For the video of Concrete Cruciform, please watch here:

For the still images of Concrete Cruciform, please click here.

The violence and beauty of life passing can move one beyond one’s self to where a sense of the “sacred” or the “the other” punctures our thick human flesh [. . . .] Originating from the outside, the catanyctic confrontation cuts deep enough into our tough meat, such that we find ourselves with a near desperate longing to purge, to be transformed.

—Craig Goodworth1

Violence and beauty, indeed. Craig Goodworth’s reflections speak pointedly to the characteristics of his work Concrete Cruciform, a video and a series of stills that embrace death through the physical subject matter of an animal carcass.

Using materials that startle and disturb, Goodworth offers a visual encounter of death that is ritualistic in both its subtle “sense of the sacred” and the process of the art itself. Goodworth finds the animal, fills its hallowed cavity with a chosen material (in this case, concrete), and then returns to collect the cavity and bear witness to the continuation of death’s process. Concrete Cruciform is an unusual but thought-provoking reflection on both the external and internal experiences of death and dying.

The nearness to death created by the Goodworth’s piece tends to draw forth a visceral response, a gut reaction that makes us mouse over to the little x box on our browser in a quick attempt to forget the images we just saw. There are no violent acts in his performance, yet the mere essence of death, of sitting with an animal that has experienced such violence, is enough to register this response. Perhaps it is an instinct; perhaps we are far more connected to the natural world than we realize. Even so, some of us may locate that little x, and instead of clicking, we cannot pry our eyes away from the screen. Somewhere within the grotesque we find the awe of sublime, and somewhere within the grotesque-sublime we find beauty. But our internal worlds may know it before our consciousness does—thus the visceral response, the tension between seeing and not seeing.

I suspect that few of us would immediately respond with awe to the sight of a man approaching a gutted deer—its lifeless eyes staring back at us—with a wheelbarrow full of concrete. I suspect that few of us would sit long enough with the film and the images, revisiting them over and over again, to move to a place where we might cognitively recognize awe and beauty. Instead, we flee to protect ourselves from death’s presence, its arrival, and yet it is in staying with the death (large or small) that we find the opportunity, and possibly the need, to be emptied so that the presence of another may come and fill, so that the presence of Another may come and transform.

Having been raised in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, Goodworth was intrigued at a young age by the relationship between himself and the desert’s diverse environment. Then, as artist-in-residence at an Eastern Orthodox monastic community in New Mexico, Goodworth grew more acquainted with the Christian tradition of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. These two experiences deeply inform the spiritual aspects within his work, and by allowing these places of personal formation to illuminate his approach, Goodworth is able to connect the physicality of the desert environment to humanly internal “environments,” and then use these environments to explore the dance between life and death.

Goodworth describes the desert as a place of “overpowering otherness and harsh indifference,” a place where “one could shout and be met with a big silence.” In contrast to the desert, Goodworth recognizes his feeling of smallness, and as he works with the found animal carcasses in Sacred Offense: Studies in Art, Aesthetics and Spirituality (from which Concrete Cruciform is a part), his art suggests that death is not entirely distinct from this indifferent desert experience, that within the indifference there is a quiet intimacy which emerges if we stay, or if we return, but not if we flee.

People often refer to difficult seasons in life as “desert experiences,” and Goodworth’s intimate knowledge of life in the desert and his spiritual understanding of the relationship between external and internal environments, makes his exploration of death and dying through kenosis (emptying) and plemora (filling) quite powerful. Indeed, further exploration of life in the desert may be helpful for us as we sit with what it is to experience death, both the physical deaths that are inevitable in life and also the internal deaths that are a part of spiritual and psychological growth and transformation. In both external and internal experiences of death, we all have undoubtedly found ourselves wanting to let out a BIG SHOUT at our discomfort only to be met with an indifferent, overpowering, and, perhaps, maddening silence.

The place where death, like the desert, shifts from indifference to intimacy is in the knowledge that within that overpowering silence our shouts are held rather than ignored, embraced rather than deflected. The awe and beauty of the desert is that it is so vast, and it is so mysterious, not unlike the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We sometimes cannot tell the difference between indifference and intimacy because silence is deafening to the one who seeks comfort. Yet once we realize that escaping death is both impossible and unhelpful, and once we can surrender to being emptied, it is then that we can face our own indifference and longing; it is then that we will realize that the seeming indifference is really the most needed embrace. What we see as Absence becomes the strongest Presence.

So we might as well let ourselves shout and enter into the complexity of death and dying, knowing that somewhere here there is beauty. As Japanese philosopher S?etsu Yanagi wrote, “Beauty is a kind of mystery which is why it cannot be grasped adequately through the intellect.” Death and beauty are not all that dissimilar: both can bring us to tears, without always knowing why they fall.

1. The term catanyctic is from the term catanyxis, a word used by the Desert Fathers and Mothers that describes a sudden, often shocking and visceral, knowledge of one’s need to undergo emptying.