The Sacred Experience in Art Spaces

The following is a 3 part artist statement originally posted on

In the absence of organized religion, I turn to art.

Rothko Chapel (1971) by Mark Rothko, Houston, TX

Growing up in the Mormon faith, I was taught that happiness could only be achieved by active adherence to Mormon tenants. As a young adult, I discovered that this wasn’t true. Practicing Mormonism as a gay person did not make me happy, and straying from its tenants did. When I left the faith, I was angry and felt betrayed. I left fresh on the heels of Proposition 8 and some really awful things church leaders said and did. I wanted nothing to do with the LDS faith, or so I thought.

Fast forward a few years and suddenly I find myself longing nostalgically for Mormonism. Its not that I believe in the church or its sole claim to happiness, or that I am unhappy outside of it. To the contrary, I still believe as I did when I left. But leaving religion left me with certain voids. I miss the comfort of repeating the same holy activity week after week, and being a part of a group of people and engaging with them in meaningful ways. I miss the uplifting, euphoric feelings belief brought. Slowly I have been finding these things that I miss in the art I create and the art I appreciate.

My life experiences mirror in many ways a growing generational phenomenon. As contemporary society becomes increasingly multicultural, the exclusive nature of the church often isolates the modern worshiper, while simultaneously allowing the modern art patron to appreciate religious symbols in art from many cultures. The practice of organized religion is on the decline, but this has created a spiritual vacuum. Many, like me, have a longing for sacred experiences, and in the absence of religion we turn increasingly to art for our spiritual needs.

This trend has been a long time coming. In the 50’s and 60’s, abstract expressionists like Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman hoped their non-illustrative work would give viewers a spiritual or meditative feeling comparable to what they experienced in nature. In the 80’s and 90’s postmodern artist like Janine Antoni and Kiki Smith reintroduced spiritual themes, symbols, and actions in their work.

In an article in the Chicago Tribune in 1998, critic Alan G. Artner described how the gallery has become a modern shrine and how artists have become “latter-day prophets and shamans” who “could teach through their works as did religious forebears, but their teachings proved more comfortable: They were vague, ecumenical and rarely proscriptive.” In other words, artists deal with spiritual matters, but they do it in a way that is more palatable to the modern audience.

The idea of “latter-day” prophets isn’t foreign to me–Mormons, or Latter-day Saints, believe that there are literally modern prophets who speak for God. I am not trying to speak for God or to claim any kind of special authority. But I do believe as an artist I have the unique ability to create a sacred experience for the viewer in a nonreligious context, and that is something I believe is sorely needed.

Artists in the 90’s use the body to create spiritual art experiences.

A participant holds a part of Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) (1991) by Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Photo by henskechristine, on Flickr.

One of the major spiritual contributions to contemporary art is a renewed focus on the body, especially by artists in the nineties. The relationship between the physical body and our spiritual selves is also at the center of religious worship and ritual. Take for example, the Holy Communion. The communion relates to the body in two ways: the act of consumption by the participant, and the distribution of emblems that represent the body and blood of Christ. It is both an individual and community experience. By sharing in emblems of Christ’s body, the entire community becomes connected to a single source. The communion also reveals human interdependence–we depend on food to live and on society for the distribution of that food.

The ritual actions of the communion with our physical bodies help our spiritual selves to understand and experience these themes. Many contemporary artists use the body in their art with similar affect.

Take for example Feliz Gonzalez-Torres’s corner piece, Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) (1991). The work is composed of a pile of brightly colored candies weighing 175 lbs, which is the weight of Gonzalez-Torres’ lover before he contracted AIDS and died. Viewers are invited to take a piece of the candy, slowly depleting the portrait until it is gone. The gallery replaces the consumed candy each morning, which recalls the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. It is a powerful, generous work in which the spirit of Ross continually gives and enriches those who participate long after his death. It is also an act of communion. By partaking of the emblems that represent Ross’s body, the viewer is identifying with a greater community–both the society in which Ross lived (lives) and the society that let Ross slowly die because of AIDS.

While Gonzalez-Torres’ brilliantly uses the actions of the participants, other artists in the 90’s used their own bodies to make a connection between the physical and spiritual. In Lick and Lather (1993), Janine Antoni has created two self-portrait busts, one in chocolate and the other in soap. The artist then licked the chocolate bust and washed herself with the soap bust until the feature were nearly worn away and the faces became more universal. The act of licking became an act of communion, the chocolate becoming a transubstantiation of the body. Similarly the act of washing is an act of baptism. By using effigies of herself rather than a deity or an element of nature, Antoni empowers herself and makes the body central to spiritual powers. In the case of Lick, her body is the source of both creation and consumption, and in Lather she is the source of her own cleansing.

Kiki Smith also uses the spiritual qualities of the body to communicate her ideas. One of her untitled works from 1992 is a white paper sculpture of a woman standing with her arms to the side and chains of colored paper spilling out from her center like bowels. Like many of her works, it plays with the line between what is inside and what is outside of the body. By making the inside external, she is giving form to less tangible aspects of the body like the spirit or soul.

Though it isn’t often discussed, spirituality was actually a major theme in the art of the nineties because artists used the body in a spiritual way.

Next up: Moving into the the 2000’s, artists like Bill Viola take these trends a step further by putting the ritual action in video. Ultimately this leads to where I hope to move my own work.

Bill Viola’s videos create an art-based spirituality.

Bill Viola’s Emergence, 2002. Color High-Definition video rear projection on screen mounted on wall in dark room. Projected image size: 78.7″ x 78.7″, 11′ 49″. Commissioned by The J. Paul Getty Museum.

Of all the contemporary artists working with spiritual themes, Bill Viola is in a league of his own. Viola creates emotional, painterly videos that reference birth and death, the natural elements, human expressions and relationships, and religious iconography. His work creates a humanist, or art based, spirituality.

The way Viola creates his videos is often inspired by a childhood near-death experience. He recalls:

“I fell in a lake during a holiday with my family when I was six years old. I didn’t hold on to my floater when I went into the water and I went right to the bottom and I experienced weightlessness and a profound visual scene that I never forgot: it was like a dream and blue and light, and I thought I was in heaven as it was the most beautiful thing I had seen. My uncle pulled me out.

“Since then I became very aware of what we see in front of us, how fast things move, the color of the sky…” (Interview with Bill Viola by Paco Barragán, Art Pulse Magazine, April 2011, 31-35)

The Passing (1991) is a montage of black and white moving images including the artist suspended weightlessly in water, a glistening newborn baby, and his mother who had recently passed away. The soundtrack of the video is the artist’s labored breathing. The video is deeply personal, but its spiritual themes make it transcendent and universal. References to birth and death recall the viewer’s own mortality.

Passing through water is a common image in many of Viola’s works. The Innocents (2007), from his Transfigurations series, features two figures with open arms, as if to offer themselves to the viewer. Their passing through a veil of water is indicative of baptism and rebirth. Emergence (2002) is from The Passions series which was commissioned by the Getty Museum. It features a nude man emerging from an altar-like cistern as two women, astonished at the event, lift him up and place him on the ground. The piece borrows the composition of a fresco from the 1400s by Masolino da Panicale which shows Christ at the moment of resurrection. The video is both an act of birth, with the women acting as midwives pulling the creation from the water, and death, placing a man who seems to have drowned on the ground. Viola’s works are shown at life-size, and so the viewer easily places his or herself into the baptismal action, thus participating in the spiritual event.

Like Viola, I aim to create works that reference both a personal narrative and universally spiritual themes. Tomorrow I will be posting screen shots from a video I have created that demonstrates this new direction. This way of thinking is not as illustrative as my previous works, but I actually think it is more specific and tells a better story than some of my narrative prints and paintings. Hopefully this blog post has given some context for it!


2 thoughts on “The Sacred Experience in Art Spaces

  1. Yes. I have also heard some speak that scientists are the new high priests, but they don’t have the beautiful temples artists have.

  2. Dan,
    I was in your Freshman year ward at BYU. I suppose I just wanted to remark that the void left by ‘leaving’ Mormonism (the rituals, the certainty, all of that) is vast. I’m interested in your pursuit of fulfillment via art and wish you the best xx

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