptures is that God  thinks it.

So today, whilst my fellow gallery visitors were complaining (or not) about art, I was thanking God for interruptions and praying for many more so that I might see and know Jesus more clearly. I didn't think much of "144 Magnesium Square" as it happens, but I am grateful for the time to think and pray.


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