Who: Nathan Coley, Dr Paul Collins (Theologian and Historian), Barbara Creed (Professor Screen Studies, University of Melbourne), Rob Adams (Director City Design, Melbourne City Council).
What: All This, and Heaven Too
Where: Melbourne Town Hall, 27 September 2010

When I heard that British installation artist and 2007 Turner Prize nominee, Nathan Coley, was going to be debating whether “heaven is in the hereafter or the here and now” with a panel of experts, I immediately emailed ACCA and made sure both Georgina and my names were on the list.

Coley’s acclaimed public art project Heaven Is A Place Where Nothing Ever Happens is currently on display outside ACCA.

heaven is a place where nothing ever happens acca nathan coley

This was the only piece of Coley’s work that I was familiar with prior to attending the talk, and was eager to learn more about his ideas and the concepts behind his work.

When he took the stage at the Town Hall, Coley promised us that he was going to tell us some truths and some lies. Talking about his work always allows him to reassess it in new ways, so he was pretty sure he’d be saying at least a few things that weren’t quite true.

The first work we saw was a series of cardboard models of places of worship; Camouflage Mosque, Camouflage Church and Camouflage Synagogue. Religion is constantly coming under scrutiny, and Coley believed many religions may be wanting to camouflage a bit, or for people to look at them in different ways.

camouflage mosque nathan coley turner prize Nathan Coley
Camouflage Mosque (Gold) 2006
© Nathan Coley
Courtesy doggerfisher and Haunch of Venison

It was obvious that Coley didn’t want to narrate his work too much, and strongly believed that each person should take their own meaning from it. This was particularly the case for a sculptural work that took on the language of a graveyard. Coley scrolled through a number of slides, showing us the work, without saying a word.

There is always a story behind Coley’s art, and while he is the author of the work, he is never the author of the text used in it. Coley told us that There Will Be No Miracles Here was based on a story set in a small village in 13th Century France. The village was trouble as far as the church was concerned. The harvest needed to be brought in and the peasants were rubbish at it. A sign was erected by the church saying, “There will be no miracles here, by order of the King”. But, ironically, the peasants couldn’t read the sign and they needed to ask the King to read it to them. In this situation the King was putting himself higher than God.

there will be no miracles hereNathan Coley
There Will Be No Miracles Here
© Nathan Coley
Courtesy doggerfisher and Haunch of Venison

Coley told us that when he’s asked what his work is about he often replies, “would you ask an author what his book was about? He’d tell you to read it!” The intention behind his work is that it should speak in his absence, and hopefully tell the story in a better and more meaningful way then he could. Just like the way he left so much unsaid about his art, he also left whether heaven is in the hear and now or the hearafter completely up to the audience to consider.

Dr Paul Collins followed Coley and provided theological insight into the concept of heaven. He proclaimed that if the phrase “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens” was true, then heaven sounded like a great place. Collins admitted to not having thought much about the concept before preparing his speech. His belief was that heaven doesn’t matter, that it’s all about how you live here on earth, and that hell is much more interesting. When the old testament was written the earth was believed to be flat, and the heavens were above, between us and the sky. Today, in the modern world we live in, our cosmological horizons have been broadened and the old theology needs to be rethought. Heaven is now a metaphor or symbol. He acknowledged the fact that many people, both secular and religious, are living lives of extreme generosity. He believed that heaven is about these people reaching their full potential, based on what they have achieved here on earth.

Barbara Creed strongly agreed with the idea that heaven is a place where nothing ever happens. She believes that heaven is not a place for struggle, or art. A place where all conflict, and evolution, is over. To her, heaven suggested perfection. Having grown up gay in suburbia in the 1950s, that kind of heaven wasn’t a place for her. She quoted Mae West saying, “Good girls go to heaven. Bad girls go everywhere”. Barbara’s talk, from this point foward, went on to focus on the idea of Hollywood as heaven. A secular heaven where stars, gods and goddesses went when they passed away. Where everything happens, including the taboo. A place where silent films bring universal peace. Barbara definitely preferred this Hollywood version.

In Rob Adams’ job, as Director City Design for Melbourne City Council, he is focused on creating heavenly places for us all to enjoy in the here and now. He talked about heaven being in the graffiti in our streets. When he came across a one-way sign in Fitzroy, with its shadow painted onto the ground, he thought, “yep, this is it”. He worships the Melbourne religion of coffee and told us heaven is in each cup. The challenges our city is currently facing include coping with population growth without having to sub-divide any more land. Adams is working to ensure that the growth happens around our existing infrastructure so fewer cars are required, and encouraging more apartment living. For Rob Adams, heaven is a place where nothing much needs to happen, otherwise we might destroy the heaven that we already have.

The meaning of heaven is very different for each of us. Please feel free to comment and leave your ideas below. God bless. x

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