A Squatter in the Rubble of Babel

An Interview with Berenice Rarig

Installation and performance artist Berenice Rarig lives and works in Perth, Western Australia. In this interview, she talks with Melissa Hause about her artistic development and her redemptive vision for contemporary conceptual art.

You came to visual art later in life after having worked in missions and raised a family. How did your creative vision grow out of these experiences?

I have always been a maker. In one of my earliest memories I am sitting under our Queenslander (a house on stilts) to escape the Australian summer heat and making dolls from sticks, string and mud. I am three. Raised in a Minister’s home on a steady diet of imagination, love, humor, wonder, beauty and “making do,” the fumbling works of my hands were always encouraged and linked to the creative nature of the Father. My parents are alchemists—my mother can spin a roll of green crepe paper into four mermaid costumes and turn a tiny piece of cheese into a feast. My father can turn a story about a boy and a slice of chocolate cake, recounted performatively, into an altar call. As a child I sipped wonder daily from a sturdy cup of faith.

I have moved house at least fifty times in my life. The first thing I always packed was imagination. I was always an installation artist; I just didn’t know it: Creating an atmosphere, a mood, a cocoon to shelter, share and instruct, flowed naturally from my upbringing of seeing and sensing.

When did you begin making “art” in the usual sense?

I began Art School at age forty. I had a deep desire to cultivate an environment of creativity and lateral thinking in our churches. It was apparent to me that this was the very definition of an artist, and finally one day my husband Stephen put the phone in my hand and told me to call what is now the best conceptual art school in the country. For the first time in my life I felt I belonged, but I also saw what I would look like without God’s grace.

In some Christian circles, contemporary conceptual art is right up there with prostitution— unwholesome and irredeemable, with no righteous way to embrace it. With its palette of doubt, angst, rebellion, perversity, meaninglessness, blasphemy and abjection, this opinion seems justifiable. But the heart of conceptual art is “idea,” and undoubtedly Christ and salvation are the very best ideas ever. So I began my practice in this simple way: Christ is my idea, love is its motive, and the whole of creation is my stuff.

You describe your work as a “redemptive practice”; could you explain what you mean?

A redemptive art practice must surely begin with establishing the need for redemption. It must point a finger at secret shelters and rattle the door-posts of straw salvations. It is not a practice of patching, propping or bandaging.

Redemption is iconoclastic: It destroys the neat little rows of venerated self-images lining the shelves of our souls. It demands the painful dismantling of masks, the demolition of Babels, the removal of fig leaves. A redemptive practice must clear the idols from the field so God’s saving grace can stake claim. In this culture where inclusivism is a core value, it is important to stress that God is not interested in adding His flag to the united nations of our beliefs. God will not sublet a soul.

Your work consists largely of non-traditional materials and found objects. How does this reflect your desire to work redemptively?

The key to communicating redemption is to learn the language of materials and how to construct them into wooing works—works that demand attention. Mostly, I like to use materials that are part of my daily comings and goings: hair brushings, sea urchin cases collected while snorkeling, shells, eggs, bones, paper—things that come to hand.

Since my works bear a difficult or unwanted message, I try to make it impossible for my viewer to turn away. Take for example the work Whispered Prayers, made from thousands and thousands of white coffee filters with the tiny holes, cut into three-inch squares and folded. It was this work that drew me into the power of multiples to overwhelm the viewer and the value of taking familiar elements with seemingly benign or non-threatening baggage and adding more or deeper meaning to them.

How has your conception of what it means to work redemptively developed and grown?

In his book Sham Pearls for Real Swine, Franky Schaeffer says that an artist’s primary responsibility is to speak the truth. This truth has to be spoken in love. My early work Genesis Cloth arose out of my frustration at the animosity of my art school colleagues toward Christianity. This work was a watershed in my burgeoning practice because I began going to my audience with the truth in love rather than expecting them to come to me. I began to contextualize the Gospel, to use their language, albeit haltingly, to initiate conversation.

Your most recent work uses bones, a material that might seem grotesque, even macabre to many viewers. How do these objects figure into your redemptive vision for conceptual art?

For me, a new work usually begins with me becoming totally engrossed and possessed by an object, material or idea. In this case, the object was the wishbone, the bone that enables a bird to fly. I realized that there is a relationship between individual rituals of wishing and traditional religious rituals of prayer. While it is quite common to desacralize ideas and language, in this body of work I have chosen to sacralize seemingly secular ideas and language (specifically, wishing) for a threefold purpose. First, I want to challenge the line between religious and secular; second, to reveal the common hunger for spiritual meaning and relationship; and third, to profoundly illustrate that feeding that hunger with a man-made construct is unsatisfying and futile.

Tell us about some of the pieces in the Soul Cages series.

The first work came about inadvertently. In the process of collecting, cleaning and bleaching the wishbones, some would break. Sifting the growing pile of broken bones through my fingers one day, they began to look remarkably like tiny humans. When pieced together with a drop of glue, the natural curves of these bones allowed tragical figures to emerge. As I began to more and more associate flight with wish-fulfillment, the mythical Icarus became my metaphor. The very antithesis of the dry bones of Ezekiel 37 (which God said He would re-form, re-flesh and re-breathe), these thirteen Offspring of Icarus are in a constant state of ruinous self-redemption.

How is the medium of performance suited to your message?

Moses had a stutter and a fearful disposition; I’m an introvert and have a fearful disposition. To Moses, God gave Aaron and a big stick; God gave me characters and big hair. In a church, it is amazing to see how much a visiting minister can get away with. He can poke fingers in appalling political underbellies, topple ungodly paradigms, call a sin a sin and then leave town. I needed a medium to allow me to say difficult things and then, so to speak, leave town. My characters arrive dressed in absurdity, hyperbole and irony, carrying an overnight bag full of firecrackers!

I also have a character named Dr. Frieda Peuss. Her permanently sour expression is brought on by a constant diet of bitterness; she is the starchy, politically correct, sensibly-shoed cheerleader for postmodernism’s unredeemed endgame. But she serves as a magnifying glass on the loneliness of the status quo, an amplification of the isolation of trumped-up truths and the concentrated personification of a loveless life without Christ.

Your desire is to establish lines of communication with postmodern artists and critics. How do you build this bridge?

Art is my toll bridge across this culture’s moat of flux, un-definition and incredulity. As an artist I have a multi-rider, an ink stamp on the back of my hand.

Two years ago I tackled some serious issues such as abortion, political correctness and predestination in a series of ten works entitled “Some Antics”. In these works I attempted to provide intellectual rigor, semiotic artistry, narrative depth and dizzying wit, all highly regarded values in this culture.

A work or a life hurled against the panoptic wall of contemporary art culture is rendered cut and bleeding. While “credentials” are a bridge, at most they garner a polite “thanks for sharing” nod from the yawning occupant of the parapet while you scramble for a toehold, your cheek pressed against the cold granite of disinterest. But works wrought in Christ’s inexplicable love and proffered in grace can vaporize all walls and dissolve the stoniest heart. Love extravagantly spills its narrative into the widening cracks. Love is a revolution that can storm the caged soul of postmodernity’s child.
This ineffable love, painted in blood, redeemed me… a squatter in the rubble of Babel.

Berenice Rarig’s work is represented in international collections. She and her husband, Stephen, serve with Mission to the World (PCA) and are currently planting a church in the port city of Fremantle – the heart of the arts community. http://www.berenicerarig.com

[This article was originally published in The Creative Spirit: A Journal of Faith and the Arts, Belhaven 2006]