The Moment of Choice

ken kiff.jpg

I asked Emma (aged 9) what  she thought of this picture by Ken Kiff and she said “It looked like a piece of bacon asking a piece of seaweed for directions. And he stuck out his tongue!”

Here’s the official explanation from Wikpedia:


‘The Sequence’ begun in the 1970s, and by the time of [Kiff’s] death, constituting nearly 200 works represented a striking formal innovation. Regarded by Kiff as a single work, it was a series of pictures (acrylic on paper), forming a chain, repeating and developing imagery and colour, and allowing their networks of association to move and develop laterally across many formats, with a single energy carrying them along.”

And here’s a clip from the Guardian’s 2001 obituary: “He called this project The Sequence. Its nearly 200 numbered pictures relate to himself more openly, in many instances picturing him in various actual and imagined situations, sometimes in an almost illustrational manner, often allegorically. Its essential subject is the harmonies and discords, marvels as well as dismays, occasioned by the interaction of outer reality and the realities of thought and memory.”

So here’s “Red Coat” in The Sequence. It’s a little off-putting and can be over-hastily diagnosed as the work of someone in therapy (as a reviewer commented!). Typically for Kiff, it’s a psychodrama, a world peopled by a small cast of archetypal elements, drawn in a rough, childlike hand and the world remains a dreamland scenes from a psychic “journey”. There’s nothing but these symbolic fixtures, in a cramped landscape-theatre. Faces and figures signal primary, clown-school emotions – joy, fear, bewilderment, loneliness, aggression. And to keep the mood strong and simple-minded, the colours are indiscreet, radiant, lurid. Seaweed and bacon, indeed.

So what’s the story? It’s “the interaction of outer reality and the realities of thought and memory.” Emma’s account is not too far out. To me, it’s a freestyle interpretation of the Temptations of Christ as recorded in the Gospels, a metaphorical meeting between good and evil in the arena of decision. Here’s a clip from Matthew 4:

Jesus is tested in the wilderness

“Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting for forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, ‘If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.’

Jesus answered, ‘It is written: “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the highest point of the temple. ‘If you are the Son of God,’ he said, ‘throw yourself down. For it is written:

‘“He will command his angels concerning you,
    and they will lift you up in their hands,
    so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.”

Jesus answered him, ‘It is also written: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour. ‘All this I will give you,’ he said, ‘if you will bow down and worship me.’

10 Jesus said to him, ‘Away from me, Satan! For it is written: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.”

11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.”

Kiff strips everything away to one essential: a personal encounter. He allows the barest suggestion of a mountainous landscape – which is the connecting link thoughout Matthew’s narrative (“the wilderness… the highest point of the temple [on Mount Zion]… a very high mountain,” and even offers a glimpse of the stone that may become bread beneath the tempter’s feet.

And there’s a dialogue going on, as evidenced by the spread fingers and facial expressions, the body langauge and posture. The Tempter’s feet are turned away, as if inviting the traveller to follow him. His misplaced eyes and protruding tongue are serpentine, cajoling.

Obviously, the story of the Temptations that Jesus faced in his forty-day fast in the wilderness was told by him to his disciples whose testimony was eventually recorded in the gospel accounts. But there’s a “real-life” parallel that they did witness. In Matthew 16, we have this little moment:

“From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord![e]This shall never happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

Here’s what the Temptations of Christ look like in a historical (rather than metaphorical) frame. Jesus shows his hand tohis disciples and reveals where he is destined to go. Peter remonstrates and-out of a generous heart- gives reasons why Jesus is wrong (!). And Jesus rounds on him, and identifies his words as of satanic origin. He says that such thinking is “hindrance” to him and that Peter is not “setting [his] mind on the things of God but on the things of men.”

And all choice comes down to that bare essential. That’s what speaks to me so powerfully in Kiff’s painting. Ultimately there is nothing else left but the choice you make between the things of God and the things of men.

There’s an amazing climax in Deuteronomy 30:19 which springs to mind here: “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.”

Seaweed or bacon?

Choose life.

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