It was shocking and the last thing I expected to see in a church.
Directly juxtaposed in front of the crucifixion of Christ, she hung naked and obese, crucified on her own flesh: Die Christin (The Christian Woman) an installation by German artist Beatrix von Bock.
The artist had built the 2 metre figure out of shattered glass, painstakingly reconstructing it into a mosaic of pink flesh – a woman hiding inside her own grotesque body yet also unbearably put on view. There was shame in the turn of the woman’s head, as if she wanted to avoid not only the appalled gaze of the viewer, but also catching sight of her own intolerable flesh.
Perhaps what I found so disturbing was that just the previous day I had visited Aachen’s wonderful hot spring spa and seen variations of women’s naked bodies which did not look so very different. These were women who had bodies that were other than mine only by degree; but I was uncomfortably aware that what I most wanted to avoid was seeing any similarities. Likewise, this hanging woman had surely nothing to do with me. There was a shrinking pathos in the nakedness of the figure, as if she wanted to disappear into her own massive bulk. And yet this artwork was unavoidable, it could not be unseen.
Inspired by an obese woman she had seen at a church function, Beatrix von Bock had observed how this woman’s work went unnoticed, how not only was she reduced to her outward appearance, she was also made invisible by it. Despite the robustness of the woman’s huge dimensions, what the artist saw was her inner fragility, her breakability; which she expressed so perfectly in her use of broken glass. This is where the artist catches us in her mirror. In looking at this naked woman, if we can tear our attention away for just a moment from the outward grossness of her flesh, we will glimpse her inner vulnerability – and see ourselves.
In the accompanying written piece, she describes how it is ordinary women who create and uphold the community life of the church, through their tireless work in church bazaars, arranging flowers, preparing food, organising events. Yet they remain in the background inconspicuous and well-behaved, unwanted in the forefront of the church, unable to claim a place.
Die Christin was part of a 5-woman art exhibition held in the Aachen City Church. The theme was Neulandsuche (In search of a new land) and was part of the Aachen Heligtumsfahrt (holy pilgrimage) celebrated in June this year. At the exhibition event, the artist was inundated by eager people 3 deep wanting to discuss her work, intrigued by its provocativeness in the context of the church. But it’s a piece that’s not easy to like. When I spoke to her, Beatrix admitted that when she first conceived the idea for this work she was nervous about whether the church would find it acceptable.
I wondered whether a different statement would have been made if the naked woman had been young, shapely and sexually appealing. Would that have made it less or more acceptable in a church? Perhaps beautiful women are equally crucified by their own desirability, pinned into place by how the viewer interprets their flesh.
When I asked Beatrix what would become of her new work after the exhibition. She shrugged and then smiled ruefully.
“I don’t know. I mean, this isn’t exactly the kind of art someone would want to buy to hang in their home! I would like to hope I’ll be invited to show it at another exhibition.”*
It requires a brave work of art such as this to get our attention, to make visible what we don’t want to know, forcing us to see parallels and connections when we’d prefer separation and distance. But the best place to view this particular work is in the context of a church where it can break new ground. It belongs there, awkward and difficult though it may be, just like the women it speaks for. Giving them space.
*Note: as it happens, once the exhibition was over, Beatrix von Bock was asked to leave her installation in place for an indefinite time. She says that having the work displayed on its own makes for an even more powerful impact.