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Report – ‘Sacred’ exhibition and semimar, Visual Artists’ News Sheet, Sept/Oct 2010

September 16, 2010

Richard Wright, The winner of last year’s Turner Prize,  created a wall-installation for the Turner show at Tate Britain, comprising of an intricate, fresco-like pattern, crafted with layers of gold-leaf. It was a quiet and ephemeral work, which nicely offset the usual media hype surrounding the prize. The Telegraph declared the work  an “incandescent, ethereal beauty”.  “We are in the presence of an invitation to reverie” claimed The Independent.

Published: Visual Artists News Sheet Sept/Oct  2010 issue

This artwork could not be ‘bought’, or even ‘preserved’, but merely experienced in transience, almost like a mirage. The work could be read as referencing renaissance annunciation iconology; or as offering a kind re-formulated, abstracted and contemporary evocation of religious experience.

Closer to home, coinciding with the passing of the controversial Blasphemy Law in July 2009, the exhibition ‘Medium Religion’ in The Model discussed the space that religion occupies in the Irish psyche – while alluding to a more universal message. The curator of the show, Boris Groys, presented an in-depth account of the transforming role of spirituality in our modern era of mass communication. As Groys put it, “the general consensus of the contemporary mass media is that the return of religion has emerged as the most important factor in global politics and culture today.” – a reference to anxieties about both Christian and Islamic fundamentalism. (1)

However, on the whole, art with religious connotations has been considered sanctimonious, clichéd, or just simply un-cool. So why the return to matters of the ‘divine’? What bearing does this have on contemporary life? In fact considering notions of ‘sacredness in the everyday’ offers the basis for a rich and compelling discussion – especially when art, iconology and anthropology are central to the conversation. The ‘Sacred’ exhibition and seminar, originated by The Dock, Carrick-on-Shannon, aimed to stimulate and explore just such a topical discourse (2).

‘Sacred’ was facilitated by artist and curator Linda Shevlin, and contracted by Caoimhin Corrigan for Leitrim Arts Office. The project was funded under the Peace III programme and was devised as a collaboration between members of communities from Carrick-on-Shannon and Enniskillen. The artists featured in the show were Daphne Wright, John Byrne, Gary Colye, Fergus Martin, Paul Seawright, Janet Mullarney, Abigail O’Brien, Amelia Stein, Janine Antoni, Grace Weir, Susan MacWilliam, Sharon Kelly, Mariele Neudecker, Patricia Kelly, Stephen Dillon and Cian Donnelly.The exhibition took place at the Higher Bridges Gallery; Enniskillen Castle and off site venues in Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh (25 June – 21 July).

The project officially commenced December 2009, when members of Catholic and Protestant communities from Carrick-on-Shannon and Enniskillen gathered at The Dock for the first project meeting. As the press release for the show put it, the aim was to initiate conversations around “the shared, experiential aspects of religions as opposed to focusing on their differences”. Over the following months the participants were given presentations by specialists from a range of contemporary art institutions. The participants visited the Ulster Museum in Belfast and IMMA in Dublin. At The Dock Suzanne Lyle from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland; the artist and Head of Fine Art at NCAD, Philip Napier; Johanne Mullan, National Programmer, IMMA; Jerome O’Drisceoil of the Green on Red Gallery and Linda Shevlin, project facilitator, presented artworks for the group’s consideration.

The participants selected artworks in close consultation with the facilitators and specialists. As such, evidence of ‘amateur’ decision-making was not apparent in the exhibition. This was certainly an indicator of the success of the project.  But on the other hand, it might have been nice to seen less ‘professional veneer’. However, on closer inspection it was clear that unique personal touches abounded – particularly in the labelling, where the participants had the opportunity to engage with the audience and explain why they chose each piece.

A spirit of generosity and mutually beneficial exchange was embodied in the project – in that the participating galleries and museums were loaning their works outside of their usual institution remit. In our current economic climate it seems particularly desirable to acknowledge a potential for the erosion of traditional transactions of ownership – where art is bought up and kept for private use.  Bringing artworks out of the collection scenario has the potential to generate new audiences, new meanings, and new contexts in which the work can be received.

In terms of general themes, the artworks explored notions of domesticity, cultural heritage and memory in relation to faith and religious experience. Amelia Stein’s photographs Loss & Memory (2002), depicted old-fashioned objects such as china cups, leather shoes and candlesticks. These banal trinkets could be read as resilient reminders that the old ways should be recalled within the modern psyche. Similarly, Fergus Martin’s Table (2009), depicted a simple and robust image of the family.  It evoked a sense of belonging relating to heritage, serving as a reminder of the family as the very foundation of Irish nationhood within the church / state discourse of DeValera’s Ireland in the 1930’s.

The ‘mother’ as a universal signifier of strength and heritage, was presented as a spiritual icon in Janet Mullarney’s Domestic Gods II (1998).  Sharon Kelly’s Mother, 2003, depicted an empty nightgown, illustrating modesty and femininity of a certain era, with sacramental connotations relating to christening or wedding gowns.  The mother’s absence was palpable in Stephen Dillon’s Untitled 1 & 2 –Ceramic Figures of Youth (2005), as they stood alone on the adjacent plinths.  Depicting hooded youths, these pieces expressed a tribal search for kinship or a sense of belonging.  Janine Antoni’s artwork equated the covered head with the religious act of concealment, visually enacted in Unveiling (1994), through the use of a bronze bell and fabric tassel, creating a veritable shroud. Miriam De Burca’s commissioned work I’m Asleep Don’t Wake Me (2010), was a double video piece, depicting two priests playing the same piece of Irish music, but filmed in isolation from one another, in their own homes.

A one-day seminar / conversation event was held on 26 June in conjunction with the show, in order to further explore the relationship between contemporary art and the sacred. As part of this dialogue session, the artist Seamus Nolan conducted a performance with the ‘anarcho-primitivist’ thinker John Zerzan, which involved a re-reading of  The Case Against Art, written by Zerzan in 1984.  Daphne Wright discussed her work The Prayer Project. The artists Karl Burke and Miriam De Burca – who had been selected by the community groups from an open and invited call for proposals – spoke about their experiences creating new work for the exhibition. The artists’ conversations were chaired by the independent curator Helen Carey. Philip Napier (Head of Fine Art NCAD) talked to Rev. Gary Mason about his work in communities in East Belfast and the role of art in a culture of change.

Miriam De Burca talked of her own take on spirituality, which objectively observes religion, but treasures the strength and spirit of people. She considered it a shame that God (or any religious affiliation) may get the credit for what is essentially the power of human connectivity. Daphne Wright spoke in detail about her Prayer Project (2009). Co-commissioned by Picture This and Quad in the UK, the work investigates the intimate act of prayer through the medium of film, presenting voyeuristic portraits of people as they convene with the ‘other’. Wright discussed the difficulties she had faced regarding access to religious groups, funding criteria and liaison with the media. She insightfully considered the relationship between art, religion and culture in our contemporary information age – noting that art, as with prayer, can bring the individual into the present moment, where freedom can be experienced through the appreciation of simple reflections.

Anthony Gormley’s Fouth Plinth project for Trafalgar Square was referenced, in consideration of the real experience over the dominance of commercialised representations. Gormley´s challenge to the public to display themselves on a pillar in Trafalgar Square raised interesting issues relating to performance and voyeurism – where the individual was presented as a kind of icon, in turn raising questions about hierarchy and the dissemination of the religious doctrine.

Overall, notions of the present and ‘nowness’ was a reoccurring theme within the seminar – along with the idea that passive consumerism essentially corrupts our sense of living actively in the present.

In The Case Against Art,  John Zerzan argued that in our age of electronic media, reality is continually updated, and as such ‘primary acts’ (i.e. reality) have become secondary to the act of representation (3). The discussion also brought to mind the Situationalist International literature of the 1960´s which aimed to address the loss of individual identity and the negation of the ‘self’ under capitalism (4).

In recent times, the Catholic Church’s strong hold over Irish state relations has diminished. Now seems a pertinent time to ask questions which consider the act of faith as being separate from any religious orthodox. In considering the contemporary cultural landscape, it is seductive to promote spirituality and art as two-sides of the same coin. Both have the capacity to highlight the ethical blind spots in society, perhaps relating to scientific or political endeavour, and to ask necessary questions, reaffirming the philospher Neitzsche´s observation that “we have art in order not to perish of the truth” (5).

Joanne Laws


1.        Groys, Boris, Religion in the Age of Digital Reproduction,

2. The project was a continuation of a discourse initiated by an exhibition of the same name held in The Dock in late 2009. The first ‘Sacred’ show at the (14 Nov – 2 Jan 2009) featured an edible art installation from Djeribi; painting by Bernadette Kiely;  a film piece by David Michalek; a sound /performance work by Aileen Lambert and ceramic sculpture by Katherine West. The exhibition was curated by Siobhán Garrigan, Associate Professor of Liturgical Studies, Yale University – Garrigan’s new book The Real Peace Process: Worship, Politics and the End of Sectarianism has just been published.

3. Further information on Zerzan´s writings and thoughts can be found here –

4. The Situationist International (SI) was formed in 1957 by a merger of Guy Debord’s Lettrist International and Asger Jorn’s International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus (IMIB), two post-war continental art groups. The IMIB could claim descent from the COBRA art group. A third art group, the London Psychogeographical Society, was claimed to have joined at the time, but was invented to add to the internationalist claims of the SI.

5. Neitzsche, Fredrich in The Importance of Neitzsche; Ten Essays, Erich Heller, (University of Chicago Press, 1998) p130

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