In Eidolon, a single blue iris flower is engulfed in – but not consumed by – flames. Over the course of seven minutes, petals slowly effloresce and shrink within a burning cloak of fire, while a voice sings from the Book of Daniel, Chapter 3.
In Christianity, the blue iris signifies several divine attributes. The flower has historically been associated with the Virgin Mary, faith, wisdom, hope, fortitude, justice, temperance, and patience. In religious gardens, the flowers symbolise heaven. Artists including Monet, Matisse, Van Gogh, Anish Kapoor, Giuseppe Penone and Picasso have used irises to signal virtue.
In this work, the flames symbolise an intent to destroy the innate beauty of the image itself. This tension heightens over the course of the work, as the iris slowly furls and blooms within a dancing shroud of fire, whilst remaining essentially intact. This state of imminent immolation – the transient moment before death – is analogous to depictions of the ecstatic ‘sublime’, in representations of Christian saints at the moment of death. For these figures, the unshakeable promise of the hereafter, tested to the absolute limits of human endurance in crucifixion, sustains their resolve through aggression, attack, physical agony, and slow death. Life, the corporeal self, the body is gratefully sacrificed to God.
The phenomenon is accompanied by Bible verses, sung in Latin, from the Book of Daniel, Chapter Three, recounting the story of three subjects of Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. They are brought to the king after refusing to worship a colossal gold icon he has erected, in his own image, declaring instead they only worship God. Steadfast and resolute, the three men resist the king’s fury, so soldiers are commanded to bind and throw them into a fiery furnace, “several times hotter than usual”. In their haste, the soldiers themselves fall into the flames and are immediately killed. Yet, when the king and his acolytes investigate the furnace, they see Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego walking amidst the flames, unharmed and accompanied by a fourth figure, the Son of God. The men are called out, emerging unharmed, at which point Nebuchadnezzar proclaims the supremacy of God, decreeing anyone who should speak against Him, be cut into pieces.
Like the men in the parable, in Eidolon the iris remains intact, within the flames – indeed, it moves and blooms within the flames, as if joyfully resisting destruction and the impotence of the flames, in a constant affirmation of life.
Martyrdom in art history is a very particular phenomenon. Martyrs are defined by their excruciating deaths, Saint Sebastian being killed by hundreds of arrows or Saint Lawrence, being burned alive. In the Western art canon, these brutal deaths are usually presented as a meditation on faith, as the subject looks heavenwards, with an expression of bewildered ecstasy, reckoning not with their Earthy tormentors, but a force greater than all human suffering and death. Martyrdom, the ultimate victory of faith, is choosing to surrender life for God.
The burning iris speaks of the sublimation of pain, suffering and impending death, within the light of faith. Emmanuel Kant identified the sublime as humanity’s inability to comprehend the infinite vastness of creation and in realising this, recognising humanity’s own insignificance. This is the bedrock of faith. However, this evolving series of burning flower artworks function as surrogates of the crucifixion, the notion of a horrific physical ordeal transcended through a belief in a higher power.
The vivid appalling horror of the account serves as a dynamic counterpoint to the unimaginative ersatz golden idol conferred by Nebuchadnezzar. Eidolon attempts to emulate this violently transcendental state, a ghostly, chimerical testament to unswerving faith.