I recently saw a fascinating exhibit at Blain Southern by the East London artists Tim Noble and Sue Webster entitled Nihilistic Optimistic. The artwork consists of piles of junk ingeniously constructed and placed in front of beams of light so as to project realistic self-portrait shadows of the artists against blank walls. The technical aspect is breathtaking. At first I refused to believe that the pile of discarded furniture and electrical wires had anything to do with the realistic human shadow projected on the wall in front of me. Yet, after closer inspection (by shadowing the junk with my own hand and seeing it reflected alongside the artwork) it became obvious; the human shadows were indeed produced by junk.
Apparently one of the drivers for making this kind of art is Noble’s and Webster’s fascination with perceptual psychology; the way in which human beings perceive abstract images and project meaning onto them. Perhaps the meaning of the exhibit’s title ‘Nihilistic Optimistic’ is the way in which one might perceive, what is essentially a pile of junk, as a human shadow. It all depends on one’s perspective; a nihilist sees a pile of meaningless junk where an optimist perceives the human form.
But what is the human form if not a pile of junk? We are, if one were to take a reductionist or mechanistic view, nothing more than a collection of bones, organs and muscles. The bible itself appears to support this notion when God says to Adam ‘for dust you are and to dust you shall return’ (Gen 3:19.) This pessimistic view of the body is echoed elsewhere in the bible.
Yet, the remarkable thing is that when this pile of dust is animated by the spirit or light of God it is able to cast extraordinary images across the canvas of life.
As I wandered around the gallery I thought about these three components; light, matter and shadow and it occurred to me that it made a wonderful metaphor for human life. If I stood with my back to the shadow all I could see was a pile of junk but if I stood behind the junk gazing at its effect I saw a larger than life human form against the wall. Reductionists will only see bone, sinew and electrical impulses. People of faith and humanists will perceive that the effect of a human being is so much greater than the sum of its physical parts.
While the metaphor helps to understand what it means to be human it also raises a very disturbing truth and that is that even with an optimistic view our lives resemble shadows. We flit across eternity for a few brief moments and then we are gone. The entire book of Ecclesiastes is driven by this pessimistic view. It is given particular poignancy in the sixth chapter: ‘for who knows what is good for a man in life, during the few and meaningless days he passes through like a shadow? Who can tell him what will happen under the sun after he is gone?’(Eccles.6:12) The psalmist also observes: ‘Man is like a breath; his days are like a fleeting shadow’ (Psalms 144.4) and the author of Chronicles has King David exclaim: ‘We are here for only a moment, visitors and strangers in the land as our ancestors were before us. Our days on earth are like a passing shadow, gone so soon without a trace.’(1 Chron.29:15)
Millennia later Shakespeare’s Macbeth is troubled by the same thought:
Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more; it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. (Macbeth Act 5 Scene 5)
It is undeniably true. Our lives are like fleeting shadows and yet while we live, the impact of our lives is incalculable. The same psalmist who glumly measured the minuscule time span of human life also observed its extraordinary significance:
What is man that You have been mindful of him, mortal man that you have taken note of him, that You have made him little less than divine, and adorned him with glory and majesty (Psalms 8:5-6)
Our lifespan is brutally short. Our bodies are, in essence, dust. Life itself however can be extraordinarily meaningful. The reflections we generate as we pass through the infinite expanse of time are no less real, no less significant because of their brief duration. All that exists is right here in the present. So are we. Let us make something beautiful with our lives while we have the time.