Respond, Discover, Connect, Create
Libby Byrne

Mystery, Becoming, Identity and Desire, 2015

Organising and Global Themes

Following Attride-Stirling’s model for thematic analysis, the next step of the data collection phase involved grouping the basic themes into some larger Organising Themes and then uncovering a Global Theme capable of naming the essence of the viewers’ responses. The 2nd Level of Thematic Coding assisted in gathering the Basic Themes together and identifying three Organising Themes. Considering the nature of the titles offered as Verbs, Nouns, Adjectives, Invitations or Questions, enabled me to identify what nature of the responses that had been offered. A Breath in Surrender, or Reaching from the depths of despair into the unknown, are examples of titles that I considered to be articulating something that was happening for the viewers as they engaged with the artwork. Many of the titles that were categorized as verbs related to the human experience of being described incisively in the philosophy of Martin Heidegger.[1] The viewers whose titles could be categorised as verbs were seeking clues to what it might mean to be or to become an authentic human being. They understood that time was finite and their existence was related to the stretch of time between birth and death. In posing their thoughts as verbs, these viewers were recognising that being human is always and inherently becoming. Becoming was therefore nominated as the first Organising Theme.

The 2nd Level of Coding revealed that many participants responded by offering titles that were nouns. These were the viewers who needed to name something that they saw in the artwork and these names often raised issues and questions of identity. Ha’adama is probably the most potent example of a title that names and gives identity to the image Letting Go. In Phyllis Trible refers to Genesis 2:7 suggesting that Ha’adama is one way to speak about the creation of humankind in an un-gendered way. “Yhwh formed Ha’adam (the earth creature) from the dust of Ha’adama (the earth)”.[2] This title is therefore a deeply significant contribution to the question of identity that is inherent in the artwork. The questions of liberation and oppression that were considered by viewers in relation to this work were deeply connected with questions of identity as evidenced in the nouns that were offered as titles, such as Woman and Mother. Identity was therefore nominated as the second Organising Theme.

The titles that were less directly relevant to themes of Becoming and Identity were the titles that were adjectives as well as some of the invitations and questions. Titles that were categorised as adjectives described both aesthetic responses and longing for spiritual connection and in this sense they spoke into the mystery of the artwork. Darkness embraced, Timeless Metamorphis, Invitation into the Unknown and The Edge of Breath were all examples of titles that revealed the presence of mystery within the ordinary and the everyday. The question of mystery was articulated in questions such as Where is Grace? and What lies Beneath?. Mystery was therefore nominated as the third and final Organising Theme.

The exhibition Untitled therefore largely related to three organising themes; Becoming, Identity and Mystery. Undergirding all of these themes is Desire; the desire to see and be seen, to know and be known and to wonder about life beyond the frame of the canvas. Jan Olav-Henriksen suggests that “Desire is what connects us to the world. Desire is shaping our orientations, giving us directions, suggesting aims to strive for. Our contemplation, consideration, and plans for action would mean nothing without desire.”[3] The same could well be said about art. The responses offered by participants in this inquiry suggest that being with and seeing art can connect us with the world, giving shape and form to our desires. The palimpsests were imbued with an expression of desire as described by Henriksen. The themes that have emerged from the participants’ responses suggest that the sensory qualities inherent in the material presence of the work have the capacity to awaken others to the immediacy of their own experience of desire. Whilst this is something that could have been a solitary experience, the opportunity to contribute a written response to this exhibition enabled desire to function not only to connect participants with the world but to give them agency; to be seen, heard, acknowledged and recognised within this inquiry. The desire to respond to the creative call of this body of work was present in all of the received responses and so Desire was nominated as the Global Theme. The following diagram illustrates the relationships between the Basic, Organising and Global themes.


[1] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time  (London: SCM Press, 1962).

[2] Phyllis Trible, “”Not a Jot, Not a Tittle: Genesis 2-3 after Twenty Years” (1995 CE),” in Eve and Adam, ed. Kirsten E. Kvam, Linda S. Schearing, and Valerie H. Ziegler (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1999). 440.

[3] Jan-Olav Henriksen, Desire, Gift, and Recognition: Christology and Postmodern Philosophy  (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2009). 27.