Playing with Sacred Space

Rod Pattenden 1999

During the period leading up to Easter this year the Paddington Uniting Church invited the artist Richard van der Aa to install a work of art made specifically for the conditions of the building. The artist produced twelve large painted panels which were installed at the Church with two on the front facade and ten on the interior walls. The Church was emptied of much of its usual furniture so as to enhance the experience of the overall internal space. The title of the installation was Surfacing and the emptiness of the building became a container where perceptions about the meanings of the space and the works began to 'surface'.

The installation of this work represents a new departure for the way in which the arts have been incorporated into the Church. Each year Paddington Uniting Church coordinates an extensive program of arts related events which includes a major component of visual arts activities. Over the last three years this has included a major exhibition in turn by John Coburn and George Gittoes which has been supplemented by a regular exhibition of major works by significant artists including Janet Laurence, Rosemary Valadon, Hector Sundaloo, Max Gimblett and Marita Sambono. While the local congregation has become used to the exhibitions of paintings that come and go they remain in the imagination as background decorations to the main focus of the space. They do not interrupt or necessarily challenge the process of seeing and responding visually in the space.

Inviting artists to work with the space is a strategy fraught with all sorts dangers and discoveries. Artworks can in their isolation be relegated to dim corners but when an artist activates the whole space there are less choices available for the viewer to escape or ignore the very physicality of the artistic intervention. When an artist works within the space they intervene across the familiar but unplotted lines of bodily and visual movement and create a moment of significant tilting and twisting of perception. The peripheral awareness of the viewer is activated to be aware of the unfamiliar to re-experience the space in a new way. This invitation can be both irritating to the comfort of habit but opportune in the face of new and deeper awareness.

Installation as an artform is both an old and new strategy. In the last fifty years the term has emerged to describe a range of artistic practices that range from sculpture to painting that crosses over theatre design, performance art, architectural practices and even landscape architecture. It is where art comes off the wall to activate the whole bodily experience of the space to include the viewer as an element in the perception of the artistic strategy. It is also an often unacknowledged artistic form with an ancient provenance that is inherent to an appreciation of sacred spaces, of human ritual and communal worship.

Most installation art is 'staged' within the confines of the white walled gallery a space somewhat anaesthetically constructed to isolate art on its own terms. More recent installation art has now emerged in public places and includes both permanent or temporary interventions on a given site. The installation recently placed at the Museum of Sydney and developed by artists Fiona Foley and Janet Laurence involves a number of usually distinct practices involving consultations with architects, builders, sound technicians, textual and language experts, historians and landscapers.

The site for the installations being discussed is the 1877 Paddington Methodist Church which was designed by architect Thomas Rowe at the time he was also completing the Great Synagogue in George St Sydney (1878). The Church is relatively spare in style with the forms and decoration drawn from the Romanesque period. The interior was originally built to allow a three sided gallery which was never constructed but which today allows a greater appreciation of the lofty barrel vault ceiling which creates an unexpected articulation of internal space not anticipated from its exterior frontage. The billowing form of the vault suspended by eight slender columns is reminiscent of a tent like form - the temporary within the permanent and dominant form of the rectangular plan.

Richard van der Aa's strategy was reliant on a sensitive awareness of these architectural and spatial devices. The work as it was installed activated the inherent geometry of the space which is based on a numeric system found in threes, fours, tens and twelves. These forms have ancient resonances of significance based on numbers associated with divine revelation. Ten side windows like ten commandments, three bays, repeated trefoils reflecting trinitarian structures and quatrefoil forms orienting spatial and spiritual quadrants. Twelve painted panels with two placed on the facade. The number twelve reflects the repeated significance of the number of the tribes of Israel, the measurement of the temple and even the imagined foundations of heaven itself. It is the number of wholeness dividing both into three and four and providing the geometry of measuring space itself.

The formal geometry of van der Aa's installation is drawn from a loose interpretation of medieval tiling patterns of walls and columns found in churches and mosques in the eleventh and twelve centuries. They re-inforce the Romanesque heritage of the building. Van der Aa has been drawn in particular to the rich visual language of forms found in Notre Dame La Grande in Poitiers in France.

Abstraction has a strong impulse especially within Islamic and Christian traditions as a means to protect the representation of the divine and to resist the recognition and therefore manipulation of the image. Abstraction becomes the short hand of divine lettering and text, the calligraphic markings of religious wisdom and eternal life. Abstraction invites contemplation and questioning with both reason and feeling that invites the apprehension of human wholeness.

Abstraction is one of the key features of twentieth century art and within its ever changing development it has contained its own impulse towards spiritual significance. Artists such as Kandinsky early in this century as well as Pollock and Rothko in the 1950s explored the freedom of non-representational space at a time where society was rewarding more totalitarian controls. The spiritual freedom of art has been long cherished within this tradition.

Van der Aa's direct antecedents lie within the 1960s development of so called Minimalism where artists reduced the physical presence of their works down to a minimum with clear reference to the materials and the form being articulated. Sculpture is reduced to forms of clean geometric purity and painting reduced to the minimal practices of white on white or black on black. In this vision art did not refer to anything beyond itself as its non-referential purity became its most potent presence.

Richard van der Aa while clearly enjoying this lineage is more interested however in the shadows that exist around the apparently clean and rational lines of this form of modernism. Van der Aa in his work over the last ten years has been drawn to the more elusive shadows of the work as a door ajar in perception inviting the viewer into a more contemplative apprehension of the possible mysteries of the apparent universe. His work remains spiritual without the sometimes dogmatic and tired authority of some more easily recognised images.

The abstraction within this installation is 'played' out however with a loose brush work that invites recognition of the rhythmic pleasure of the gestures of the artist. 'I am looking forward to the walls of the church coming alive with pattern. There will be a certain humour to the work what with the wonky patterns and crooked hand painted grids. Not too austere and serious. Human. Life. Fun. Soft dusty colour complementing the building.'

The building itself echoes the archetypal analogies of building in Scriptures that in turn figure the architecture of the heavens. Here pillars become analogies of supports maintained by living entities - the pillars of the church the household of God. Suiting themselves to the somewhat innovative and peculiar program of the Uniting Church in Paddington these pillars and constructs are full of variety and life, idiosyncratic and easily inhabited. The Godly construction in this place is not built on precision and ideals and perfection but on the particular foundations of the human community that uses this space.

As a strategy this geometric field breaks down the sorts of unhelpful cultural separations inherited within Christianity as part of its cultural baggage that at times reinforces a universe of distinct polarities. A simplistic bipolar universe is maintained through the radical separation of male/female, culture/nature, clean/unclean, good/bad etc. This dualism does violence to the far more complex realities of lived experience in turn becoming a vehicle of oppression towards those elements that do not comply.

Any location for the divine space is not achieved through doing violence to the human image, either through disfigurement, notions of sacrifice or even psychological and sexual repression. In these works difference and idiosyncrasy are encompassed as part of the strategy of forming the space where the organic and the geometric enter a relationship which allows for humour, uniqueness and play. This is a place for both human and divine habitation that is not subsumed under notions of purity in any form.

The artist describes his working method of repetition and invention. 'I simply begin with one element as perfect as I can make it and then echo that across the canvas allowing the image a life of its own. This results in a sort of distorted repetition. No two shapes are the same but they all work together to create a unified grid. There is a human element then, this is not a mathematical exercise. This is life as we know it, bending and stretching.' The walls become fabric, woven through connection and relationship, tapestries of significance, banners of human imagination and spiritual resonance. 'Art in the end is made to meet spiritual needs.'

This impetus for connection and relational forms is part of the larger ecological awareness of the interconnectedness of all things. No longer do we understand our identity as lone individuals being formed through difference and isolation. Theologies aware of ecosystems and feminist concerns remind us of the metaphors of weaving, webbing and connection, that we are held in relationships that we need to nurture. To be aware is to heal the whole system that we ourselves inhabit. These works invite such reflection. They do not re-inforce hierarchies of power which is so much a part of the rhetoric of neogothic architecture where space comes down 'from above'. These works move around and subvert such forms reminding us of more horizontal spatial awareness of proximity and distance. The viewer in these terms is 'in' the artwork. Metaphors of fluidity come to mind such as the sea or of body fluids or other body experiences such as our skin being washed or of floating.

The record of people's experiences as they entered and 'swam' through the space is hard to maintain. Anecdotal evidence ranged from boredom to wonder. After the exhibition finished and the space returned to 'normal' the worshipping congregation showed evidence of being unsettled. Some wanted the pews not to return. They liked the heightened awareness of the space. Others were happy to retreat to their familiar seating position. As the weeks go by the memory of the work seems to deepen rather than to fade. The walls are not the same anymore. There has been a subtle shift and movement around the periphery. There is a continual murmur amongst those who use the space which could of course be misunderstood to sound like the waves lapping on the shore. Perhaps after all everything changes, the walls are fluid and God is a Sea!

Rev Rod Pattenden 1999

All quotations are from the artist's diaries and are used with permission.

Rev Rod Pattenden is Co-ordinator of the Institute for Theology and the Arts and minister of the Paddington Uniting Church in Sydney. He is researching images of religious significance in recent Australian art and is interested in the relationships between religion, spirituality and contemporary culture.