Monday, January 18, 2010

‘Sacred Spaces at MOBIA, Part II’

Dr. Klaus Ottmann and artist Tobi Kahn at the Museum of Biblical Art in New York City Thursday night. Ottmann lectured on ‘Faith, Spirituality and Sacred Spaces in Contemporary Art,’ the last of three lectures offered in connection with MOBIA’s exhibit of Kahn’s work ‘Sacred Spaces for the 21st Century’ which closes on Sunday.

‘Portrait of the Artist Studio
as Spiritual Space’

Thursday night, the Museum of Biblical Art hosted the final of three lectures addressing the topic of sacred spaces in conjunction with its exhibit of artist Tobi Kahn’s work titled “Sacred Spaces for the 21st Century.” Our teacher, Dr. Klaus Ottmann, brought the lecture series full circle; what began last month with a discussion of the evolution of sacred spaces from Temple-era Israel through the Renaissance and into modern times, concluded here with Ottmann defining the artist studio as spiritual space where philosophy, language, and religion are amalgamated in certain works of contemporary art.

Not the Magpie Mason’s field of expertise, which made the experience all the more fascinating. Furthermore, if my colleagues at the Rose Circle happen to read this, I hope they will jot down Dr. Ottmann’s name, and consider inviting him to speak at one of our conferences, where he can contribute much to the members’ stock of knowledge as he is a sound choice to discuss these matters.

Ottmann earned a Master of Arts degree in 1980 from Freie Universität in Berlin, and his Doctorate in Philosophy from the Division of Media and Communications at the European Graduate School in Switzerland in 2002. Today Ottmann serves as the Robert Lehman Curator for Parrish Art Museum in Southampton, New York and also teaches art history at the School of Visual Arts. A prolific author of books and catalogs, Ottmann also is editor-in-chief of Spring Publications, Inc., which publishes books on psychology, philosophy, religion, mythology, and art. One of its books is Ottmann’s translation (from German) of Gershom Scholem’s Alchemy and Kabbalah (2006).

He has curated more than 40 exhibitions including Life, Love, and Death: The Works of James Lee Byars at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt, and the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Strasbourg (2004), and Wolfgang Laib: A Retrospective, which traveled from Washington to five other museums around the world (2000-02). His recent curatorial projects include exhibits of Willem De Kooning and Chloe Piene; future shows of Rackstraw Downes and Jennifer Bartlett will open at Parrish Art Museum this year and next.

His curriculum vitae is extensive, and can be read here.

Ottman spoke too briefly yet managed to cover a variety of artists, the philosophers who inspired them, and the spiritual images created thereby. In only about 40 minutes, Ottman, taught us about more than half a dozen artists of the 20th century, and even one painter from 15th century Russia.

Ottmann began his talk quoting Immanuel Kant’s three fundamental philosophical questions:

What can I know?

What ought I to do?

What may I hope for?

His point was to explain that man seeks an ethical grounding in life. There are those who rely on meditation and prayer; others take to political activism; some look for fulfillment in material possessions. Their quest is for the inexpressible, what Ludwig Wittgenstein described as “running against the boundaries of language.” Or, as F.W.J. Schelling put it (Ottmann again quoting): “Each of us is compelled by nature to seek an Absolute.” (Ottmann also is the translator of Schelling’s soon-to-be published Philosophy and Religion.) This can lead to a harmonious, but deep, connection between religion and art. To wit: Chartres Cathedral, an almost limitless creation of material wonder (architecture, statuary, stained glass, etc.) that has become a destination for spiritual seekers of all kinds.

With these firm philosophical and artistic footings, Dr. Ottmann lead us forward into the fine arts, screening for us a few minutes of the film Andrey Rublyov (1966) by Andrei Tarkovsky, which tells the story of Rublyov’s torment over being hired to paint The Last Judgment inside a church, yet he cannot paint it, not wanting to “terrify people.” This 15th century painter of Orthodox icons is renowned for his Holy Trinity, which Ottmann credits as an example of art’s ability to link the present world to another world. “There exists an icon of the Holy Trinity, and therefore God exists as well.”

Fast-forwarding to 1950, Ottmann gave us Mark Rothko’s No. 10, an oil on canvas of his floating rectangles.

Left: Rublyov’s Holy Trinity (c.1410).

Right: Rothko’s No. 10 (1950).

Rothko’s favorite philosopher was Søren Kierkegaard, the 19th century Danish thinker who believed Christianity was better left to the individual believer who, if left free to worship, would seek the community of a congregation. (Such thinking put him at odds with the Danish National Church, the official state church.) His preference for the individual also is seen in writings about the patriarch Abraham. “Kierkegaard has that passion for the ‘I.’ For that ‘I’ experience, like Abraham in his Fear and Trembling,” said Ottmann, quoting Rothko. “It is the ‘I’ that I myself experience every day.”

No. 10 shows a few horizontal bars, but The Rothko Chapel in Houston is a modern work of specifically religious art. Perhaps most notably, this sacred space was not built to be a synagogue or church, but was commissioned by private individuals. “The Chapel has two vocations: contemplation and action. It is a place alive with religious ceremonies of all faiths, and where the experience and understanding of all traditions are encouraged and made available. Action takes the form of supporting human rights, and thus the Chapel has become a rallying place for all people concerned with peace, freedom, and social justice throughout the world.” Read more here.

Our next stop was New Mexico to visit the Dwan Light Sanctuary on the campus of the United World College. Curator Virginia Dwan, architect Laban Wingert, and artist Charles Ross collaborated to create an exceptionally unique sacred space. As one website puts it, the Sanctuary is:

“a space shaped by the Earth’s alignment to the sun, moon, and stars. Designed around the number twelve, the Sanctuary is illuminated by six prisms in each of two apses, and three prisms in each of four skylights. The prisms form broad ribbons of pure solar color that move in concert with the rotation of the Earth. Lunar spectrums can be seen on nights when the moon is full. A third apse, facing north, houses a square window. A line parallel to Earth’s axis extends from the center of the floor through the center of this window, and points directly to the North Star.”

Moving to France, we examined Yves Klein’s Blue Monochromes, which I think Dr. Ottmann said were six in number, and had been created for a chapel that in the end was not built. As MoMA’s website says:

“Monochrome abstraction—the use of one color over an entire canvas—has been a strategy adopted by many painters wishing to challenge expectations of what an image can and should represent. Klein likened monochrome painting to an ‘open window to freedom.’ He worked with a chemist to develop his own particular brand of blue. Made from pure color pigment and a binding medium, it is called International Klein Blue. Klein adopted this hue as a means of evoking the immateriality and boundlessness of his own particular utopian vision of the world.”

Then it was time for more film. Klein’s Anthropometries of the Blue Period (1962) combines music, blue paint, and nudes to create what Ottmann called “a theater of the flesh.” Referring to Klein several times as a Christian and Rosicrucian, our lecturer described the action in the film as an expression of the incarnation of The Word, and the resurrection of the body. The Word made flesh. I cannot find the same piece of film on the web, but this alternative gives you the idea. This clip is shorter than what we saw during the lecture, and what is most obviously different is the absence of the original music. Klein had his female models, the “human brushes,” do their work while a chamber orchestra with two vocalists performs a droning piece of music which sounded almost like a liturgical chanting, but with strings and woodwinds undertaking the work of a choir of baritones. Frankly, it gave the scene a nightmarish quality. (Also, the longer film we saw during the lecture offered a few quick glimpses at a jewel around Klein’s neck. Its red ribbon was plainly visible against his white tuxedo shirt, but the jewel itself seemed to escape the camera; to me it appeared to have had the shape of what we American Freemasons call a Most Wise Master’s jewel.)

Klein and Claude Parent collaborated on “Air Architecture” and their “Air Conditioned City” (1961). Rosicrucian symbolism abounds, as the elements Air and Fire again dominate Klein’s statement, his call for a new Eden.

Leaving Europe for India, our group looked at Wolfgang Laib and his Brahmanda (1972). Read Dr. Ottmann’s explanation here from last November.

For his Brahmanda, said Ottmann, Laib had discovered a large black rock, about three feet long, in India. He brought the rock home and carved it into a perfect oval shape called a “brahmanda.”  A Sanskrit word, “brahmanda” is defined as “cosmic spirit” + egg. “The embodiment of Brahma, particularly the solar system, physical, psychological, and spiritual; the ancient Hindus called Brahma “the cosmic atom. The idea is that this cosmic atom is ‘Brahma’s Egg,’ from which the universe shall spring into manifested being.”

Laib also is known for his “Fire Rituals.” Ottmann said Laib’s exhibition in Turin consisted of Vedic fire rituals, which included priests’ religious chants and the lighting of 33 fire altars on which ritual elements of fruits and vegetables, and other organic materials were burned. A very rare happening outside of India. These are celebrations of peace, prosperity, health, love, and other ethics and energies.

The Faith by Enrique Celaya, oil and wax on canvas, 2007.

Enrique Martinez Celaya, (born 1964) a Cuban-American artist, wants, said Ottmann, for “artists to be prophets again.” Marrying art, literature, philosophy, and science, this artist calls for art to show “ethical responsibility” with the artist/prophet, unlike the mystic who aims to leave this world for the next, returning to the world to spread his message.

The Magpie Mason could not help but smile when Dr. Ottmann projected the next painting onto the screen. Celaya’s Two Worlds (2007) unmistakably recalls the countless myths, legends, and religious stories that allegorically employ a river as, what Piers Vaughan might term, “a barrier between two states of consciousness.”

Two Worlds by Enrique Celaya, oil and wax on canvas, 2007.

The traveler, dressed unusually, crosses the water, heading toward Light, where life begins to bloom. Only one step away from completing his crossing, he appears to struggle to maintain his balance. It is “a spiritual and transcendent reminder of the ethical responsibility of the artist,” Ottmann explained which, for me, is an inspiring contrast to the hateful filth (e.g., Serrano, Ofili) that seems to garner the art world’s awards and grant monies.

Concluding his lecture, Dr. Ottmann urged us to consider the artist’s studio as spiritual space. Artists’ spaces are sometimes preserved, he said, not only for their historical significance, but for the idea of preserving the spirit of the artist. “There is so much concentration…. There is an aura.”

Magpie readers, please always remember that subjects such as this are complicated, consequently any errors above are attributable to me, and not to Dr. Ottmann.

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