Quality is the first norm for art, but its final norm is love and truth, the enriching of human life, the deepening of our vision.


Cooper, Philip - VM - Rod Pattenden

Philip Cooper: Ring the Bell

Listening Out Loud

by Rod Pattenden

We live in challenging times when the firm horizons of our national boundaries and international allegiances seem less secure and more open to chaotic change. Personal anxiety will push us to hang on more tightly to the familiar, making us less able to take risks and to generate hopeful change. At these times the role of art will often become one of calming those anxious concerns, bringing healing and hope to our desires for an ordered life. How do images offer us the motivation for speaking up and acting out of the ordinary, to be concerned with not only our personal wellbeing, but the wellbeing of others, people whom we may not even know? These are the sorts of actions that take us out of our comfort zone and identify us with the stranger and the alien.

Phil Cooper’s evocative work Ring the Bell takes us to this space of hovering in the decision between rest and action, silence and speaking, isolation and of getting involved. Characteristic of Cooper’s work is the stability and weight of a work formed out of natural timber, with carved and polished surfaces that have been heightened with ink and textural marks. This figure is weighted and timeless, it is not just an individual figure but like an ancient object it bears the marks of its endurance and resistance to time. Its physical condition is solid and unmovable, like the hills and valleys of our homeland, it seems as if it has always been there. This work carries a comforting sense of unchanging security.

But carved out of its core, like a window or place of sanctuary, is an aperture where a bronze bell has been installed. It too carries the characteristics of ancient timeless security. But this bell can be rung! It can call out in an urgent vibration a moment of alarm or joyful remembrance. Many cultures are filled with such stories where bells ring out helping us remember anniversaries or to alarm us to the dangerous present. In the center of this stable figure is this contrasting quality of potential sound, an alarm for action, rousing a disrupting call to wake up out of our slumber! While we crave rest, there is the question of when it is right to speak up, act, and step out of line. When is the time to erase the firmly drawn lines of our cultural and religious habits and to be transgressors and disturbers of the peace?

Lying behind the genesis of this work is the figure of Christ who is both prophet and priest. Carrying in his form the very order of things, he is also the great disrupter of religious edifices and the over-turner of tables. In this present time, where are those who speak for justice, who will care for the earth, who will ring the bell of alarm, as we all face this uncertain future which we often hope and pray will simply go away? A more direct source of inspiration for the title of the work comes from the well-known poem ‘Anthem’ by Canadian poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen, which protests the frail beauty of being human. The last lines of the poem read:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

Cooper’s work holds the tension between the attraction I feel towards a state of passive trust and endurance and a disturbing wake up call to act before it is too late. It invites me to acknowledge my commitment to the status quo and also the discomfort I experience in wanting things to be different. It alerts me to the danger of closing my eyes to the movements that are going on around me that are working to limit the joy of being human, not only for myself, but also for my neighbor. The future of my neighbor is a future which I will inevitably share. Wake up, ring the bell, the future is too important to be left casually in the hands of those only interested in the small ideas of profit, parochialism or political expediency.


Philip Cooper, Ring the Bell, 2014, carved wood, ink and bronze, 202 x 70 x 45 cm, collection of the artist.

Dr Philip Cooper. Born in Melbourne, Australia, Philip Cooper has studied extensively in Theology and Fine Art. He holds several post graduate degrees culminating in his PhD exhibition in Sculpture and Drawing at Monash University, 2015. During 30 years of artmaking he has been presented in a range of solo and group exhibitions, nationally and internationally. He has enjoyed the involvement in major art commissions, including St. Patrick’s Cathedral Parramatta working under the architect Aldo Giurgola. Philip has lectured in Drawing and Sculpture at tertiary Art Schools in Melbourne. His studio is based in Woodend, Victoria, where he lives with his wife and children.

Artist’s Website:

Rev Dr Rod Pattenden is an art historian and theologian from Australia. He has written widely on the arts and creativity and is currently minister of Adamstown Uniting Church where he has developed Adamstown Arts, a vibrant community arts program engaging faith, justice and creativity.

ArtWay Visual Meditation January 27, 2019