“WORKS OF TRANSLATION”: FAITH ON THE MOVE
BY ROSALYNDE WELCH
Rosalynde Welch holds a PhD in early modern English literature from the University of California at San Diego. She is an independent scholar writing for academic journals in the areas of Mormon theology, literature, and culture. She also writes for popular audiences at Times & Seasons, Patheos, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
This is the catalogue essay published for Writ & Vision’s opening show of “Works of Translation.” It is reprinted here with permission from the author.
Translation is faith on the move. Migrations of meaning from one language to another, one medium to another, one mind to another, depend on the translator’s faithfulness to both. Translation—from the Latin “to carry over”—is a particular way to bear meaning across the chasms of difference that crisscross our plural world. It is to bear difference faithfully.
In her show “Works of Translation,” Megan Knobloch Geilman embarks on a host of such faithful crossings. Referencing iconic images of oil painting in the Western fine art tradition, Geilman translates these images into a visual lexicon of 21st century Mormonism. In the process, she sets a universe of objects in living relation to one another through meticulous mise en scène. She invests these relationships with significance by positioning them within the photograph’s frame. And she ferries them faithfully across dislocations persona, cultural, and spiritual.
Geilman’s method, intricate tableaux vivant rigorously staged, lit, and photographed, draws on several important Latter-day Saint aesthetic traditions. The images, formal still-life compositions of lavish costumes and props, reflect the rich Mormon history of didactic pageantry, itself a crucial mode of translation between 20th century Mormonism and wider American culture. Their stately composition and decorative flourishes recall the Latter-day Saint painter Minerva Teichert’s indispensable oil paintings of scripture and religious history. The photographed scenes, especially Geilman’s “Self Portrait in Collaboration with Page Turner,” are rich in the traditional handicrafts of Mormon folk art, especially the textile arts including works of dressmaking, tatting, and quilting, some of which Geilman has handmade.
An ontological curiosity fills Geilman’s frame. Hers is an art of objects, an inquiry into their way of being: the images ask “What is?” The photographs are tasked with seeing, organizing and setting in relation the physical things that constitute Geilman’s religious reality. The object world defined by her camera’s frame is detailed and abundant. Her use of “readymade” art objects—everyday items invested with artistic significance through the artist’s strategic direction of the viewer’s attention—becomes, in the religious contexts of her work, a kind of artistic creation ex materia.
Through her considered bricolage, conversations between adjacent objects develop into thematic explorations of meaning. The counterpoised seer stone and egg, in “The Queen of the South,” for instance, or the antique keys hanging over the zoological print of a hare in “Joseph’s Book of the Dead,” raise fascinating questions of female religious power and prophetic authority. But perhaps more significantly, they visually enact the ways in which spiritual meaning itself arises from objects-in-relation. Geilman’s photographs capture the distinctive metaphysics of Joseph Smith’s prophetic aphorism “All spirit is matter.” As suggested by the carpenter’s workshop in the piece titled “Principia,” spiritual truth must be built, piece by piece and precept by precept. Truth belongs to ontology, not epistemology.
If the images of translation in Geilman’s work create a world of things, a salient feature of that world is its brokenness. Notwithstanding the precision of their staging, the photographs are filled with broken glass and crockery, asymmetrical organic forms, rusted surfaces and aged patina. This is a world of incommensurability and imperfection, a world “after the fall,” rendered in its brokenness with care and love. Set among these images of imperfection are symbols of Christ drawn from both Christian iconography and Geilman’s personal religious vision: chickens and other fowl, eggs, fishing nets and bobs, lilies and other flowers, sheaves of grain, palm fronds, and vines.
These Christological symbols are often weathered and unremarkable. Geilman sets them among the welter of other objects humbly, without visual fanfare, an enactment of Christ’s incarnation as a powerless and obscure child. They suggest a theology of atonement oriented not toward a resplendent realm of perfection, but toward Christ’s sharing of human pain and infirmity “that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people” (Alma 7:12). Visually referencing symbols of Christian, Etruscan, and Egyptian religion, Geilman translates these images of salvation and rebirth into a distinctively incarnational theological idiom.
If there is a dominant theological context for understanding geilman’s project, it may be latter-day saint temple worship. The LDS temple ritual, understood by many as a renewal of ancient religious truth, centers human life against a vast cosmic background and places each initiate in the role of Adam or Eve, illustrating the soul’s symbolic journey through mortality. Along the way, novices are instructed in their exercise of moral agency, are spiritually initiated in the faith’s covenantal rites, including priesthood ordination and marriage, and finally are entrusted with the esoteric knowledge that ushers them into the symbolic presence of God.
The influence of temple worship on Latter-day Saint religious culture is at once pervasive and hidden. The community and family ties established by temple covenants are at the center of LDS social life, and LDS gender culture is influenced in complex ways by temple teachings. The Saints value the elevated spiritual mood associated with the temple’s symbolic meanings and ancient practices, which many experience as a source of profound spiritual insight and nourishment. Yet the esoteric nature of the rites often shrouds LDS discussion of the temple in allusion and concealed meanings.
Geilman’s “Works of Translation” may be understood as an extended exploration of LDS temple worship in the mode of visual allusion and symbol. Images like “Adam’s Dilemma” are filled with references direct and indirect to the biblical creation narrative of Adam and Eve’s fall into mortality, interpreted by Latter-day Saints as a positive passage into moral agency initiated by Mother Eve’s courageous choice. Images of trees and fruit, alluding to the Eden narrative, of royalty, especially crowns and robes, and of Masonic ritual objects, including the compass and square, carry clear temple resonance. The photograph “Queen of the South” alludes directly to the priestly power of temple initiates, and to the ancient biblical imagery associated with LDS priesthood. Strikingly, Geilman’s object worlds are free of digital technology or other accoutrement of modern life; she seems to strive for a timeless aura that Latter-day Saints seek in the cosmic horizon of temple worship.
Beyond the meaning of the particular objects populating these images, temple worship influences Geilman’s essential creative mode in at least two ways. First, she makes meaning through the layering of symbols. No object is purely itself; behind its surface lie deeper layers of meaning. The physical world must be read symbolically by those with eyes to see, those who have been introduced to the hidden contexts—here, the Western fine art tradition and the Latter-day Saint movement—summoned by the visual imagery.
Geilman’s artistic worlds are filled with physical objects, yes, but they are positively chockablock with symbolic meanings that multiply and overflow the mise en scène. Each photograph is an invitation to read, to decipher, and, inevitably, to interpret. The symbolic mode of reading encouraged by the photographs shares much in common with ancient practices of scriptural interpretation: allegorical approaches to scripture understand the sacred word as likewise exploding with layers of hidden spiritual meaning, made accessible to the reader only through careful interpretation that transcends a literal reading of the text. Geilman’s visual symbolism might be seen as a “translation” of scriptural hermeneutics into the visual idiom of 21st century Mormonism. In this way, “Works of Translation” fosters hermeneutic practice as the central way of seeing religiously.
Geilman’s method is further influenced by latter-day saint temple worship in its deep personal connection to the artist’s family and friends. Each image is produced in collaboration with the photographer Samantha Zauscher, Geilman’s sister, who lights and captures the digital image in creative consultation with the artist. The photograph “Self Portrait” features exquisite natural art objects created by the sculptor Page Turner. Geilman collaborates with costumers, hair designers, and other artisans to realize her vision for each image.
Crucially, the photographs always feature her immediate family and friends as the models. Notable in this regard is the photograph “Jane,” in which an African American woman, alluding to both Latter-day Saint pioneer Jane Manning James and Mary the mother of Jesus, poses in a composition echoing “Whistler’s Mother.” The model, JV Agnew, taught Geilman’s youth Sunday School class in their LDS wardhouse, where the photo was staged. The resulting layers of personal, theological, and historical resonances within the photograph’s frame are richly suggestive of the ways in which LDS temple worship localizes the cosmic and personalizes the sweep of sacred time. Latter-day Saint theology envisions Christian salvation radiating through sealed bonds of kin and community, and thus Christ’s saving grace is activated always and only through local connections of love and care. Geilman’s work translates LDS sealing theology into a strikingly original visual idiom.
One of the most salient material features of LDS temple worship is its use of textiles in profound symbolic capacities. Temple interiors, including the ceremonial altars, are adorned with rich fabrics, and temple initiates dress in formal priestly vestments. The look and feel of these textiles largely define the sensory experience of temple worship for Latter-day Saints. The prominence of textiles in Geilman’s images may be read in this light. Drapery, of course, has long been part of the language of Western oil painting and sculpture, offering artists moments for visual rhythm, expression, and virtuosity. Layered on this classical tradition, Geilman explores the sacred significance of textile and drapery.
Notably, Geilman stages virtually every image in front or on top of a solid textile drape that defines the composition and frames the human figures. Geilman’s large wall drapes allude to Latter-day Saint temple worship and its metaphysics of heaven. The culmination of the ritual, symbolically marking the initiate’s return to the divine presence in a celestial realm of glory, occurs at a ceremonial drape that screens the temple’s holiest space. The drape, a liminal textile boundary with strong scriptural echoes, both separates mortal experience from the divine and allows access to the divine presence. This dual function mirrors Latter-day Saint metaphysics, which asserts both a vital ongoing communication between earthly and heavenly realms and the glorious contrast of the celestial realm. Geilman’s drapes likewise both demarcate the limitations of human experience, confined by time, space, language, and myriad cultural divisions, and gesture toward the promise of something beyond. What lies behind the drape?
Some Latter-day Saint depictions of heaven feature gauzy and diaphanous textures, communicating the openness of heaven and the transparency of the Latter-day Saint revelation of the soul’s journey beyond mortality. Geilman’s drapes, by contrast, are heavy, solid and opaque. No light penetrates; no inkling of what lies beyond passes through. In this sense alone, perhaps, Geilman’s “Works of Translation” decline to “translate”—a term used idiosyncratically in LDS teaching to denote the fluid movement of souls between mortality and immortality. The promise of more remains, but the viewer’s gaze is firmly directed to the here and now, to the hidden layers of understanding available in plain sight before the curtain. Don’t be distracted by what’s behind the curtain, the photographs suggest. Keep your eyes on the details given by this moment. The world is crammed with objects, and each object is deep in conversation with its neighbor. An abundance of spiritual meaning is readily available to all who take the trouble to listen and learn the language of symbol. “Works of Translation” is a masterclass in interpretation.