After a beautiful opening on 14th of November, with a delicious and thought provoking edible art installation from Djeribi, The Dock has seen a steady stream of people travelling from all over the country to see this show. The exhibition also features painting by Bernadette Kiely (see above), Slow Dancing – a film piece by David Michalek, a new sound/performance work by Aileen Lambert and ceramic sculpture by Katherine West. The show was curated by Siobhán Garrigan, Associate Professor of Liturgical Studies, Yale University.
This is just a gentle reminder, if you haven’t seen it yet, that the show only continues until 2nd January and Slow Dancing by David Michalek closes before that on Christmas Eve at 3pm. As many have experienced already over the last couple of months this piece is well worth the trip to Carrick on Shannon, featuring 50 of the worlds greatest dancers and choregraphers, from Trisha Brown to Gabriel “Kwikstep” Dionisio to Bill T. Jones, before it leaves The Dock to be shown in Trafalgar Square, London in the new year.
Click the image below to watch a short film on the making of the art work called “Sculpting Movement and Time: Making Slow Dancing” by Nel Shelby, shown at Jacob’s Pillow, 2008.
The following is an essay by Siobhan Garrigan, Curator of SACRED, about the exhibition…
It is impossible to describe the sacred; that is one of its key characteristics. However, throughout history people have felt the instinct to say something of sacred-ness, and so these words —and the exhibition they introduce — stand in a long line of attempts to speak of the sacred. Such attempts suggest that while it may be futile to describe the sacred, it is possible to describe something of human beings’ relationship with it.
Ireland is a particularly interesting place in which to mount a show called “sacred” at the moment. Irish society has undergone mammoth upheaval in recent years. The “Celtic Tiger” brought an economic boom that reversed the sad tide of routine emigration and improved the standard of living for many, but it also created a chasm between richer and poorer people, and contributed to numerous losses in community bonds and expectations. The influx of refugees and migrant workers mercifully debunked the myth of Irish homogeneity, but also raised the spectre of the racisms that haunt us. And the numerous sexual abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church destroyed the faith of many and caused thousands of people to query or quit their life-long religious practices.
In the wake of these upheavals, the dominant forms of sacred expression that had been the staples of Irish life since Independence are in tatters. For example, until the mid-1990s, 85% of the population went to Mass every weekend; recent figures suggest it is now nearer to 30%. Few people, in the arts community at least, are grieving these losses. The corruptions of power endemic to the Irish church, and its facility to harm the vulnerable and the non-conforming, were too great. However, the pathos of this situation is that so many Irish people were separated from their native understandings of sacredness first by colonial rule and then by the churches of the nation-state that, with those institutions waning, few people nowadays have ways of thinking about where they encounter the sacred in their lives, never mind techniques for honouring it. As Daniel O’Leary has put it, “It is much easier to build a religion and keep God within it. We can live our lives then without touching the sacred at every hand’s turn.”
Of course, some people do have loving and dynamic church communities and Sunday or weekday Mass, as well as clootie trees for praying, holy wells for healing, graveyard rituals in summer and the wren on Stephen’s Day. But these people now constitute a relative minority. For most of us, if the baby is not to drain out with the bath water, the sacred must be noticed anew at every hand’s turn. As human beings, we have all the equipment we need for this in our bodies, particularly through our senses (touch, taste, sight, smell, hearing, and intuition). We also have one another, and by listening to other people’s stories about encounter with the sacred we gain a compass to help us navigate our own. Our own individual bodies, and the body that we make as a group, create and keep alive a sense of the sacred and its honouring.
Aileen Lambert’s sound piece, “Soundings”, draws our attention to our breath: our individual breath, and our breathing-together. Breath has long been understood in many religious traditions to hold and/or convey the sacred. The ancient Hebrew word for breath or wind (“ruah”) is the same word from which we get our concept “divine spirit” (or, for Christians, Holy Spirit). Breath has enormous consistency across cultures as being seen as the thing that connects us — to ourselves, to one another, and to the source of all life. Some people have had personal experiences of the sacredness of breathing through prayer or meditation, from hearing stories of winds whipping up (as at the burning bush or Pentecost), or from bodily practices such as yoga; but for many, their chief experience of this has come from singing, alone or with others. Lambert’s work is even more compelling, therefore, given that the voices she conducted to make the sound-recording are those of a dozen children from 3rd to 6th class in her local school in Co. Wexford. The work invites us to know the sacred by hearing, and to experience hearing as sacred. Listen!
Djeribi’s food for the opening event invites us to know the sacred by eating. Smell! Taste! Touch! To sit at a table with eleven others and to be served soup and bread is to participate in a story that has resonances across time and space, from the bounty and thanksgiving of Passover meals, to the last supper in Palestine, to the soup kitchens of our cities’ shelters, to our family dinner tables. To eat this way is to be invited to know the hearing of stories as well as simply smelling and tasting and touching as sacred.
In this show we have the rare and beautiful experience of being able to touch artwork, not just in the food at the opening, but also in specific selections from the work of Katharine West. On the plinths (Gallery 2) sits work that we are allowed, even encouraged, to touch. Much of what we know of the sacred in our lives comes from touch, be it the embrace of a parent, the caresses of a lover, the nudge of a friend, or the healing of a massage therapist’s manipulations, to name but a few ways. The common phrase “to touch the sacred”, even as it usually refers to something that is not literally a matter of touch, points to how important tangibility is to our understanding of what it means to relate to sacredness in our lives. And so, we are invited to explore this art with our hands — gently — to feel it and to allow ourselves to follow those sensations. Touch!
West also offers work for just looking-at in this exhibition (in Gallery 2), as does Bernadette Kiely (Gallery 2) and David Michalek (Gallery 1). Sight being so closely linked to how human beings conceive (we speak of “the mind’s eye”, for example), and also strongly linked to metaphors of insight, it is thrilling to have works in three different media (paint, sculpture and film) to contemplate by looking. They invite us to know the sacred by seeing, and to know looking and seeing as sacred. See!
Bernadette Kiely’s paintings from her river and flood series present images that do not shy away from the cycle of life itself, connoting destruction as well as creation, ebb as well as flow, death as well as life. Their colours and textures and images all invite us to look and to enjoy what we see. However, in our context, they also tap deeply-held knowledge of the land as sacred — a theme greatly complicated in our Irish context because, while being known as sacred, the land also so often has been the turning-point for human conflict, competition and violence: things that turn us away from the sacred in our midst. Kiely’s images of the natural processes of water moving or lichen growing, each doing their natural thing in all its mutation and glory, turn our minds back to the organism of the land as land, free of human competition over it, and as therefore witnessing something of the sacred in its very generation.
Katharine West’s ceramic artworks also invite viewers to explore the ways in which their lives, and the places they inhabit, are sacred. Suggesting organic forms and processes in the natural world, her sculptures, through their shapes and their materiality (made as they are of porcelain), conjure awareness of the border between nature and culture, a border that is particularly adept at opening-up ever-new perception of the sacred. For me, these pieces evoke sheer delight in the shapes of this world and the ways they allow encounter of sacredness, but also utter grief at the environment’s undoing in our hands.
David Michalek’s “Slow Dancing” shows the human body as an organic form, as if it were a part of nature — which, of course, it is, although we can forget that in our contemporary ways of life. The films show the body moving and, through the attentiveness to that movement created by its slowed-down-ness, we feel we can almost see the skin itself breathing, its pores and tiny hairs revealed as moving.
The sense of our own human bodies as being the things that connect us to the sacred in this world is complicated. For those in pain or suffering great disability, the body can seem a prison. Furthermore, there is a long and sad tradition of the body as a problem, due to western philosophical traditions that separate the mind from the body and prize only the former. Such traditions have done great harm, perhaps especially to women, who were associated more with “nature” and the calling of the physical world, while men were associated more with the life of the mind and the calling of “higher” things. That said, realising the body as the thing that connects us to the sacred also has a long, positive tradition — perhaps one we would do well to rediscover in these times — and it is this philosophical lineage to which Michalek connects us.
“Slow Dancing” reminds us that our bodies do not merely point to the sacred, but are part of the sacred, with all their flaws, in all their pain and stages of growth and decay, through all their movements, in all that they have to navigate, and with all the different bodies with whom they are required to dance at any given movement. To borrow from Christian thinking, “Slow Dancing” makes apparent that our bodies are God’s bodies, the only ones God has in this world to do God’s human work. Of course, there are also all the sacred bodies of nature and creation, but the specifically human-sacred work of making justice and enjoying beauty, happens nowhere else except in and through our bodies.
To know the sacred in our lives these days we need to tune in to it with our bodies: looking, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling can all be sacred acts.
May each breath fill us.
Siobhán Garrigan is a community theologian, currently serving as a professor at the Institute of Sacred Music, Worship and the Arts at Yale University, where she directs the ecumenical worship program at the multi-denominational Divinity School. Her long-standing interests are in ecumenism, feminism and, particularly, the relationship between religious ritual and social justice. Her new book, The Real Peace Process: Worship, Politics and the End of Sectarianism will come out in Spring 2010.