Sacred Spaces: Abstraction and Emptiness

#artandreligion #religion #hinduism #islam #Christianity #rothko #abstraction #painting #shadesofnoir #anishkapoor #tatemodern #rothkoroom #ramadan

In the interview Religion in Modern Art  Professor Erika Doss discusses the way that we look at art and how much we should take into account the artists spiritual or religious upbringing when trying to understand what the artist has made. Doss explores the dilemmas that artists face making artworks on faith and belief. 

The article explores the work of Mark Rothko. Doss references the artist’s Jewish heritage and experiences that Jews faced during WW2. This provokes us to consider his paintings within the context of his childhood experiences and religion, providing a framework for his work, whilst this is interesting, it is also problematic as it channels audiences to see his work through a particular lens. When I look at Rothko’s work with students I prefer to raise questions regarding his faith indirectly, reflecting upon the spiritual and moral questions relating to his work towards the end of the discussion rather than at the start letting the discussion flow organically. This allows prior time for audiences to absorb the paintings and a chance for self reflection. For example; with Rothko’s Seagram murals I ask the students to focus upon their own bodies, to navigate the space in a manner that moves away from the usual way of exploring a gallery space. We can think about how we feel sat in a darkened room a claustrophobic space, and whether this forces us to look at our inner worlds, raising an awareness of our own emotions rather expend energy into the attempt to decode the palette that he used, or the way he painted. His paintings have the tendency that allow audiences to respond freely outside of the framework of religion, however the themes that tend to emerge relate to religion as notions around human suffering are often discussed, and we can’t avoid the experience of being sat in the chapel like space, all of which connect the scale and the colours used in the paintings.

The Seagram Murals at Tate Modern.

Without any overt reference to Judaism or Christianity the students inadvertently discuss aspects of religion through Rothko’s life events, they discuss the value of contemplation away from the activity of consuming alcohol and food as this is a distraction to loftier thoughts on life. They discuss the value of making donations, the continual legacy of these paintings that have benefitted many (Rothko donated his works to the Tate before he committed suicide). We also talk about Rothko’s dedication to the painter William Turner who willed his paintings to the nation, reflecting upon the way he depicted spirituality or God in his work, which was through the way he painted light. 

William Turner. Rainbow Painting.

The discussion about faith or religion through artist’s work goes beyond the artwork itself. It includes the actions and decisions that artists have made and the way that they chose to live their lives, and the actions that they made. 

Other artists that I share with students are Anish Kapoor and his ideas on emptiness and his use of pigments (that are usually used in Hindu worship), again the conversation doesn’t begin with the artists Parsi upbringing, Zoroastrianism, or his meditation practice but allows students to reflect upon the sculptural qualities of his work first and then ask questions on Eastern spirituality and culture. I enjoy using artworks with students that combine both Eastern and Western spiritual ideas, such Annie Besent’s Thought Forms or the ‘cosmic consciousness” that Malevich encountered before painting his Black Square, as there are many similarities rather than differences.

Some works are explored in a more straight forward informative or didactic manner, partly because a number of students I meet are from Western Europe and many are not familiar with Eastern religions such as Buddhism or Hinduism. An example of an artwork that I use that directly references Hindu rites and rituals is Sheela Gowda’s ‘Behold’. Her work offers students the opportunity of insight to Hindu traditions and culture and gives the chance discuss faith through sculptural materiality and the moral dilemmas that we face in a capitalist society. 

Annie Besent. Thought Forms.

On a more practical level in the studio /classroom /gallery, I always make a point of mentioning a religious day or spiritual day, such as Diwali or Chinese New Year and to celebrate that. I’m aware that some of my students or colleagues maybe observing Ramadan and to take their needs into account, giving space, and time to share the experiences of what might be observed if they wish. Outside of mainstream religion I work with students and colleagues who make their artworks on pre-Christian or pagan traditions, witchcraft or tarot, meditation and give equal respect, time, interest and validation to their beliefs. 

I encountered a student during a crit who had made abstract work, exploring colour and shape, and notions of emptiness. I noticed that a number of participants at the crit were very quiet and appeared to be dismissive of his work. Later that day, the student told me that he used to belong to the Hare Krishna sect, which gave me a deeper understanding to his work. I wondered whether the silence around his work related to uncomfortable feelings about discussing religion. I got the impression that the student only talked to me about his faith and spirituality because of my Indian heritage, which he found out by asking “where are you from” a question that was very much welcomed in this instance.

Religion in Britain: Challenges for Higher Education. I read the chapters on Multiculturalism, Minority Identities and the Public Sphere. I am interested in the availability of openly accessible and adequately sized quiet spaces/prayer rooms that are available at any time. The lack quiet or safe spaces seems to me that faith/religion isn’t a priority in today’s institutions, and I speculate whether is this stems from Christian/European centric viewpoint (with Christianity being in decline, therefore an assumption made most faiths will also be in decline) therefore lacking the need to provide quiet rooms or spaces?  Personally, I would like to see a variety to menus that cater to halal, kosher and vegan diets, as well as the visual and celebratory acknowledgement of all religious festivals/holy days.

A woman I saw using the quietness of the painting galleries at the V&A to pray.
October 2019. Photo Credit: Raksha Patel ©

Kwame Anthony Appiah Reith lecture on Creed reminded me that our relationship with our beliefs, is similar to culture, in that it is always evolving, and that religion is never static. He begins by describing how he is perceived by South -Asian taxi drivers, many who assume that he can speak Hindi. I’ve often been challenged on what I believe, how I see and enjoy having to re-examine things with new perspective. In my youth I used judge young white Europeans travelling to India on “spiritual quests”. I used to believe that they saw India as an exotic place, a temporary fad or a fix that they would tire from, as they could never truly connect to it because it wasn’t their ‘motherland’. Over time, my opinion changed as some of those European ‘hippies’ bought back the knowledge of meditation and yoga and have dedicated their lives to it. I’m happy to say that I have benefitted greatly from their quests; for example, one woman I know became a Buddhist nun and has remained one, twenty years later she has set up a women only vihara in the UK (the first of its kind). Some may not teach in its purest form, but from what I have experienced, neither do the teachers from India. How do we know what is pure or authentic anyway? As everything has been adapted in some way. I cannot grumble, I’m happy to receive what is being given and be accepting of that.

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  1. The point you make about indirection – or working obliquely – is vital. This got me thinking about the great tradition of humanism. Yes, from a climate change perspective we can say this is anthropocentric in ways that are destructive. But there is also a humanising aspect of this tradition, one that is able to read across the great stories – myths, legends, parables and more – and appreciate common ground. One way that humanism has done this – especially under post-modernism – is to treat sacred texts as literature. Doing so does not preclude them from being sacred texts. It opens them up to alternative appreciation. This is something that Kwame Anthony Appiah takes up in his Reith Lecture. Meaning is rarely self-evident; interpretation and reinterpretation enliven our understanding – especially when we contextualise and recontextualise what we think and why.

    Finally, a quick word about contemplation. This feels more important now than ever. We mustn’t forget that long before mindfulness became a thing, art lovers had been cultivating ‘being present’. The careful act of placing oneself in front of works of art, the careful act of looking and thinking – these things can be taught and need to be practised. Increasingly, I realise that many students would benefit from a crash course in visting galleries and encountering art. This may lead to tracking the optimal conditions for their meaningful engagement. For instance, I find I get much more out of looking at art on an empty stomach but I recognise that for others, the reverse may be true!

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