This project brought together an international and interdisciplinary group of scholars who worked together at the University of Glasgow between January and October 2010 on the specific theme of sacrifice in law, liturgy and landscape. The research in which the group engaged focused on the different ways, in religion, law and art, in which the sacrificial existence of humanity only seems able to invoke the sacred by destroying it; only seems able to live with the sacred by filtering its essence out of mundane life, that is, filtering out the potential of the sacred to overwhelm and unsettle and even derail the ordinary course of life. To what extent can this destruction and filtering-out of the sacred be reversed without courting disaster? In the course of collaboration this question became a core inquiry that the contributors have been addressing in their own responses to the theme of the project.

As presented in the application for the Leverhulme Trust Artist in Residence Grant

Giorgio Agamben observes that all human doing (facere) is a matter of sacrifice (sacer facere). His point is that all human doing or action is ultimately ungrounded. It literally has to cut into nothingness to effect a density (a thickening of thin air) on which some foothold can be established. At issue in this observation are also the insights that Hubert and Mauss articulated with regard to the sacrificial rituals with which primitive cultures carved out domains of relatively stable human existence in the face of the overwhelming forces of nature and the constant threat of infinite dispersal and liquidation concomitant to these forces. The “primitive” mind, write Hubert and Mauss, understood the world to be created by sacrifice. This sacrificial creation of the world was not performed for the sake of worshipping existing gods. It went hand in hand with the sacrificial birth (birth through death) of the gods themselves.

This sacrificial fixing of a precarious foothold in the abyssal nothingness that accompanies and permeates all human affairs can be compared to the creation and maintenance of a vertiginous mountain trail. It constitutes a first frail landscaping of an inhabitable and overwhelming wilderness. However frail and thin it may be, the mountain trail and the interfaced spaces that it spans, sews and holds together constitute a landscape or scaped and sculptured land. Conceptually, it is no longer a wilderness, however wild it may appear sometimes. This understanding of the distinction between landscape and wilderness and of the way the former displaces the latter is central to the work of Glasgow-based artist Sari Lievonen. Her work explores the way landscapes and landscaping separate us from and destroy natural environments instead of connecting or exposing us to them. To invoke just two examples here: Her installation A hill beyond portrays how the ascending of a wooden construction (how often are bridge-like constructions similar to the one portrayed here not conveniently provided when well  kept and well frequented hiking trails go through rougher patches) actually removes the hill and puts it beyond our access and experience. Another installation, The great beyond ,similarly separates the self from the natural environment that it seeks to enter by restricting access to two wooden foot rails that bridge the landscape. As a result of this separation the landscape itself turns into an artefact, namely, a model landscape of the kind often used in new architectural projects.

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But through exploring landscaping in this fashion, her work also keeps in play the possibility of landscapes that accomplish that which is conceptually impossible: landscapes that re-invite or simply yield again to the natural or pristine spaces they displace. Her installation Tonight on earth affords us an experience of what could be at stake here. Basically a black or charcoal coloured cast of a derelict used mattress lying on the ground, Tonight on earth re-invites the dark and ominous recesses of the night from which a new or still good mattress in a well-sheltered bedroom shields one almost completely. The colour of the derelict mattress intimates saturation with the unfathomable darkness of the night. One can imagine the mattress salvaged and still in use by a homeless person in a makeshift shelter, under a bridge or less frequented subway. Tonight that person will be on earth in a way the well-heeled in comfortable if not luxurious beds will not be. This invokes not only the mountain sermon – the poor shall inherit the earth – but also Martin Heidegger’s exploration of the work of art as an embodiment of the tension and struggle between world and earth. By embodying this tension, the work of art reconnects the world (the architected or constructed human environment) with the earth (the original and abyssal openings of space and time that Heidegger explored by retrieving Aristotle’s question of Being (Sein) and by subverting the metaphysical tradition of positing Being as a supreme presence or entity (Seiende)that grounds and secures all other entities). And for Heidegger too, it is the experience with the frailty of poverty that emanates from Van Gogh’s Peasant Shoes that invokes an exposure (through toil) to the earth beyond secured human environments. Tonight on earth may well be interpreted as a contemporary and urban variation of Van Gogh’s Peasant Shoes

In an essay on Lievonen’s recent sculptural interventions at the Blairbeich Plantation near Balloch, Scotland (see the link “Marking Time” under, Johan van der Walt describes these interventions in terms of a marking of time of time that signals the restoration of an earlier site and a more original capacity of sight and seeing. They would signal the very emergence, surfacing, revelation of things, the initial growth of things that can never be anything but new growth (see the sculptural intervention “Surfacing”, image 4.1 and 4.2 attached). If so, these sculptural interventions invite us to have an experience with that which Barnett Baruch Newman called the sublime, namely, the il y’a; the there is; the coming to pass of the world; the elementary thereness or hereness of things. “The mereness of things” (diese Blößheit), one could add, leaning on a phrase of Martin Heidegger.

At issue here is indeed a first emergence of the gods (Thor in the case of the Blairbeich Interventions) that precedes the ways in which established religions always risk reducing this e-mergence into a stable existence and presence. This stable existence or presence can of course be invoked economically and instrumentally, at will or as one may please or need. That is why they are crucial for the survival of these positive religions and crucial for the survival of all positive cultural and social institutions. But sooner or later (it is again an uncertain matter of time) this stable presence also begins to undermine these institutions. Their very stability eventually precludes them from registering the sublime. Reduced to a useful presence, the gods no longer inspire awe. This is the instrumentalisation of religion that Nietzsche called “the death of God”. The gods only survive as long as a certain dysfunctional trembling and awe-struck experience of their hereness survive. As such, the sculptural interventions at the Blairbeich Plantation mark the precarious sacrificial interface or threshold between the emergence/surfacing of things/gods, on the one hand, and the withdrawal, disappearance or flight that ensues whenever they become stable and instrumentalised presences.

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Lievonen’s work is of interest to Jasper and Van der Walt because of the way her exploration of separation and connection through separation in landscapes marks the precarious emergence or surfacing of the sacred. This emergence or surfacing briefly precedes the always imminent flight or withdrawal of the sacred that ensues from its reduction to a stable institutional presence or entity. This marking of an emergence that separates and connects resonates with central themes in their research. David Jasper’s recent research inquires into ways in which liturgy separates and shields us from a direct experience with God or the sacred, but precariously and paradoxically stands a chance of reconnecting us with God and the sacred through this separation. Johan van der Walt’s research on the relation between law and sacrifice investigates the way the law separates us from justice and indeed destroys justice, but also allows, if only contingently, for an oblique experience with justice.

The twofold dynamic of separation and connection explored in Lievonen’s art and Jasper’s and Van der Walt’s research also explains the significance of the “urban turn” in Lievonen’s art already evident in Tonight on Earth. Art and artefact inevitably turn wilderness into landscape, thus rendering wilderness as such inaccessible and turning it into the “great beyond” (the central theme of Lievonen’s earlier work with landscapes), but it also renders wilderness present as the inaccessible “great beyond”. It renders wilderness present as absence or present in its absence. The same holds true for the “thickest” and potentially most imposing of artefacts, the city or cityscape (the ultimate artefact). The city surely constitutes the most exhaustive displacement of the wild and the natural. But does it not for this very reason re-invite the wild (the sacred and the just in Jasper’s and Van der Walt’s terms)? Does the wild (the sacred and the just) not accompany the city and city dweller (the profane and the unjust?) in silent and inconspicuous ways that only art can bring to light? This is the new (old) question that Lievonen aims to explore in her recent and future work and in her research during her residency.

In a way the research of Jasper and Van der Walt and the art of Lievonen all engage with the different ways (in religion, law and art) in which the sacrificial existence of humanity only seems able to invoke the sacred by destroying it; only seems able to live with the sacred by filtering out of life its essence, namely, its potential to overwhelm and destroy. To what extent can this destruction and filtering-out be reversed without courting disaster? This is the central question that will guide their collaboration during Lievonen’s residence period from January to October 2010.

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This project is funded by the Leverhulme Trust, Artist in Residence Grant.

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Academic Essays

Visual Research




A hill beyond

A Hill Beyond

The Great Beyond

The Great Beyond

To Night on earth

Tonight on earth

Golden tree

Thor's Emergence