Reveling in Transience: Thoughts Inspired by Cheese

Dieter Roth's "Staple Cheese (A Race)". An artwork that changes colours all by itself...

Everything you need to know about installation art would have been evident to you had you ever had the (probably quite surreal) opportunity of seeing (and certainly smelling) Dieter Roth’s Staple Cheese (A Race), which was part of his exhibition in Los Angeles’  Eugenia Butler Gallery in 1970. The work consisted of 37 suitcases of various sizes and descriptions, filled with different types of cheese. Samples of each cheese were mounted on the wall above them in plastic bags and left to decompose. The idea was that each cheese would start to ooze and run down the wall, and the winner would be the cheese that got to the ground first (see the title of the work – a pun on Steeplechase).  Apparently after a few days the smell was so unpleasant that it was impossible to enter the exhibition room, and it got to the point where the governmental health and sanitation agencies tried to shut the exhibition down, serving a summons on the gallery for the unlawful “breeding or harbouring of flies”, before eventually conceding that the show could run until the end of the month. Roth – true to form – honoured the flies, which he stated were the “true audience” of the exhibition.

So the concept of installation art is not entirely unfamiliar to me, and thus there was a part of me that connected with a piece that I saw at a school art exhibition last week, which was comprised entirely of (by then slightly mouldy) toast. Art has certainly become more progressive since I was at school. It is, I think, exceptionally brave for a teenager to invest hours of irreplaceable time and energy into creating something that she knows from the outset is destined to perish. Often we make art with the (at least subconscious) aim of immortalising something of ourselves. Psychologically speaking, we often make art to last, to leave something of ourselves behind. This kind of thing – art made from toast – is really quite counter-intuitive. I admire that.

Now I need to confess that I don’t particularly like installation art, aesthetically speaking, but I certainly do connect with the concept. I love art that accepts its transience, because, ultimately, I think that the willingness to embrace one’s mortality and individual unimportance is key to achieving fulfilment in life. Artists who are prepared to surrender the delusion that their works can transcend time are, I believe, admirable.

Think about it: nothing lasts. All human achievements will be forgotten and our impact on the world will eventually amount to nothing. Young fans of Chelsea Football Club today have probably never heard of Dennis Wise or Vinnie Jones (as a footballer anyway), yet they were Chelsea legends in their time; it is very likely that most readers will never have heard of Norman Woodland or John Shepherd-Barron, but they invented things that revolutionised the world (No, I won’t tell you what- look them up!). You probably do not even know the names of your great-grandparents, let alone anything about their personal opinions, life philosophies, dreams or fears. Even the shockwaves from the most momentous historical atrocities will not be felt for more than a handful of generations. There are very few alive today, for example, who remember anything of World War 2’s plethora of tragedies: the Holocaust, D-Day, the Soviet capture of Berlin, all of which followed in less than a breath– historically speaking – of a war so horrific that many at the time thought it would be a sufficiently sobering warning to humanity that there would never be another war. They called it “The War to End All Wars”. History has a very short memory. Individual lives are like vapors in the wind.

I don’t know what Dieter Roth intended his piece to say, but when I contemplate it, I am reminded how frequently we get caught up in a pointless race to acquire things that are destined to rot, a fruitless quest for immortality. But we are the cheese; only the flies and maggots ever win. And the thing is that this is an enormously liberating realisation. It is not a depressing thought at all, but a humbling and humanising insight.

For one thing, if all of your successes are ultimately meaningless, so are your failures. History will treat both with the same indifference. So you can afford to be kinder to yourself. Too many people live daily in the crushing grip of regret and guilt. They are both so unnecessary. If God is love – not simply a practitioner of love, but love itself (1 John 4: 8), and if “love keeps no record of wrongs” (1 Corinthians 13:5), then your failures are of no consequence to him. It was never a case of God trying to punish us until Jesus stepped in to help us sidestep His wrath. It was always His nature to forgive. If you doubt that, consider the following Old Testament scriptures:

“For as high as the heavens are above the earth,     so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west,     so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” (Psalm 103:11-12)

I would also recommend reading Isaiah 1, but I will highlight a few verses that make the point:

11 “The multitude of your sacrifices — what are they to me?” says the Lord. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. 12 When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? 13 Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations — I cannot bear your worthless assemblies…

18 “Come now, let us settle the matter,” says the Lord. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.

The heaviness of spirit that so many suffer from is self-imposed. The manacles have always been mind-forged. It is time to let go.

I don’t think it is possible for us to make our lives have meaning in the greater scheme of things. The picture is too vast for that. If you believe in a Creator, then it follows that – like any artist – he had some sort of purpose in mind, but it is not one that we, who are so infinitely smaller, could ever comprehend (Isaiah 55:8-9). It is left to us only to trust. And if we are merely tiny mega-pixels in the enormous picture of the universe, then arbitrary distinctions between activities that are sacred and those which are secular really don’t matter at all. We simply need to exist for the picture to be complete, and the onus is certainly not on us to even understand it, let alone to complete it. That we exist at all has meaning in itself; there is no compulsion on us to give our lives consequence. But the onus is on us to determine whether or not we find fulfilment in being a part of that picture.

Maybe ‘picture’ is the incorrect metaphor. Maybe the whole universe is like a colossal installation piece, decaying even as it dazzles, resplendent in its temporary splendour. And maybe I am merely cheese in a bag. But if that is the case, I will assume that I was put in that bag for a reason, and I will emit such an odour, decompose with such stark pungency, that the when the whole artwork does likewise, my life will have contributed to a truly memorable stench. And all I have to do to accomplish that is to be myself – to let go and enjoy being me.

Let me translate that, in case I lost you. My individual deeds – virtuous or not – are irrelevant by themselves. But when I live like my Creator intended – with love and grace, fully myself, consumed by living – the picture that will be created in time, as my life’s song joins with hundreds of millions of others’ – will speak overwhelmingly of the incomprehensible and incomparable beauty of the love and grace of the God who made me. It is not about my personal salvation: it is not my song. My virtues contribute negligibly, and my petty vices will not detract from the melody. All my days may be meaningless, as Solomon said, but that does not render them insignificant. I know God loves me – every fleeting part of me – and I believe He has a purpose for my life beyond my imagining, that will give a meaning and fulfilment to my existence I can never appreciate, and that happens despite me.

It takes real bravery to live properly – to invest all the days of your life into a project that you know can never last, but – cheesy as this will sound – it is an investment I am willing to make.

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