Trevor Nickolls (1949–2012) created his Bethesda series after suffering a car accident that damaged an eye, his arms, legs, and face. The artist produced a number of works in response to the accident, which were a form of catharsis, and meditation on the vulnerability of the body.
Nickolls was an Aboriginal Australian who grew up in Adelaide. His work reflects a variety of influences, including Aboriginal spirituality, the urban environment, and the Bible, as is the case in the Bethesda series. While Nickolls was not working from a Christian perspective, the story of the pool of Bethesda as a place of healing inspired the name of this group of drawings.
The five Bethesda drawings in the National Gallery of Australia depict a variety of subjects: landscape, trees, seated man, landscape with man playing didgeridoo, and pool. Pool has the most explicit connection to the biblical narrative.
A major theme in Nickolls’s oeuvre is ‘Dreamtime to Machinetime’. This is the artist’s phrase, devised to express the cultural transition that Aboriginal people have made from indigenous ways of life to urban environments. The Bethesda series seem to epitomize a Dreamtime of Nickolls’s own creation, depicting a land without urbanization.
In Aboriginal spirituality, every thing in the world is interconnected. People, animals, plants, land, and sky are all part of a larger reality, created by the Ancestors in Dreamtime. In the face of his brutal encounter with a machine, Nickolls seems to have sought healing in creating his own Dreamtime.
As a source of hydration and cleansing, as well as a place of tranquillity, a pool can be a symbol of healing that transcends individual religious traditions. The biblical Bethesda was a place where the unnamed man was ‘made whole’ through an encounter with Jesus (vv.11, 14, 15). Nickolls’s Bethesda is a Dreamtime place where he too sought to be made whole. As viewers, we can also seek wholeness through contemplating Nickolls’s Bethesda.
O’Ferrall, Michael (ed.). 1990. 1990 Venice Biennale, Australia: Rover Thomas–Trevor Nickolls (Perth: Art Gallery of Western Australia)
5After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
2 Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Hebrew called Beth-zaʹtha, which has five porticoes. 3In these lay a multitude of invalids, blind, lame, paralyzed. 5One man was there, who had been ill for thirty-eight years. 6When Jesus saw him and knew that he had been lying there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” 7The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is troubled, and while I am going another steps down before me.” 8Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your pallet, and walk.” 9And at once the man was healed, and he took up his pallet and walked.
So the Jews said to the man who was cured, “It is the sabbath, it is not lawful for you to carry your pallet.” 11But he answered them, “The man who healed me said to me, ‘Take up your pallet, and walk.’ ” 12They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your pallet, and walk’?” 13Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place. 14Afterward, Jesus found him in the temple, and said to him, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse befall you.” 15The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him. 16And this was why the Jews persecuted Jesus, because he did this on the sabbath. 17But Jesus answered them, “My Father is working still, and I am working.” 18This was why the Jews sought all the more to kill him, because he not only broke the sabbath but also called God his own Father, making himself equal with God.