Yesterday, I took my students on an excursion to Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbour. A former prison and shipyard, the island is at present one of several sites hosting the Sydney Biennale, a festival of contemporary art.
Most of my students were underwhelmed ("It was....strange," said one, with a thoughtful expression on her face after I asked what she had thought of it) but I, by contrast, enjoyed the outing immensely. The slipperiness of meaning and interpretation in post-modern stuff is rubbish as a philosophy but terrific fun as a parlour game, if one approaches it as one. Which I did ("It represents the human condition." is a great conversation-starter in these places, and possibly an effective way to pick up one of the art-loving ladies, though I wouldn't know anything about that).
One of the more interesting pieces, which I think is significant, not least for the implications of its set-up, was Jumping Castle War Memorial (pictured above). It was set up on a large green next to the old Turbine Hall and initially a number of my students wondered aloud what it was. I explained the concept of a jumping castle (it seems such things are unknown throughout much of Asia) and they inquired whether they could jump on it. It being art, I said I wasn't sure but probably not. During much of the excursion, the jumping castle was somewhere in the background, always on the green as we went from building to building.
During lunch, I broke out the guidebook for the exhibition and discovered a bit more about this castle. It is an artwork by Brook Andrew, an Aboriginal artist from Melbourne. One can, it turned out, jump on the castle but only if one is over 16. There is a further catch. The guidebook informs us that "[o]n closer examination, we see that its plastic-enclosed turrets contain skulls that represent those often forgotten peoples who were the victims of genocide worldwide."
Vast swathes of modern culture tell us that what we do with our bodies is meaningless. Whether it be the trivialisation of sex and spread of promiscuity or, within Christian circles, the tendency to casualise (if that's a word) worship by, for example, substituting different kinds of music or different ritual actions, the temptation is great to look only at the heart (yes, the Samuel reference is deliberate- some truths need to be balanced by equal and complementary truths). But during the whole time we were at Cockatoo Island, I never once saw a single person jump on that castle.
Why not? The reasons nobody jumped on it may well have been diverse and certainly there is more than one possible reason. I told my students they had to be over 16 to jump on it (without initially mentioning the other elements to the artwork) and every one of them balked. For adults to jump on it would have seemed to them undignified. No doubt many Australian adults might feel the same. Alternatively, it might be that, given the significance (and title) of the work-a memorial- it would have seemed irreverent for a person to jump on it. By doing so, one would have been disrespecting the victims the work commemorated. On yet another hand, some may have sensed (what indeed my initial reaction was) that to jump on the castle would have been to symbolically identify with the perpetrators of those crimes. Perhaps people felt a combination of these considerations.
It should be noticed that each of these reasons is subjective, but more than subjective. No doubt none of the people who might under different circumstances have enjoyed jumping on a jumping castle felt any sympathy for people who have committed (or sought to commit) genocide. None of them would have anything but sympathy for the victims. Why did none jump, then? Clearly, the action, in this context, held significance quite apart from the person's subjective feelings. The action itself conveyed some kind of meaning (though precisely what that meaning would be is debatable). If we extrapolate this to other bodily actions or take it as representative of the nature of bodily actions in general, this is a fact that has huge implications for both morality and worship (in both cases studied by people far more intelligent than I, eg. Mary Douglas). Fascinating to find it demonstrated at a contemporary art exhibition.