Makoto Fujimura – 2002

makoto-fujimura-essayTHE OLSON GALLERY | Bethel College
MAKOTO FUJIMURA | Recent Work | March 18 – May 29, 2002

A Three-Part Meditation on Makoto Fujimura’s Triptych,
Gethsemane Altarpiece, on the Morning After Easter

The central mystery of human life is suffering.  The central mystery of the Christian faith is Incarnation. For Christians these two mysteries meet in the Eucharist.  The Eucharist is itself a mystery, being the ceaseless repetition of a liturgy handled by human hands, but embodying the single most unique event in human history, brought about by God’s hands.  The only event that by its deepest nature shall not be repeated is now ritual.

Like suffering and Incarnation, the Eucharist must occur through material expressions:  Bread, wine, spoken words; mouths, esophagi, digested food.  This is the meeting of God’s love and the particularity of each communicant’s moistened lips.  This is God swallowed into the human body.  Who can locate the membrane through which flesh and spirit are united, through which history and the eternal join, yet without being the same substance?   The sacrament astonishes and must be encountered over and over.

Like suffering and Incarnation, the presentation of the Eucharist must have a material place.  So it is served in a building on a piece of furniture.  In particular, upon a piece of furniture that is itself a mysterious joining of two things.  For this furniture, which holds bread and wine, is both altar and table.  It is the site of blood sacrifice and the seat of hospitality.  At this table the disciples ate bread and drank wine with Jesus, sharing in his bodily life.  At this altar, Christians partake in the body and blood of the Lamb, sharing in his life-giving spirit.

Each taking of Communion, each Eucharist Mass is a re-enacement, a re/presentation of the historicity of the Gospel now made spiritual symbol.  For centuries, the Church understood such representation, and so the Church sponsored another kind of representation to make visible that point of meeting between heaven and earth.  That representation was the Altarpiece.  It stood (or hung) vertically, depicting Christ’s historical crucifixion, behind the altar-table’s horizontal presentation of his symbolic body and blood.  Although no one probably things about it, it is the joint where vertical painting and horizontal table meet that provides the place for heaven and earth’s symbolic intersection to occur.  But no one stares at that joint during worship.  Even so, the “line” drawn there marks the place where God and matter meet in the symbol of bread of wine.  Perhaps it goes unnoticed because it is like the line of doubt that haunts all use of symbol:  How exactly do spirit and flesh connect?  Is the remembering through mere bread and wine enough to stanch suffering?

The great architect, Louis Kahn, once said that, “the joint is the source of all human ornament.”  And so it is, on the profoundest level. Who can say how the union of mind and body, spirit and flesh, meaning and language, symbol and history, God and humans actually is.  Every attempt to speak of that joint is itself an ornament – a painting, a cup, or a set of ritual words and gestures.  If the joint is the meeting place between God and humans, then perhaps each ornament is a claim of beauty marking that line as a place of grace.  Or if the joint is a wound between Heaven and Violence, then perhaps each ornament is an altarpiece, a dressing meant to heal.

*      *     *
It is early Monday morning, the day after Easter.  I sit in the pale light of the Olson Gallery and study the elegant, Gethsemane Altarpiece, painted by Makoto Fujimura, on exhibit through May.  To my knowledge, this is only the second altarpiece that has ever been on the Bethel College campus.  The first being the magnificent contemplative piece, Apifany (Aunque es de Noche), installed in the Prayer Chapel.  That piece, done collaboratively by eighteen student artists working with Stewart Luckman, is powerfully effective for meditation on Christ’s suffering.  It incorporates cross, crowns of thorns, bread, and in a sense, fully alludes to altar on its own strength.  But in fact, although Apifany serves profoundly in relationship to prayer, it is not connected to an altar or to the Breaking of Bread together in worship within this community.  Because Bethel College is a Protestant college, the role of an altarpiece as part of worship cannot be experienced here.  And so the form of the Altarpiece enters this community most easily under the auspices of “Art” and “gallery”.  Consequently, the deep need to ornament that joint between spirit and matter must happen in some other way.  We cannot draw that mysterious line between table and painting inside the chapel where worship occurs.  We draw it elsewhere, perhaps between the honey colored wooden floor where “Art” gallery ends and the threshold into the Great Hall, where “Chapel” space begins.  No one will notice this as “line” when drawn this far back; nor will anyone remark on the unspoken mystery signified by the juxtaposition of chapel and gallery on our campus.

*      *     *

In the gallery’s morning silence, I sit and meditate on Fujimura’s work.  It saturates the eye with a simple and pure beauty.  Standing in the closed position, the outer wings are shut so that their gold gilt backsides create a shimmering field of light.  The grid of subtle squares (determined by the sizes of the gold gilt and by Japanese tradition) establishes a geometric order that holds its own against the transient ephemera of shifting light.  The blood red ground beneath flashes through here and there.  I think of Jesus’ agony in Gethsemane as he faced the cup of death.  The gospel writer says that Jesus sweated blood in his agony.  In the medieval tradition, a gold ground is divine space, God’s Presence.  Here, as in Gethsemane, the golden deity bleeds: gold over red.  God in flesh and blood.

I walk over and swing the Altarpiece open.  The interior of its wings are in silver gilt, but now the grid pattern gives way to long descending arcs in which the red underpainting shows through once again, suggesting long gashes as in the Flagellation of Christ, but strangely also as in the multicolored wings of angels descending to fold over his suffering.

The center panel is a subtle field of blues, soft and washed deep.  The paint is worked in horizontal strokes evoking the infinite recession of water, space, or evening sky as the light goes down and that magic moment of illumination hovers in the twilight.  Rising from the bottom of this central blue field into its center is a series of forms that look like stains.  These create an ephemeral image of a tree.  Flickers of white imply light or blossoms in its branches, and hear the top a brief flash of gold iridescence flares and fades. It was under the trees at twilight’s final decent that they came with torches flaring in the dark to arrest Jesus.  And it was on a tree that they hanged him, creating this strange symbol of hope, the cross.

This tree is now a hallmark of Makoto Fujimura’s work.  In a different work, a lithograph, he had been making images of a medieval pear tree, Quince, at the time of September 11th.  The horrors of that terrorist attack called into question the en tire enterprise of making art for Fujimura and many other artists.  What is the point of making aesthetic objects which are, in a way, useless against violence and suffering?  Given the hard political realities of this egotistical world, what good is it to sue fragile paint and paper as bearers of beauty in a world that crushes beauty?  But on September 13th, when he saw the lithographic print Quince pulled, its beauty overwhelmed him.  He later wrote, “I heard the voice of Christ through the image. A voice of Shalom…That voice, like water, spoke out against the voice of fear.”  What Fujimura realized was that Christ himself never ceased His creative engagement with the world because of fear and violence. Christ came into the world bearing beauty in the fragility of a human body, and that beauty turns out to be enduring in spite of the suffering of crucifixion.  Indeed, that beauty transformed a symbol of cruelty into a symbol of hope.  The essence of that beauty, seemingly too frail for this world, lies in its power to subvert violence by way of suffering.  In doing so, Christ redeems Creations, and calls us to do likewise in our own way.

There is a connection between the making of the Gethsemane Altarpiece and suffering today.  By its very existence, this work marks a line, ornamenting a joint between fear and suffering, and sacrifice and hope.  The very making of something with such beauty is an incarnation of hope into the materials of paint and image.  It becomes a grace entered into the world.

Fujimura has suspended the panels of this altarpiece in an elegant plexiglass frame.  They float six inches above the wooden floor of the Olson Gallery.  Likewise, the tree in its center panel floats in thee blue, without roots or visible base.  There is a mystery implied in how this image connects with the physical world in which it hovers.  Perhaps it is fitting, for today the Church does not commission altarpieces to stand above its altars.  In our Protestant tradition, we do not even retain thee sacrament of Altar (sacrifice) for Eucharist (grace), preferring as we do the Table (fellowship) for Communion (remembering).  We know less today about making that ornament which graces the joint between all things.

From down the hall where the chapel is, I hear the musicians warming up for service.  Soon a crowd of students, staff, and faculty will flow through the gallery on its way to chapel.  I catch myself wishing that Fujimura’s Christ Tree could be suspended above the Great hall during worship.  As I grow older, I need Presence (more than I need words on the overhead) floating in the dark above the service.  I need to be able to search out that joint, that line drawn where God meets humans in faith; I need it to be palpable.  And I need to do this in the company of fellow worshippers, as well as in the solitude of the art gallery.

Wayne L. Roosa, Ph.D.

Professor or Art History, Bethel College