The following are extracts from a conversation between Nathan Coley and Dr Timothy Chappell, a senior lecturer in Philosophy at University of Dundee. Dr Chappell’s areas of expertise include the philosophy of religion, religious experience, mysticism and reasons for faith. Timothy Chappell: Did you see evidence of the symptoms of Jerusalem Syndrome in the people you were filming. And, a different question, did you yourself pick up any sense of Jerusalem as a holy place? Did it move you? Did it get through to you as being a holy place or was it strangely unholy?
Nathan Coley: I very deliberately didn’t try to document people who were suffering from the phenomenon. There were examples, and you know, we could have been at the Wailing Wall at 1am, when it’s known that the people come out. That was less interesting though than actually dealing with the everyday, because I think that the everyday has a reality which is far more fascinating; that somehow the camera and my eye are perhaps looking for something rather than presenting something. It places the audience in a more personal position—they have to make a decision whether this person on the screen has Jerusalem Syndrome or has faith.
TC : One of the most interesting things about the film is that you’re setting the viewer a series of questions: What’s going on here? What does this mean? It reminded me a bit of Craig Raine’s ‘A Martian Sends a Postcard Home’ poem—where he is experimenting with the narrative device, taking a viewpoint on some quite ordinary activity like brushing your teeth or going for a swim, and shooting it from the point of view of someone who’s completely from another world. And in the film the question is always—is this my world or is this another world? Wittgenstein says again and again that you can’t understand how human beings behave unless you’re within their form of life. You have these very familiar artefacts which you focus on—plastic chairs, Reebok trainers, people chewing gum, people with camcorders—all of them very familiar and in a way very banal, but at the same time the Reebok trainers are on polished stone, thousands of years old and the weight of history is pressing down on you. But to feel the weight of that history you need to be within the tradition.
NC: Yep, people are always going to ask me, “So did you get any sense of yourself becoming affected by Jerusalem?”. I guess that’s a precursor to “Did you get Jerusalem Syndrome?” I would preface my answer by saying that through my eyes Jerusalem is an invisible city. For me, seeing Jerusalem was very difficult. It’s very hard to understand it but also to make sense of. I think that’s because of the images in my mind I’ve taken with me before being there—often the case with the exotic perhaps—and that there are songs written about Jerusalem. There’s such a mythology about Jerusalem.
TC: All the way back to the psalms, yes. The present moment can be very banal and very undermining of what’s also at the same time, a very magnificent experience. But you’re intercutting from one intensity to another in this sense in your film. You have this almost physical sense of the weight of history on your shoulders as you look at these famous old places. Then you intercut from that intensity to a very different kind.
NC: Yes, I’m very conscious that there are two very ancient traditions in terms of image-making—there’s landscape and there’s portraiture in the work and a narrative is built up through both of those. But there’s no oral narrative or description of what you’re viewing. I think the portraits of people, most of which are stolen, add a very different dynamic to the way in which, what has already been illustrated in terms of public space, presents itself to you.
TC: That’s a sense I got too, and it brings out another contrast the film makes very clear between the public and the private. There’s nothing as private as prayer and these people are engaged in a dialogue with God which is just the soul, and God and nothing else, and yet it’s happening in the most public of all possible arenas.
NC : With photographs being taken of them and people passing.
TC: Your camera is there, and tourist cameras which are often included in the footage; it’s all happening in public and it’s all happening against this huge backdrop of history, and yet maybe this is the only thing that doesn’t change—the individual’s attempt to find meaning in the universe.
NC: But there’s also such a prevalent contemporary discussion about troubles in the Middle East. We see images of Jerusalem on our televisions every week, and I initially found it very difficult to get past that, to get past the initial blindness. For a lot of commentators the discussion or the conflict or misunderstanding in Jerusalem is an illustration of the wider situation in the Middle East and should be expanded upon. And of course the footage deals with our knowledge and presence of that—the film was made in 2004 at a particular time of history. I was there during Ramadan. I was there in the week Yasser Arafat died in Paris. However, the people I met in Israel are just trying to get through their lives. The sound guy on the shoot had a 16 year old daughter, so he’s just trying to deal with the fact his daughter’s becoming a woman. So as much as all of these personal, public and global discussions are important, there are guys there just trying to deal with their family and get through the day and that’s …
TC: … not easy to do living in a place that all the great religions of the world want for their exclusive possession.
NC: Yes. And as the sound person said, he used to live in Jerusalem but now he lives in Tel Aviv because in Jerusalem you exist, in Tel Aviv you can live.
TC: Wouldn’t it be better if people just didn’t get bothered about these things?
NC: How do you mean? I could read that as being a really crucial question or as a throwaway line—I’m not sure what you mean?
TC: Well I guess coming back to the Martian anthropologist approach, one feeling you might have is a kind of Olympian feeling—why do the little creatures, the humans get so excited about these things (NC laughs) and yet that kind of prompts the answer because they wouldn’t be human if they didn’t. Again we face another paradox here—it’s very difficult for humans to disengage themselves from their concerns—you can’t (going back to Wittgenstein) step out of your form of life. That’s where you are, that’s what makes you, that’s what you are. And yet it’s also possible within that form of life to find something pretty childish about the kind of territoriality that has six Christian churches squabbling over the possession of one building, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. So, one wonders what to do with that paradox on a human level and what to do with it when we encounter it in Scotland too. Is it better to be fanatical or apathetic or is there a way in between and if so what the heck is it?
NC: I mean, I find it very difficult because I find it fascinating, but difficult also because I have no faith and feel neutral to all of them—how do we co-exist and deal with these questions and the duality of existing in terms of being an individual. But also, that as human beings we gather ourselves in communities. What happens when my community comes into tension and conflict with your community? Could I say squabbling over a piece of stone is ridiculous? The Wailing Wall—I would never argue against it having archaeological significance, but could I defend it? To defend the actual stone? I couldn’t.
TC: And yet many people do exactly that.
NC: I’m fascinated by the fact that this is the case, but I can’t understand it. And there’s other examples from other religions—there’s the history of the Crusades, the suicide bombers. So on all sides they’re all as bad as each other or all as good as each other, depending on whether you want to take their values as being yours.
TC: They all see possession of the holy cities as one of the greatest prizes there is.
NC: They see it as the only prize.
TC : And yet as you say, if you believe that God is universal why should that one place matter?
NC : I wonder if we’re talking this way because we live in a northern European Calvinistic western country. It’s certainly the Church of Scotland’s notion that the church is a place where God’s people meet, rather than it being holy in itself. That notion kind of permeates us—anything other than that is very alien!
TC: Indeed. To go back to the film, what images for you make up its iconography?
NC: The most important sections of the footage for me are not visual—they’re sound. There’s a kind of electric hum, noise, which punctuates between the three significant religious places in the film and at that point the image is black so it’s something I’m presenting as non-visual but somehow emotional. Its only at the end you see that the origin of this sound is from outwith the holy city and is from a telephone pole looking down into the valley of a Palestinian town—that noise, that kind of ambient tension, illustrates for me what Jerusalem felt like.
TC: The viewer gets the impression that the level of noise is quite low, quite subdued, very human. It’s constant. Voices are not shouting but talking in fairly low voices. It doesn’t seem a deafening place.
NC : No, you would not deliberately attract attention to yourself or those with you. It’s just not that kind of place.
TC: That’s interesting because it makes the whole city sound like a cathedral or a place of worship where you go in and instinctively whisper.
NC: No. I think the level of ambient noise illustrates the fragile equilibrium within the old town. Its almost as if there was a man shouting at the Wailing Wall, there would need to be a man shouting by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. There needs to be a balance at all times and perhaps the easiest thing is for the level of noise to be low.
TC: Where might this lead you next?
NC : I don’t know to be honest. I could be flippant and say it’s changed the way I want to work. I see it as being a continuation of my interest into how the built environment illustrates and articulates what we do, who we are and how we misunderstand each other. And I’m interested in using film and video as it poses different forms of illustrating those interests to where I have previously used sculpture or photography. I’ve really found it both difficult and also liberating using a different material. I’m fascinated by the fact that I’ve spent a lot of energy and also a lot of thought on this work and I kind of still don’t know what it is. I think there is something interesting in there and I think it’s fascinating and beautiful and problematic. My position on it, on Jerusalem Syndrome and Jerusalem and everything that’s in the work, is not yet clear, but in a sense the reason for making it is to find out that. And I’m both excited and nervous to watch and see what happens with it. The work has to learn what it is as much as I need to learn what the work is and that’s always exciting and pretty rare.
Edited by Jenny Brownrigg, Curator, University of Dundee Exhibitions Department