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Betty Spackman: A Creature Chronicle

Betty Spackman: A Creature Chronicle

by John Franklin

A Creature Chronicle, photo by Rosemary Wallace

 

When I consider the heavens, the moon and the stars that you have made, what are mere mortals that you are mindful of them… Psalm 8

Jesus didn’t come to make us Christian but to make us human. Hans Rookmaaker

It is part of the human condition to reflect on the nature of our existence. The pervasive presence of technology in our contemporary culture has pushed us to renewed inquiry concerning the nature of our humanity. New terms have come into our common discourse – transhumanism and posthumanism – pointing us to the promise and threat of technology to shape our identity and our future, to change us and make the familiar understanding of humanness obsolete. Technology appears to offer endless possibilities for human development allowing us to break out of the confines of our current mental and physical limitations. The fifteen panels of this installation work – A Creature Chronicle – invite us into a dialogue between faith and science mediated through art. Numerous references to historical images – Hildegard, Giotto, Grünewald, Blake, Chagall and Picasso to name a few – show up in this complex, engaging and imaginative piece. 

Canadian artist Betty Spackman has created a work that is capable of opening up in a unique way an important conversation between science and faith, centered on the question “What does it mean to be human?” The work calls viewers to explore questions of origin and end: Where have we come from and where are we going? But perhaps more importantly: Who are we? and How is the answer to that question changing? The panels are to be set in a circle over seven metres in diameter, which the viewer may enter to engage the collage of images. Spackman has not made it easy for the viewer. There is much to wrestle with. The issues are real and some would say urgent. The artist has discerned the trends that are shaping new understandings of life in all its forms. But she wisely resists the temptation to either a reactionary apocalypticism or a blind hopefulness.  

This is a measured work filled with symbolic meanings. It is also a work that rests on strong theological moorings. Is there a place for God in the current conversation?  What happens to the imago dei in this unfolding scenario? Is the notion of the sacredness of life at risk? It is not Spackman’s purpose to provide answers to these and similar questions, but rather to stimulate the conversation and get us thinking about who we are and what current technologies mean for the world as we know it, including ourselves and our communities. Though the question of our humanity is key in this work, other issues are addressed such as ecology, ethics at the edges of life, hope, hubris and humility, genetic manipulation, attitudes to animals, robotics, suffering and death and the list goes on. This wide-ranging work also speaks to spiritual concerns that are expressed in human fears and longings. 

Panel 1

Panel one takes us to a “moment” when the natural world was not yet a reality. For Spackman two themes loom large here: darkness and mystery. We need not resist these themes but should be prepared to embrace them. Darkness and mystery can generate fear, but they may also bring comfort, hope and new discovery. They are reminders of our finitude and speak to our misplaced confidence in our own resourcefulness. On this first panel we find a Dove – a Picasso Dove – hovering over the darkness, letting us know that we are not alone and that the world in which we find ourselves is held together by a sustaining power well beyond human capacities.

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and ah bright wings
G.M. Hopkins - God’s Grandeur

A number of the panels take up the subject of light, echoing the theological discourse on this theme. On six of the panels we find an image of the sun suggesting as the artist says, “the six days of creation as well as the process of revelation, discovery, unveiling, coming to see what we have not seen before.”  

Panel 6

Panel six invites us to consider light from a scientific standpoint. E= mc2 appears as does Einstein’s Cross, consisting of a repeated image of the same supernova seen in the form of a cross through the bending influence of gravity. A rainbow stretches across the panel reminding us of a divine promise and the colourful spheres hint at the cosmos. Moving beyond pure science the gentle innocence of the donkey, that under-appreciated “beast of burden”, is standing quietly with 70 x 7 hovering over its back. Bearing another’s burden and the call to forgiveness are perhaps two ways that we are able to let the light shine in a dark world.

Panel 13

A dragonfly – the icon for this whole work – is found on panel thirteen set beside a detail of Matthias Grünewald’s resurrection panel from the Isenheim Altarpiece, the guards at the tomb “so afraid …they shook and became like dead men.” The life cycle of the dragonfly serves as a metaphor for death and resurrection. For this artist – whatever may be said by science or faith – the fabric of the created order appears to include an inherently hopeful option for us all: light over darkness, life over death, presence over absence.

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John Franklin is the Executive Director of IMAGO Arts and also an adjunct professor in theology at Tyndale Seminary and Trinity College at the Toronto School of Theology, University of Toronto. His training and teaching were in the field of philosophy and recently his special interest has been research and teaching in theology and the arts. He served as the arts coordinator for the Lausanne International meetings in Cape Town South Africa in 2010 and was a consultant and catalogue contributor for the very successful 2016-2017 Mystical Landscapes Exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario. imago-arts.org

Betty Spackman is an installation artist and painter. She has a background in Theatre, Animation, Performance Art and Video Art, with early video work shown at ARS Electronica in Austria and Long Beach California. Her MFA thesis at York University in Toronto investigated language, territory, and the body. Her work went on, through solo and collaborative exhibitions, to explore personal and cultural exchange, the nature of ‘story’ and animal/human relations. Her background in animation and having taught visual storytelling for many years has underpinned her interest in narrative as an important part of this new work that combines the stories of both science and religion using well known art works as mediators and commentators. It presents itself as a non-linear multi-layered storyboard to be walked around and sat inside, with visual stories to be ‘read’ or discovered, contemplated and discussed.

Spackman’s last major project, ‘‘Found Wanting. A Multimedia Installation Regarding Grief and Gratitude,” 2010-11, was about animal/human relations and dealt with a complexity of issues imbedded in a large collection of animal bones used in the 3000 sq.ft. installation. The work addressed sustainability, cultural constructs of creation and evolution theories, killing and the nature of sacrifice, speciesism, the meat industry (including the invitro meat industry), and genetic engineering. The project also questioned how stories about nature affect the response or lack of response to these important issues. A CREATURE CHRONICLE continues from there with a desire to provide a place of meeting for diverse cultural communities to corporately consider creation in our evolving ways of defining what it is to be human. Spackman believes all of life to be interconnected and that love, as both an intellectual and spiritual choice, in both story and lifestyle, is the one chance of sustainability, equity and future hope for all life.

A CREATURE CHRONICLE

“This exhibition, which points to the complex connections between the Arts, Sciences, and Faith is an excellent tool to facilitate discussions about the future of creation in the context of posthumanism.” John Franklin, Executive Director, IMAGO Arts

This complex new work by Betty Spackman, MFA is a 15 panel, double-sided, circular installation, approx. 24 feet in diameter and 8 feet high. The mixed media images taken from a multitude of art, science, and faith references are meant to provoke contemplation and conversation about the difficult questions of what it is to be human. From the stories of genesis to the still-being-written stories of contemporary bioscience, layers of concern and celebration are woven together around our complex philosophical debates about creation in the context of developing technologies. Spackman is an installation artist and painter with a background in animation and visual storytelling. Her interest in narrative informs this new work that combines the stories of both science and religion, using well known art works as mediators and commentators. It presents itself as a non-linear, multi-layered storyboard to be walked around and sat inside, with visual stories to be ‘read’ or discovered, contemplated and discussed.

But A CREATURE CHRONICLE is not only an art exhibition. It is a multi-layered community event with an accompanying symposium with over 30 guest scholars, musicians, storytellers, actors, artists, poets, and more that Spackman has invited to be part of the month-long series of talks and concerts. Some are local to British Columbia and others are coming from England, the US, Alberta, the North West Territories and Ontario. Selected Panel Talks will be livestreamed on YouTube: www.bettyspackman.com

A CREATURE CHRONICLE is part of the ‘Swallowfield Arts Series 2022’ hosted by Dennis and Jenny DeGroot of Swallowfield Farm: www.swallowfield.ca

A CREATURE CHRONICLE is a project under IMAGO, a Canadian registered charity.  Donations can be received and tax receipts will be provided for Canadian donors.