Ashley Chambers paints her crockpot white in the name of God. She magically lights the stove with her divine PVC pipe, conjuring holy rocks above the flames and then, just as easily, dissolves them. She swaps out the Eucharist with brown rice, and culminates her sermon with a grand attempt to cram her own body down a garbage disposal.
Chambers wants “reverse apotheosis,” to wring deities from their bruiseless heights and deposit them in doctor’s offices, cafeterias, and public restrooms, where they belong. At the Union Theological Seminary, she studies theopoetics, equal scoops poetic and religious sublime, served with a side of postmodern philosophy. She can call herself a Master of Divinity with zero irony. Theopoetics posits the real and the divine as equally mysterious, distinctions between scripture and a Charles Olson or Mina Loy poem fall away. “In 2015, at the new student orientation, when fellow seminarians asked me about my faith tradition, I usually responded, ‘Contemporary Poetry,’ straight-faced,” says Chambers. The program’s believers often referred to her and the other atheists and agnostics as “nones.” Though her studies focus on The Word, it’s her combination of ecstatic verse with physical comedy that brings about the revelation. In “Kitchen Counter,” her limbs aim for heaven but achieve the domestic. She’s Lucille Ball cast as Joan of Arc.
“Kitchen Counter” continues in the style of Chambers’s Instagram account, @bodyconference, the birthplace of her ethereal zaniness. There, she lifts fruit in a raincoat in the shower, wears bread as sleeves, choreographs jazz steps in snow, astral projects herself onto a plane somewhere over Italy. Chambers says she began the videos in a fevered state, while in the throes of rapidly progressing Lyme Disease, with symptoms that included hallucinations, psychosis. “I thought I was going to die, quite literally, on a daily basis, and so I also felt I had nothing to lose.” Her mind and body’s failure, coupled with the isolation of seminary, led her to visually play out this altered consciousness, stalled between real and divine. One video from May 2018 begins with her on a chair, spine taut, in a doctor’s waiting room, then cuts to a city rooftop where, in the same blouse, she dances with a vase. As the cuts between the two worlds quicken, her eyes bug, interior spirit and the mundane appear headed for collision until a nurse’s voice calls, “Ashley Chambers?” She stands and walks to the desk as though nothing otherworldly transpired, the viewer privy to an inner power that “nones” cannot see.
She recovered. And found God, or maybe, gods. By making the videos, she’s faced the religious traumas of her childhood and become the latest of her female family members with a direct line to the beyond. Her stepmother “received regular revelations from Christ,” and on other days, Chambers would lie in bed next to her grandmother listening to “paranormal-themed AM radio programs” about “ufology, reincarnation, and the occult.” Yet in both examples, the power resides with the transmitters, higher beings looking down, deciding to reveal themselves via poem to laypeople. The turn in “Kitchen Counter” arrives when Chambers stops quoting and admits to her authorship. “Except I make the god up. I’m the one who turns the lamp down.” Chambers is the apotheosizer working from home. She drags the saints down for conference calls. Instead of glancing up towards a beam of white light, she invites Heaven over for dinner.
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