A question mark in an artwork’s title can mean a theological shift, writes James Pallister
Bar a few stages in storage, Terry Duffy’s painting Victim, No Resurrection has been on tour since its completion in 1981. It’s a harrowing painting, showing several figures in anguish encased within a four metre-high cross.
Duffy, a Liverpudlian, painted it over two years as a response to the Toxteth riots and what he saw as the breakdown of a culture which produced victims devoid of hope. He first showed it at Giles Gilbert Scott’s Anglican cathedral in the city and subsequently in Basil Spence’s Coventry cathedral, in its twinned bomb-wrecked city of Dresden, at St Ethelburga’s – the church in the City of London bombed by the IRA – and in post-9/11 New York. This Lent, you can see it at Trafalgar Square’s St Martin-in-the-Fields, where it will hang for two weeks before being taken down at the end of Good Friday.
One of the curious things about the crucifix as a symbol is how, through its abstraction and ubiquity as a symbol of hope, it becomes easy to forget the brutality of the act it depicts: death through asphyxiation preceded by being whipped, stripped naked and nailed to a cross.
Duffy can’t be accused of ducking the depiction of horror through abstraction. He described it to me as being important to provoke a visceral, unpleasant reaction to help remind us that ‘there are people who are victims without hope, and it’s very easy for people in political and religious power to ignore them.’
St-Martin-in the-Fields has asked Duffy to change the title to Victim, No Resurrection? for the duration of its hanging, helping ask the question – explored by the accompanying series of talks by war correspondents, kidnap victims and torture counsellors – how people continue their lives after experiencing violence. The addition of the question mark also makes a significant theological shift to the statement, one in which salvation becomes possible and keeps Duffy on the right side of a question posed to him by a former mayor of New York: ‘are you a heretic?’
Victim, No Resurrection?, St Martin-in-the-Fields, 9–22 April