“Is nothing sacred?” people mutter in exasperation at perceived indignities, insults or even bad taste.
No, not much. Very little is sacred in a culture as sprawling, diverse and largely secular as the United States today. Even such once-hallowed institutions as government, religion, the family and motherhood are sometimes met with indifference rather than the veneration once granted to sacred things.
Yet the very question suggests a lingering hunger for the genuinely sacred. Even people without formal religious ties express spiritual desires. They go on pilgrimages in search of enlightenment, tranquillity and meaning. Facing illness or psychic trauma, they turn to prayer, meditation and other means of accessing supranatural powers. And sacred artifacts abound not just in churches, mosques, temples and other places of worship, but in homes, offices and especially art museums.
Tapping into these near universal experiences, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts has pulled from its collection a novel display of things that reference the “Sacred” in myriad cultures and ways. It is on view, free, through July 13.
Starting Saturday, the museum will host a four-month series of informal talks, films and salons on the theme. Topics range from expert explorations of faith and ethics, to participatory experiences with voice healing, sacred rhythms, labyrinths, “laughing yoga,” and a “puppet rock yoga adventure” for kids aged 3-93.
“The great thing about a theme like the sacred is that it makes you look at everything differently,” said Elizabeth Armstrong, the museum’s assistant director for programs, as she led an informal tour. Mingling photos, paintings, sculpture, textiles and videos, the display sprawls through seven galleries and the rotunda of the museum’s west wing. To signal the topic, the museum’s staff designed a vaguely Moorish entrance arch painted golden yellow, a color used in signs throughout.
“Sacred” begins, curiously, with an empty case to note the American Indian belief that sacred objects should not be owned or viewed outside their ceremonial context. Nearby, the Catholic nun Sister Wendy chats about her faith’s notions of sacred art in a video interview. A bronze sculpture of the Indian god Shiva, a Benin sculpture from Africa and highly secular contemporary collectibles continue the introduction.
“The sacred can be personal, it can be secular, it’s open to different ideas, histories, cultures and ways of finding meaning,” Armstrong said.
Listening and walking
Subthemes focus attention. One large gallery, configured as a meditation space, holds just a single 12th-century sculpture of Kuan-yin, a Buddhist deity of compassion. Cushioned benches invite visitors to sit and contemplate. If they do, they may notice voices murmuring meditation phrases — may you be healthy, may you be safe, and so on.
“I love the idea of entering a room where a whole lot of people are wishing you well,” said Minnesota artist Jan Estep, a practitioner of Buddhism who suggested the meditation room and created the soundscape. “It’s a way to animate this sculpture for an audience that otherwise might approach it just as an historical artifact.”
Walking is the theme of another gallery. Objects represent various paths to enlightenment: labyrinth drawings, ink paintings of Chinese scholars in mountain retreats, a circle of stone pavers gathered by a contemporary English artist on meditational walks. The museum even has a contemporary labyrinth built into the pavers of an outdoor courtyard.
Walking a labyrinth is “a reflective process that can work on many levels, simple or profound, but at minimum it is a time to slow down and just be aware,” said M.J. McGregor, an expert on the history and healing potential of labyrinths. MIA visitors will be able to walk a canvas copy of the labyrinth found in Chartres Cathedral during a “Sacred Salon” led by McGregor on Feb. 15.
Tradition and modernity
Other “Sacred” objects recount traditional religious tales, like the scenes from Jesus’ life depicted in a 17th-century Ethiopian Bible. Or depict revered landscapes such as Yosemite Valley as photographed by Ansel Adams. Some art shows traditional acts of compassion, reverence and generosity, including a sculpture of the Virgin Mary nursing her child and another the Greek youth Ganymede feeding Zeus in the guise of an eagle. There’s even a room of music videos by Leonard Cohen, Kanye West, Jay-Z, Florence and the Machine, Arcade Fire, Black Eyed Peas, Brother Ali, Lazerbeak and Bono.
Clothing is often associated with sacred rituals, be it the embroidered robes of Catholic priests or the elaborate headgear of Tibetan Buddhist monks. The show is especially rich in such garments drawn from the textile collection. One of the most beautiful pieces is a contemporary kimono in pale gold silk covered with hundreds of wafer-size fabric envelopes, each containing a wish or prayer for good health. It was made by Minnesota artist Erica Spitzer Rasmussen for a relative suffering from cancer.
“It is a conceptual piece but meant to be worn by the person who was ill,” said Jennifer Komar Olivarez, the museum’s associate curator of decorative arts and textiles. “It is something she has created that is outside any belief system. It does look like a Japanese robe, but it is something she has imbued with power.”