- Art | 33 | Basel, Art Unlimited, Basel, Switzerland
- Dombergmuseum Freising, Freising, Germany
- St. Wolfgang Church, Regensburg, Germany
Individual panels with text and foreword by Jack Miles below
Our contemporary experience of the world is a photographically mediated experience and therefore an experience of visual depth. But it is a truism that contemporary experience lacks emotional depth. By denying the photographic lens its usual perspectival power, Lisa Ruyter’s paintings announce that the visual depth which we human cameras so effortlessly achieve disguises an emotional shallowness that we rarely admit, much less escape.
The lines of the objects portrayed in Ruyter’s paintings are foreshortened just as they are in the photographs from which her paintings are genealogically descended. By her use of color, however, she deliberately flattens the very illusion of depth that her hand-drawn reproduction of these photographs creates. Her paintings—in perfect perspective yet without depth—are, as it were, photographs without light and therefore without shadow. Shadow becomes simply one more surface space that may, at will, be made brighter than the object that casts the shadow.
The late Paul Tillich defined religion as the “dimension of depth” in human experience. Ruyter, by her preoccupation with the missing dimension of depth in even the most traumatic of contemporary experiences, produces an art paradoxically religious in its assertion of an unmet need for religion. As the eye protests her gorgeous denial of visual depth, so the mind is invited to protest an entire culture’s denial of experiential depth. She paints a world in which everything is gaudily, cheerfully, buoyantly right and yet everything is wrong—a world flooded with light from which, nonetheless, true light has been altogether eliminated. The colors are the colors of a clown, but the clown would weep—if he could.
The pathos of Ruyter’s elimination of depth was palpable in her series “Imitation of Life,” in which each painting bore the title of a different invincibly shallow American movie. Few critics, however, seemed to make any connection between those highly self-conscious titles and her depth-destroying technique on the canvas. Her new, post-9/11 series “Stations of the Cross” makes the point of the earlier series with a new insistence. The visual and emotional context of this new series is the flattening of that historic cataclysm by news photography. But rather than recover depth through paintings derived directly from photographs of the event itself, Ruyter has produced fourteen paintings derived from photographs of everyday life as lived in its sinister (but denied) shadow; then linked them—en bloc and a priori—to the fourteen traditional Christian Stations of the Cross; and finally commissioned a narrative with a dialectical relationship to the paintings, on the one hand, and the stations, on the other.
A narrative gains in emotional depth when it is simultaneously itself and a second narrative. To see any story as itself and only itself—the grim skill mastered by so many films that present violence or obscenity with emotionally paralyzed sangfroid—is to see it as a Cyclops would see it. Only with two eyes can stereoptic vision be achieved. Only as two stories told at the same time can any one story matter.
Long before September 11, 2001, a monocular, Cyclopean vision of suffering had become widespread in the United States, captured well in the postreligious, aggressively objective slogans that Americans like to post on their T-shirts: “Life’s a bitch and then you die,” “Shit happens,” “You have clearly confused me with someone who wants to help,” and the like. To be sure, older, less objective traditions retain enough life in the United States that an American president must avoid the ideology of the T-shirt in moments of great national trauma. However, if the president’s habitual worldview is in truth relentlessly monocular, his attempt to open a second eye on a national trauma—that is, to frame it in a larger, saving narrative—is doomed to seem ad hoc, insincere, and self-serving. And so it has been with George W. Bush’s “War on Terror” as a frame around the cataclysm of September 1, 2001 even for Americans who voted for him in 2000 and intend to vote for him again in 2004.
A second narrative lends saving depth only when the narrator honestly believes it. Because St. Paul believed the story of Christ’s death and resurrection, he could tell his Christian disciples that their suffering under Roman persecution was Christ’s suffering (“Do you not realize that Christ is in you?” [2 Corinthians 13:5]) and, in so doing, lend dignity and even grandeur to their pain. Because, transparently, George W. Bush does not believe the myth he preaches, American suffering remains untransformed, and American anxiety unalleviated.
Ruyter’s “Stations” cycle may be seen as a gigantic pun on the English homonyms pane and pain. To the naive observer, each of the subjects of her fourteen paintings appears as if through a four-pane window. To the art-historically sophisticated observer, however, the quadrisection of these paintings evokes the crossed strings of window-like devices that, starting in the Renaissance, bisected an imagined visual pyramid stretching from the eye of a beholder outward to infinity. On sees such a cross-string device in use in Albrecht Dürer’s 1525 woodcut of a draftsman at work on a perspectival drawing of a lute (from his Unterweisung der Messung in the Getty Research Institute library). Conceptually, the glassless pane of the device’s window coincides with the plane of the draftsman’s projected canvas. The Los Angeles-based British painter David Hockney has lately presented the art world a fascinating compendium of such devices in his much-discussed Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters.
But as for the pane, so also for the pain in Ruyter’s provocative new cycle of paintings or pane-tings: The depth behind even the greatest agony is only apprehended by mediation and with assistance. Because the cross of Christ is a cross of pain, the cross that quadrisects these fourteen panes is an allusion to Christianity as a conceptual prism that, for those who employ it, doubles their personal narratives and deepens their experience of their own distress. At one level, the cross of Christ hinders and distorts the Christian’s perception of his suffering. Who would deny that “Life’s a bitch, and then you die” captures something about human suffering that the Christian myth suppresses? At another level, however, the cross of Christ enhances and clarifies the perception of suffering, transforming the monocular and monstrous into the binocular and human.
In its ambivalent potential, then, religious tradition is very like artistic tradition. At any given moment, it is both a form of vision and a form of blindness. Ruyter’s “Stations of the Cross” is less an apology for Christian religious tradition than it is a confession of the inadequacy of American secular tradition in the present, still-unfolding crisis. The very fact that Americans refer to the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001 by a number—“nine eleven”—means that they have found as yet no adequate language for this unprecedented disruption of their lives. And as this disruption is replicated, it may become decreasingly American.
The companion narrative to this cycle of paintings is set, by design, in an English-speaking country that is not the United States and at a time in the near future when catastrophes comparable to 9/11 have taken place in several different countries. The central figure in the narrative—not the Christ-figure but a woman married to him—is in flight from history, which pursues her through television and, as she sees it, through video games. She hates photographers, equating them with pornographers. Meanwhile, she is mysteriously drawn to the icons and fragments of religious lore she finds in a cemetery. Her Christianity is the vestigial Christianity of the post-Christian West, but her redemption makes use of that tradition in all its fragmentation, returning her strengthened to the visual and historical inferno whose overwhelming power Lisa Ruyter seeks both to understand and to rebuke.
–Jack Miles, The Getty Center, 27 May 2002
Stations of the Cross
Text by Jack Miles
I. Condemned to Death
She’s seven. Her sister is nine. What am I supposed to tell them? That it won’t happen again? That the next time it won’t be us? But for alI I know, the next time it could be us. The next time it could be you, love. And what have you done wrong? What has any of us done to deserve this?
I watch what I say. Certain things are better left unsaid. If you say them, well, you have yourself to blame if something happens to you. And to tell the truth, I don’t feel all that much pity. Isn’t that terrible? Well, I do, really, but then what?
Some of our people blame us for what happened. I guess that makes them feel better. My husband blames the Americans. I say it’s better to keep out of their way. Look, if our choice is being with them or against them…
At home, I feel scared all the time. Every time you turn on the television, there it is again. But in here it’s a little easier. Don’t you think so? I actually like the music they play. It’s soothing. The racks of clothing are so soft, and the salespeople are so caring, so gentle. I like it when people are caring. Of course, it’s outrageous what these places charge. We waste a lot of money here. Michael would be upset if he knew. But you know what? It’s a small price to pay for sanctuary.
I know, I know. It could happen anywhere, but somehow I don’t think it will happen in here.
II. Takes Up the Cross
I am not a man, I am an appliance. At home I am on the home setting, at work on the work setting. My metabolism switches automatically from the one to the other like an air conditioner. There is a control panel somewhere, but I no longer know where it is.
Money. The girls never even think about it. They count on financial security the way they trust in the rising of the sun. Actually, that gladdens my heart. I want them to trust that the house will always be there for them, the good food, the cars, the lovely garden, the shopping excursions.
What good would it do if they knew the truth? How could they help if they believed that it could all end tomorrow? I could ask more of Dominique, of course. She does know what has been happening. But she preemptively concedes the danger and then rushes to change the subject. It is her way to put trouble out of her mind.
You can’t imagine what it’s like to work for him – his moronic serenity about the recurrence of catastrophe, his obsessive attention to trivia. My God, you can practically see the site from his window! But there he sits there with his legs crossed like Metternich in the park. Welcome to the Congress of Vienna! And I sit there listening to him, chatting him up until he sends me away. I smile, my face as smooth and legible as the display on his desk calculator.
Are you proud of me?
III. Falls the First Time
I deeply resent your characterization of what happened. Michael invited me into their home. I did not seek the invitation. She was traumatized to the point of agoraphobia, as he gave me to understand. He thought I might be able to help, and how could I say no? As for Max, once I got there, the boy simply took to me.
Contrary to your rather naive view, little boys are not “innocent.” We are sexual beings from the day we are born, but some of us are born more seductive than others. I myself was born quite unseductive. That much at least you may infer from my line of work. Little Max, on the other hand, is aggressively seductive. In all sincerity, I wonder how even you, indignant as you seem, would have reacted if Max were to present himself to you as he did to me after his parents left that night.
So, yes, I fell, but frankly I was tripped, and in any case it was for the first time. I see that you doubt me, but let me tell you something. I happen to know that you have been seeing Max once a week since it happened. Professionally, of course. Do you not find that the little scamp is as full of fun as ever? Of course he is. Let me tell you, the boy enjoyed every minute of it. It is I, not he, who am the victim of abuse – yours tonight; Michael’s, I fear, until I die or he kills me.
IV. Mother of Sorrows
When I was little, we sang a song in school – very sweet, very pretty, I still know the words:
Lovely lady dressed in blue,
Teach me how to pray.
God was just your little boy,
And you know the way.
Who was the lovely lady? Why was she wearing blue? I must have known once, but I can’t remember now.
You will think it strange that I take the girls to the cemetery to play, but I do. I think to myself: They won’t come after us here, everybody here is already dead. The girls climb on the monuments as if they were pieces of playground equipment, and I let them. I think the dead would be happy to hear the laughter of little girls.
There is a nude goddess in the cemetery that the girls particularly like to visit. I think her bare breasts make them feel naughty. I have taught them to sing “Hello, Goddess” to the tune of “Hello, Dolly.” Isn’t that funny? They sing it once, squeal with laughter, and then scamper off to invent new games. But I usually stay with my goddess for a while. I look at her beautiful body, and I wonder: Was she a wife or a mother?
Soldiers die so young. Did she weep when the news came that the man with the gun was dead. When he was a little boy, did she teach him how to pray? Did she ever wear blue? If he was her husband, did she lie awake at night as I do waiting and waiting and waiting?
V. Forced to Help
I love Max. I love all the things we do together. But at the same time, I feel myself the victim of a cosmic accident. If I had it to do over again, I would not have brought him into the world. You will think that a ghastly thing to say of my own son, but if I had me to bring into the world all over again, I am not sure I would bring me. As I was lifting Max up to a low-lying branch on a tree in the park, where two bigger children were balanced, I thought “How soon before they fall?”
What a cruel thought! But I thought it. I wondered whether, if the little girl started to fall, I would drop Max and catch her. I want to help, but how many children can I catch at once? I see children falling all around me, falling from the trees, falling from the burning buildings, falling from the skies.
VI. Miraculous Image
We were at a New Year’s Eve party at an elegant home in a wonderfully secluded neighborhood. I had so looked forward to it. Michael trudges on week after week in his noble gloom. I myself-well, I don’t deny what we’re facing in this world, but I choose not to wallow in it.
Our hosts’ television set was rigged for Nintendo, and Michael started playing with one of the other guests. The two of them got extremely – but extremely – into it. I was appalled. These high-minded males, you put a gun in their hand – any kind of gun – and some kind of chemical reaction sets in. For some reason, the other fellow left the controls, and Michael insisted that I take over. It was enough to make me vomit.
Video games are nothing less than simulated mass murder. All the terrorists do is bring Nintendo to life. I will not have this pathology, this perversion in my house. The girls are uninterested, and it’s the last thing I want for Max. Michael had never much seemed the type (if he were, would I have married him?) until this New Year’s Eve party. But no male is immune. God himself is not immune.
We left rather abruptly, I’m afraid. Michael insisted “It’s just a game.” How he deludes himself! Nintendo is how they teach their young men to kill without losing their composure. It is the electronic heart of everything he worries about.
VII. Falls the Second Time
It’s not that I dislike the company of my fellow clergymen, the members of my congregation, my classmates from the seminary, or the rest of my Christian constituency. They are the four corners of my world, and I am, as a man, unimaginable even to myself without them. But sometimes an underworld can offer what a world cannot. I value the people of light even more when, for a time of refreshment, I have descended to the darkness where none of them is ever seen.
I do not come to Club Maroc for the sex, you see, but for the conversation, the humor, the angle of vision on the sanctimonies of the upper world. My own included! My own most emphatically included! You cannot begin to imagine how refreshing it is for a man of the cloth to be mocked. But I have yet to commit the sin for which this place so lavishly provides the occasion. I am true to my commitments and to my vows.
The music here is so loud that ear must be offered directly to mouth. I offer mine freely. Auricular confession if you will. Little is heard perhaps, but nothing, I assure you, is ever overheard.
The birds of the air have their nests, and the foxes of the field their lairs, but the Son of Man has not whereon to lay his head. A stunning line, that. You would not believe how many doors it has opened, how many coverlets turned down. I must use it myself some day.
VIII. Weep for Your Children
The four vans in her garage with their tinted glass are just the beginning. There is also the ludicrous assembly of American exercise machines, enough for a small army. She wheels one onto that butter-smooth driveway every morning for a workout, firm buttocks undulating under her spotless shorts. I watch from our bedroom.
When Dominique and the children left for a week at her mother’s, this good neighbor – alone with her children as always – brought her good neighbor a neighborly casserole. Yes, we spent the night together. Yes, I found her attractive. The question is: What did she feel for me?
Dominique, I learned, had spent hours telling her about the tribulations of life with sorrowful Michael, but in the end it was Michael rather than Dominique whom she found her maternal heart embracing. I love her still, though it would seem that she wanted only that one night. When her American-style garage door rose before her and then lowered behind her, it was as if a drawbridge had been pulled up into a castle.
Would any real American risk displaying quite so much American gear? I should have guessed months ago. I would not be surprised if they have her under surveillance, and not without reason: Her heart is clearly no longer with them.
She sees her perfect children in front of her perfect house, and she imagines flames. She knows, because Dominique has told her, that when I see children, hers as well as mine, I too imagine flames. This will remain our bond whether or not I ever again slide my hand across her beautiful buttocks. This is our terrible secret.
IX. Falls the Third Time
Max was the first fall. Club Maroc was the second. And the third?
The truth is that there was no third. There were only the first two turned into one of their sicker public entertainments, this time starring me. Television is the coliseum. The photographers are the lions. Your humble servant is the martyr thrown to them. And you, dear friends, are the Roman mob braying for my blood.
As if we didn’t have enough to worry about. The crime of the century has been not just committed but repeated and repeated again. By now, we scarcely stop to count the dead. Entire nations plod funereally along in an endless candlelight procession. History melts down like the latest sabotaged nuclear power plant, yet you still have time to feed a spoiled priest to the media lions.
Recidivist? Yes, your honor. Repentant? Oh goodness yes, you can’t begin to imagine, and remorseful as well. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.
Why are you people even talking to me? You despise me, do you not? Well, I can endure your moral reprobation, the spewing spittle of your shrewish wives, but I don’t care to have you turn me into a dirty joke passed around by drunken football hooligans. You have turned me into a public urinal. What can I say? Stop pissing, you bastards! Can’t you see that there’s a human being down here?
X. Stripped Naked
If they had not left her naked and lying across the exercise machine, would there be so many cameras? The crime is sickening, but the camera crews are worse. They are all pornographers, and their weapons are now pointed our way. Am I next? It’s all the same to them.
The cars should have been a clue. Four huge American vans for one woman with two small children? It just didn’t make sense. Someone else was storing them with her. Someone else had plans for them. How many times have I seen Michael looking at those cars from our bedroom window? He so often guesses the worst before anyone else, but this time he was only half-right.
At three in the morning, one after the other, the four cars drove down the driveway and off into the night. I was not about to ask what it meant. What you don’t know can’t hurt you. Michael was agitated, but I prevailed upon him not to call the police, in fact not to get out of bed. Thank God I did.
This morning, we saw the exercise machine on the driveway and her body, white, naked, lying across it. We called the police. They already had the report, they said, and would be there in minutes. It took almost an hour, but they are over there now. The girls are with Max in the television room watching Disney’s “Aladdin.” I have told them to keep the blinds closed.
Her children are gone. Dead? Kidnapped? No one knows. Michael says her husband is from Iran. Or is it Iraq? He thinks her crime was exercising in public, a violation of their code of modesty. I find that too cinematic to be true. For once, I am the one who suspects the CIA. I knew the woman. She was American, all right. Trust me, the exercise machine a false clue, nothing more than bait for the news pornographers and a smart way for the Americans to cover their tracks.
XI. Nailed to the Cross
The second day was more ghoulish than the first. Our street was jammed with traffic. Besides the news people knocking on our front door, there were now gawkers gaping at our house. We were afraid to set a foot outdoors. But toward dusk, because the kitchen was starting to stink, Michael decided to take out the garbage.
He did it very quickly, at a run in fact, but he was not fast enough. A shot rang out, and he was down, bleeding profusely. Instantly the crowd whose gaze had been directed at the bloodstains on her driveway began to surge toward the fresh blood on ours. In the chaos that ensued, despite all the police on the scene, no one was apprehended. Can you believe that? Whoever fired the gun allegedly escaped on foot.
Within a few minutes, the police had surrounded Michael’s body, and me kneeling at his head. They made the crowd back off. It was as if they had the whole thing rehearsed. The girls were screaming in the doorway, hysterical with fear. I could hear them, and Max crying, but I was not about to leave Michael.
While I cradled his head, they called for a rescue helicopter. We were facing one another upside down, he and I. That is my second-last image of him: his face upside down, his eyes wide open but unseeing. My last image of him is the one I have now: his body strapped to a stretcher, dangling in mid-air as it is pulled up into the roaring helicopter.
What is happening? Is this really a rescue? It doesn’t feel like a rescue. It feels like the start of an execution, like the end of the world.
XII. Dies on the Cross
I am not about to tell you where the children are. They are not at my mother’s. My mother herself is not at my mother’s.
Michael is dying. It could be a matter of minutes. It could be a matter of hours. I have been advised not to come to the hospital. Whoever shot him would shoot me for the same reason – namely, that I too may have witnessed their crime.
The police believe that I am still at home, but I have given them the slip and fled to the cemetery on foot. What Michael’s killer did, I have now done. It was surprisingly easy. I will communicate with the hospital by mobile phone until they track me down.
Christ have mercy it says under the statue. Michael have mercy.
I am about to be the widow of a man killed, as Jesus was, simply for being good. Maybe he has saved us all from the next catastrophe by forcing those four vans into the open. Maybe she helped him. If they did it together, I forgive her. Who knows what would have happened if the vans had remained in hiding until just the moment when they wanted to use them? Look at this world! We are dying one skyscraper, one nuclear power I plant, one football stadium, one knesset at a time. Who will spare us? Who will save us?
Michael have mercy.
XIII. Taken from the Cross
Someone else is now in the hospital room where he died. When I phoned, the nurse gave me a number to call if I want to claim his body.
What happens if I do not claim it? I asked.
She answered that if no one claims a body, it is sent to the morgue and then buried in Potter’s Field.
If the family does not claim it, I asked, can someone else do so?
No, she said. Unless the deceased or the next of kin has formally released the body for dissection or the harvesting of organs, it is always buried. That was not always the rule, but it is the rule now. She gave me directions by car to Potter’s Field.
Another day has passed. His body, by now, is probably in a refrigerated truck rolling anonymously down the highway. If and when it is again safe for me to drive, I will visit him in Potter’s Field. His grave will not be marked, but it won’t matter: I will feel close to him, I’m sure, and safe as well, in a place where everyone is already dead.
But what else will have happened to us all by then? Am I, was Michael, a part of the destruction of the world or a part of its salvation?
XIV. Laid in the Tomb
I am about to drop my alias and move back to our old house. The children are back with me again. Michael is back with me as well – with me because in me. I shop less now. I no longer bring the children to play in the cemetery. I worry openly about the Americans, just as Michael did. I am no longer afraid of getting in their way.
Father Karol has come to see me. He has his weaknesses, God knows, and I do not intend to leave Max alone with him again, but Father Karol is not going to molest me, after all, and thanks to him I am reading again for the first time in years. We meet always in the same pretty corner of this park.
One day he gave me a framed motto from Miguel de Unamuno: “Cure yourself of the condition of bothering about how you look to other people. Be concerned only with the idea that God has of you.”
Another day he gave me an article from a Catholic magazine, an American Catholic magazine, ending: “The final obligation is to comprehend that American nationalism, wedded to American messianism, has currently acquired overpowering force in American life, in that it drives a military program of total military domination everywhere, among allies and neutrals as well as enemies, and a political program of suppressing any resistance to perceived American interest in any matter at all, whatever the cost to allied interests, international community, or international law or precedent.”
I used to hate it when Michael would quote this sort of thing to me, but now it is as if I am Michael, and I quote such stuff to other people. I don’t know quite what we can do, but I no longer proclaim in advance that we can do nothing. Worrying is not the last step, but it is a first step.
And though I still avoid Arabs, I am no longer afraid of Nintendo.