Crossing boundaries through Charis
September 10, 2009
The viewfinder is a telescopic-looking wooden construction mounted on a low pedestal, so low that anyone who wants to look into it must kneel on the bench before it. The viewer who presses her or his face into the eyepiece of the viewfinder will see kaleidoscopic films of Balinese dancers—little girls.
"The idea is that the box is where your face and the faces of those children meet,” said Calvin film professor Daniel Garcia. The machine and bench were designed to force the viewer to her or his knees, Garcia confessed: “When you look at these children, you better be kneeling in a prayer position.”
Garcia met the tiny dancers when he visited Indonesia in the summer of 2008 as one of 14 Asian and American artists on a seminar co-sponsored by the Nagel Institute for World Christianity and the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU). The viewfinder (officially titled “Viewfinder Machine 2”) is his response to that visit, and it is surrounded by the responses—paintings, assemblages, fiber works and masks—of the other participating artists.
The entire exhibition, hosted at both the Center Art Gallery and Calvin’s downtown (106) S. Division gallery, is titled Charis: Neighbors, Strangers, Family, Friends, Boundary Crossings. Charis (pronounced “karis”) is Greek for “gift” or “grace.” “We’re touching fingers with people who are thousands upon thousands of miles away,” Calvin art professor Jo-Ann Van Reewuyk described the exhibition. She was Calvin’s other representative on the Indonesia trip, which she called an eye-opening experience:
"We were learning what Asian artists were concerned with, what kind of art they were producing and who they were communicating with,” said Van Reewuyk, “so we found ourselves in a community where Christianity is a minority.” The artists— from the Philippines, North Carolina, California, Indiana, Michigan and Washington as well as Japan, Indonesia, Jamaica and New Zealand—spent their two weeks exploring the island of Bali, which is largely Hindu and the island of Java, which is largely Muslim. They visited cultural artifacts, investigated social services and checked out a K–12 Hindu school.
"The intent behind this was to make us aware of Christianity within globalization … ,” Van Reewuyk said. “It’s no longer the west dominating and the east following along. In fact, larger Christian populations live in Asia and the global south. So what does it mean for the western Christian artist to have things shifting?” At the end of the trip, the group set up a studio space and spent time hanging out and creating together. And they committed to creating an exhibition about their shared experience that would travel throughout the United States and Asia.
Van Reewuyk’s contribution to that exhibition is a series of fiber vessels. One group of vessels is evocative of the oblation pots used for the morning offering in Indonesia. “Because we’re Christians, of course, we too are offering,” she interpreted them. Another group of vessels, on display at the (106) gallery, mimics the boats used in the Indonesian kelp harvest.
She is awed by the quality of work exhibited in Charis: the paintings of the Asian artists, the maquettes by Roger Feldman (full scale versions of which will be built to order at various venues), the mercy seat by Edgar “Egai” Talusan Fernandez and many other works.
Van Reewuyk also had high praise for her Calvin colleague’s work. “He himself comes from the global south, where he has thought about these things in a very impactful way,” she said of Garcia, a native of Peru. “His insight is really amazing.”
The artist's role
Garcia contributed the video that introduces Charis. “I grew up with an idea of artists as really prophets, people who are seriously deep, people who think deeply about ideas before they touch any medium …,” he said. “I never thought of myself as an artist. I thought of myself as a craftsperson.”
The viewfinder, he said, was his first sculpture. “For me, being in Indonesia was being in a group of people I was honored to be with,” Garcia concluded. “It was an experience of meeting people who were related without knowing.”
The Calvin edition of Charis: Neighbors, Strangers, Family, Friends, Boundary Crossings has been timed to coincide with “Practicing Cosmoplitanism,” the 2009 Lilly Fellows Program National Conference. Both the Calvin exhibition and the conference are funded by the Lilly Endowment, Inc., and many of the artists involved in Charis will participate in the event. After its stay at Calvin, Charis will move on to several U.S. venues in 2010 before heading overseas.
Van Reewuyk hopes that “those who visit the exhibit will get a sense of the preciousness that we experienced with our Christian neighbors and friends, but also a sense of the issues that lay before us as we move forward into working and living together lovingly in a global community.”
~by Myrna Anderson, communications and marketing