Sunday, 19 July 2015

Unfix:Can religion be redeemed through performance?

Alistair McIntosh's unexpected collaboration with Paul Henry took McIntosh's identity as a veteran political campaigner and Christian activist, and cast it into a multi-media performance that rolled from lecture through story-telling to a butoh inspired choreography. McIntosh himself – elderly, bearded, with the occasional presence of an Old Testament patriarch – provided the text and the recitation, with Henry's throbbing drones and chimes complementing his meditations on ecology, advertising and spiritual renewal.

Somewhere between nature mysticism and a politically aware church, McIntosh reaches back to Celtic traditions, where the boundaries between paganism and Christianity are worn and insecure. Brigdit, a saint who was once a Celtic goddess, embodied a feminine divine, a spirit who enters the physical world to bring salvation. Beginning with a formal lecture on the state of affairs in the urban world, via a meditation on the cult if death within advertising, McIntosh settles on telling an autobiographical episode, of his own pilgrimage across Harris, before entering an ecstatic state of revelation.

Unmentioned yet present, the history of Scottish Christianity is a heavy burden. The beautiful psalms of the Free Church, re-imagined by Henry, march alongside a legacy of patriarchal dominance. This dominance is reflected in the final movement, as the celestial female presence is reduced to the prophet's handmaiden. And in the words, the words themselves, that have always been the tool of the church, that are a remove from the twisting bodies of the two dancers, that scatter ideas towards the audience, in the words are the disconnection from the embodied, from the spiritual as directly experienced, the mediating force of language...

The surreal images of cigarette advertising, says McIntosh, hide a preoccupation with death: a subconscious desire for death, tucked away in fanciful images of pyramids and carrion-carrying ants. Is McIntosh finding Freud's controversial hypothesis that the mind has a compulsion to both life and death? Is advertising, the controlling mechanism of consumerism, the hidden ruler of this world, embracing death so as to cast humanity into the arms of destruction? The desire to consume too much... the violence in the Middle East... the unknown heat of our Globally Warming July... massacres on the tip of Africa... a slash along the seam of a silk sheet... an evocation of a popular film... McIntosh offers an alternative, his retreat back to the islands of his youth, the slow trek across the landscape and only the ruins of past homes on his lonely, unmade, track.

Yet his archetype is the preacher, and can the preacher be redeemed? Has the history of the church, now entwined with western moralities, now entrenched in an establishment of capital, prevented it from attaining the ecstasy of an ecological consciousness?

The touches of butoh are ornaments on the solid cathedral of ideas. The treated sounds are echoes of lustily sung hymns. Can an authentic sense of soul, all the ontologies of theology (that is to say, the idea of a personal God, the community of believers and the status of the Word) be transformed into a foundation, a corner-stone of a new consciousness that recognises ecology, environmental politics, as the alternative to capitalism?

They present a moment of ecstasy, a communion with God, and The Tibetan Book of the Dead is read, warning against fear. Something... the greediness... Boris Johnston's avowal of envy's worth, the inversion of all values and all matter reduced to commodity... do not be afraid. This breaks, this breaks, McIntosh performs the moment he once had, alone and in the hills... a theatrical shamanism. It is a memory of that moment. It is not the moment in itself. It is faked and recreated. The angel reads from a photocopied sheet of paper.  

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