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Home arrow Religion arrow Art and the Church: A Fractious Embrace: Ecclesiastical Encounters with Contemporary Art
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The Para-liturgical Art of Doris Salcedo

For art to be a servant or handmaid of the liturgy, as Devonshire Jones proposes, it demands an acknowledgement of the primary liturgical focus of the church to which everything else submits. Although the artist and writer Edward Robinson has dismissed this agenda as a fixation upon ‘liturgical fundamentalism’ (1993: 36), from the point of view of the church’s mission it is difficult to dispute. The pronouncement that liturgical art must not challenge but only support the liturgy is repeatedly heard. There is, of course, a clear argument to be made for art’s integration into the liturgical life of the church, in a way that upholds existing liturgical structures. Nevertheless, what actually constitutes liturgical art remains a contentious issue. How then to maintain a balance between art’s obligations to the context in which it finds itself and its truth to itself? In order to ask what is the work of the work of the art, we have to ask what the church hopes to gain from art: something that confirms its creed and practices or something that challenges them? But perhaps this is a poorly articulated question. We should not be asking whether a work of art has a direct relation to the liturgical practices of the church, but rather what is its liturgical or ritual role whenever art enters the church? Put otherwise, it is precisely the work of the work that qualifies the difference between an art gallery and an ecclesiastical space as a place to exhibit art. It is true that churches and cathedrals are frequently utilised as exhibition venues, the art on display distanced from any liturgical or ecclesiological function. At the same time, a common argument for art’s inclusion in the church is that the church should resist any attempt to supplant the art gallery in the kinds of artistic projects it fosters. It is equally the case that although there is an argument to be made for a greater integration of contemporary works of art into the liturgical life of the church, this is not a call for all art within the church to be liturgical in this narrow sense. That would be to make all church art liturgical art. From the idea of liturgy as the primary art form of the church, it does not follow that all art within the church must be liturgical, a point made over 30 years ago by Rowan Williams (1976: 42). In a riposte to a roundtable of ‘modernist critics’, Siedell defines a broader liturgical dimension to art, as a kind of liturgical aesthetics; an expansive sacramental vision of the world that offers expanded possibilities for art:

There is what could be called a sacramental and liturgical presence in contemporary art, in which artists explore the potential of banal materials and gestures, in defined spaces, to embody and serve as a vehicle for profound meaning and experience. The liturgical dimension of contemporary artistic practice, which incorporates and re-performs the power of sacred space, ritualised gestures, and sacramental objects . . . requires more expansive and richly-nuanced notions of both ‘art’ and ‘religion’ than those offered by modernist critics.

(Elkins and Morgan 2009: 234)

One of the arguments against art as liturgy is the former’s perceived resistance to public or communal use, compared with the latter’s fundamentally corporate and communitarian sacramental form, much as private devotional and public liturgical ritual serve very different purposes. Notwithstanding the turn since the 1990s towards relational and participatory art, art is seen rather as a private act of contemplation, an idea further encouraged by the spiritual equivalence apparently offered by the art museum. Colin Hourihane offers an interesting objection to this limitation. In a discussion of art in the service of the liturgy, he introduces the term ‘para-liturgical’ to denote the relationship between publicly liturgical and privately devotional art (2003: 6). Where some prefer to maintain strict boundaries between the two, others have defined these categories as two poles of a continuum, and it is with this latter possibility in mind that Hourihane uses the term ‘para-liturgical’. At one extreme of this para-liturgical continuum is the icon, in many respects not a work of art at all, but a sacrament. At the other extreme are works of art ostensibly presented as exhibits for aesthetic appreciation. It is this end of the continuum that seems to be populated by so many examples of artworks shown in churches and cathedrals today, but what Hourihane’s concept alerts us to is the possibility that such appearances may be deceiving.8 One such possibility for art, fulfilling Siedell’s hopes for art’s sacramental potential and Hourihane’s broader dimension of the para-liturgical, was Doris Salcedo’s untitled installation in Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral in 1999. Though ostensibly curated as part of the first Liverpool Biennial, which saw contemporary works of art placed throughout the city, Salcedo’s contribution far exceeded these parameters to create an unconventional form of ecclesiastical art that could in truth be labelled liturgical. What gives Salcedo’s work its liturgical edge is the attention it focuses upon the human stories caught up in its various networks of meaning. Indeed, art put to work for the public good is a valid description for much of her highly politicised oeuvre, since her subjects are the dispossessed, the disenfranchised, distraught and disaffected, for whom her work provides an enigmatic form of witness.

The installation comprised a loosely grouped collection of sculptures occupying the well of the cathedral’s west end, each employing Salcedo’s signature amalgam of domestic furniture spliced together to create disquieting fusions. With cavities, apertures and joins sealed with concrete, these reconfigured

Doris Salcedo, Untitled, 1999, Liverpool Anglican Cathedral, as part of Trace

Figure 5.3 Doris Salcedo, Untitled, 1999, Liverpool Anglican Cathedral, as part of Trace,

1st Liverpool Biennial of Contemporary Art, 1999. © The artist. Image courtesy of the Alexander and Bonin Gallery, New York and White Cube, London objects of everyday life turn the ‘comfortable and familiar’ into the ‘strange and even terrible’ (Liverpool Biennial of Contemporary Art 1999: 130). A closer look, however, reveals scraps of clothing interred within the concrete, partially emerging through its skin — floral-patterned fabric, a buttoned sleeve — hinting at the memory of absent bodies and desecrated lives. Part sarcophagus, part reliquary, they perform what Jean-Luc Nancy has eloquently called the imaging of the absent (2005: 67—68). As anyone familiar with Salcedo’s work will know, her sculptural assemblages, composed of ‘widowed’, ‘orphaned’ or abandoned objects, operate as elegiac metonyms for the disappeared. These ‘material gestures of mourning’ (Brinson 2015: 209) become, as Laura Garcia Moreno puts it, ‘bearers of absence, mnemonic devices or mute testimonies to which we then become witness’ (2010: 100). As ever, her theme is the missing body and violated home, testimony to the political violence of her native Colombia, against which the heavy presence of the sculptures offers a material counterforce. In their inert muteness they allude to the inadequacy of words in the face of suffering and loss, but also to the forced silence of the absent lives for whom these simple domestic objects were once part of an intimate but mundane backdrop:

Disfigured and released from the bond of usefulness, doubly displaced in spatial terms (from the private into the public realm, from Colombia to the different places where they are assembled and displayed), they not only act as reminders of a semi-legible but undeniable violence, but are tacitly put at the service of a task of mourning that is hinted at, although . . . never completed and is left to the viewer to initiate.

(Moreno 2010: 104)

In the cathedral installation, the disconcerting effect of an encounter with contemporary art was amplified, firstly, by the apparent incongruity of the objects on display and, secondly, by their unsettling customisation. If, for Mieke Bal, one of Salcedo’s most erudite critics, the odd conjunction of deracinated household objects in such works deliberately foregrounds their ‘out-of-placeness’ (2007: 48), how much more so within this sacred context? Not that this is always appreciated. One reviewer felt that the grandiosity of the cathedral as a venue had palpably diminished the political focus of Salcedo’s sculptures. It was, he conceded, a bold ‘curatorial gamble’ that had not quite paid off, the ‘emotional charge’ of the works having been attenuated by the ecclesiastical location (Giolla Leith 1999: 158). In stark contrast, the art critic Richard Cork believed the cathedral to have provided ‘an ideal arena for her sculpture’ since, as a work of memorialisation, it fitted the building’s role as a site of remembrance. Yet he was keen to stress that placing the work there imposed no ‘excessively spiritual meaning’ on it (2004: 9). Giolla Leith’s judgement was a failure of vision indeed, considering the social imperatives of the church. More pertinently, it gave no consideration to the interpretative possibilities engendered by the specificity of the location itself. But in some ways Cork’s was little better. Although he commended the adequacy of the site on aesthetic and conceptual grounds, his dissociation of the work from any ‘excessively spiritual’ connotations seemed clearly designed to downplay the religious or spiritual register of its context. Yet it is my belief that this displaced and deformed sculptural ensemble produced a liturgical rather than purely aesthetic space. I would argue that this is precisely the promise a work like this holds out as an evocation of liturgical value.9

What, then, might be its liturgical function? Here it is useful to again note the liturgical economy of ‘spiritual spaces’ discernible in the work of Michel de Certeau, who makes an important distinction between places and spaces. Throughout Certeau’s writings, the practices of everyday life are often valorised in sacramental terms, as the production of space as a practised place. The sacramental potential offered by a vivid experience of place is concretised in Certeau’s insistence that ‘practices organise space’ (Ward 2001: 503). Certeau’s emphasis on praxis in the production of ‘spiritual spaces’ is essentially a concern with liturgy, but also, we might add, with the work of art. Salcedo’s use of the domestic made uncanny, literally unhomely (unheimlich), is also a concern with the way in which a certain space is organised, negotiated or read, that is, the way that a particular space or context for art creates an environment, which in turn influences one’s interpretation of, or encounter with, that work. In her discussion of Salcedo, Bal draws attention to the fact that physical objects like sculptures are particularly sensitive to their arrangement within a space. This is very apparent, she stresses, whenever one encounters a piece by Salcedo. Through examples of ‘bad’ installations of Salcedo’s works, accenting the dangers of ‘suffocation’ they can face, Bal indicates the importance of their surroundings (2010: 163—164). In order to signify, in order to affect both the viewer and the work, in order to maintain political gravitas and in order to avoid being reduced to an object for passive visual consumption, it is imperative that the sculptures ‘connect the space that surrounds them to their own meaningful existence’ (2010: 164). As such, Salcedo’s installations create an environment in which an entire space is treated as a single situation in its relation to the works on display. The viewer must literally inhabit the space of the work, as we saw in the example of Le Choeur de Lumiere. It is important to acknowledge that Bal does not advocate an unmarked, white cube aesthetic, allegedly able to guarantee the autonomy of the artwork. It is not a neutral space that is required. Instead, she says, the space ‘should not distract the viewers from the works but mediate and focus the mood the works propose as the affective ambience within which the dialogue between works and viewers can take place’ (2010: 167). As proof of this effective conjunction of art and environment, she cites the exhibition in the cathedral, in which ambient space became an inseparable element of the works themselves.

Disappointingly, Bal does not elaborate further, despite the fact that so singular a site for art would seem to demand it. Indeed, the brief aforementioned reviews aside, it is interesting to note how little has been written by anybody on the appearance of Salcedo’s installation in Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral. In Phaidon’s monograph on the artist, for example, one finds several full-page photographs of the event, but barely a word in the text. The photographs provide archival documentation of what is presumed to be in effect just one in a series of installations. Lacking in all this is any critical engagement with the particular dynamics generated by their placement in a cathedral, that is, what the work does in such a place compared with its appearance in a gallery. There is a tacit assumption that although the inherent discourses might differ and the architectural context is grander, a cathedral venue simply administers another kind of exhibition value, a failing common to site-specific practices that Miwon Kwon calls ‘undifferentiated serialisation’ (2002: 166). But if we take heed of our earlier positing of the work of the work of art, of an art that is put to work within a specific context, then the particularities of its location become imperative. A certain implicit liturgical value comes into play. An installation may be eminently reproducible, but what is unique on each occasion is its engagement with a particular context and a particular audience. It is in this sense that the viewer’s response to the political and psychological implications of Salcedo’s work is important. Only the viewer’s active engagement lends to these intriguing works a fittingness that belies their aberrant presence in the cathedral. The called-for response is neither strictly individual contemplation nor collective reception, neither reduced to exhibition nor cultic value, but something that takes both into account, something we are describing as liturgical. Just as the individual is not disregarded in the liturgy yet is at the same time incorporated into a larger whole, so too Salcedo’s sculptural practice makes considerable demands upon the individual viewer, requiring a thoughtful, considered response (what we will call in a later chapter an ‘engaged gaze’), yet it resists collapsing into purely passive contemplation or aesthetic spectacle. As a form of aesthetic experience, it directs our gaze to something beyond the material or sensorial, something excessive to the object. This is possible in a gallery setting, of course, but is given greater impetus by its association with a cathedral and its liturgical framework. Thus, the work of art as leitourgia escapes both the limitations of its exhibition or spectacle value and its subsumption into purely cultic value, in favour of interlocking networks of value: aesthetic, religious, liturgical and political. It is worth noting in this respect that Salcedo frequently accentuates an element of religious observance in her approach to work, speaking of her projects as ‘acts of faith’ and her creative process as a ‘solitary liturgy’ (Brinson 2015: 212). What Untitled alerts us to is the degree to which its liturgical value relies upon yet exceeds such acts of private devotion.10

In the end, for whom is Salcedo’s Untitled a work? Is it a work for the spectral figures of the disappeared that it memorialises? Is it a work for those who remain to mourn their loss? Is it a work for the art visitor on the biennial art trail? Or is it primarily a work for those whose worship space this is? Art events of this kind compel us to continually reassess the role of art in the church in relation to the fundamental raison d’etre of the space. Peter Hammond’s summation of that role, made over 50 years ago, remains, to a troubling degree, a lesson unlearned:

The purpose of a church is not to provide the casual visitor with a ‘worship experience’, or to provoke an aesthetic frisson. If we are in little danger today of turning the Church’s house of prayer into a den of thieves, we have come perilously close to making it a historic monument, a possession of high cultural and aesthetic interest, or a pavilion of religious art; a building to be visited and appreciated, rather than a place for the corporate worship of the living God.

(1960: 29)

If it is the case that, as Hammond continues, the primary purpose of a church is ‘to provide a shelter for the liturgical assembly of a particular Christian community’ (1960: 29), then the liturgical value of a work, in the broad sense we have indicated, is of the utmost importance, yet remains an opportunity too often squandered by the ecclesiastical communities that host such artworks. Salcedo’s sculptures are especially challenging in this respect, and one cannot blame the clerical incumbents of a cathedral for struggling to know how to accommodate them other than in giving them space. In the following chapter this issue will be explored further through reference to a work of art that is explicitly ritualistic in conception. However, one final point is worth considering in relation to Salcedo’s installation. As Andree Hayum has argued, the supposed secularisation of the art object in the museum paradoxically leads to another kind of sacralisation as ‘religious devotion’ is supplanted by ‘aesthetic veneration’ at the shrine of art (1989: 118). Equally paradoxically, the entrance of contemporary art into the church can initiate a kind of profanation. Hayum assumes that in the movement from church to museum, religious art loses its ‘former affective power’ to become an object of disinterested aesthetic pleasure.11 In Hayum’s words, cult value is replaced by ‘performance value’ (1989: 119), her equivalent term for Benjamin’s exhibition value. Art’s performativity can, however, move in unexpected directions. In a curious transplanting of terms, Salcedo’s objects have been described as a form of profanation or desacralising of the sacred object of art in order to reinstate its political import and urgency. Profanation, in the vocabulary of the philosopher Giorgio Agamben, means to put back into use where sacralisation marks a withdrawal from any kind of use value in the name of pure aesthetic consumption. This is a rather different relation of sacred and profane than we have been using, one undoubtedly complicated by the sacred context of our discussion, but it highlights an important aspect of Salcedo’s work, which, as Moreno argues, ‘enacts a persistent struggle to re-signify everyday objects and resist the violent hindering of potential use that they display’ (2010: 96). In becoming a work of art, these ordinary objects of the home are withdrawn from everyday use, and hence sacralised, but in the cathedral are returned to a different kind of use, a liturgical use, and hence paradoxically profaned (in Agamben’s sense) in being put to use for new purposes. They gain signification beyond their normal associations. Moreno proposes that the building housing such an installation also takes on a new function, ceasing to be simply an exhibition space except through a kind of bad faith towards the history of violence and loss signified by the works. Can it then be argued that this installation’s sacred context revivifies a kind of liturgical or sacramental use value as an aspect of their profanation? In a practical sense, the return to use indicated by Agamben’s notion of profanation is forcefully denied by Salcedo’s treatment of these utilitarian objects, but it opens up possibilities for a different kind of use, a recalibration of art’s ‘performance value’ perhaps, by which ‘the sacred comes to refer to something profoundly human’ (Moreno 2010: 107).

Harrison envisages ritual as the bridge between real life and art. Ritual is what reforges a union between an art distanced from ‘real life’. Art in cathedrals forces us to rethink Harrison’s image and places art in that midway position between real life and ritual. Yet even if, in an implicit sense, amidst the numerous projects past and present within the church, the ‘and’ that unites art and ritual remains as a condition of art’s possibility, a persistent gap continues to separate art from liturgy, prolonging the tendency to dissociate art from liturgy as distinct spheres of activity. Nonetheless, many recent projects, if not explicitly liturgical, have signalled a return to ritual as a central aspect of art’s involvement in ecclesiastical life; a return, in other words, to that neglected ‘and’ that determines the elementary exchange of art and ritual. Exhibitions based upon perambulatory, processional, sacramental or participative formats, or encouraging a kind of pilgrimage, all rely upon a relation of art and ritual quite distinct from that experienced in the art museum or gallery (though these have rituals of their own). The now-defunct church art space known as Wallspace made efforts to reconcile the often uneasy alliance of art and liturgy on a regular basis, creating an experimental environment for the possibilities proffered by a renewed commitment to art, ritual and liturgy. Through its liturgical acts, it tested the reordering of aesthetic space, turning personal aesthetic contemplation into a means of collective experience. One might be so bold as to suggest that liturgy became the servant of the art on display, and art the means by which a liturgical setting emerged. Art as the mediating force between ritual and real life is then, in part, an answer to the question, what is the work of the work of art?

 
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