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THE SACRED AS ART

The following lecture transcription came my way via the sacredlandscape@intuition.org mailing list and i am delighted that the author, Marc Duhamel, has consented to its archiving here. The topic he addresses -- the appropriation of religious architectural details as "gallery art" -- is similar to the "cultural imperialism" that occurs when we designate a foreign temple as a destiny for sacred site tourism or utilize another culture's deity as a "good luck charm." Cultural appropriation is a weighty issue, but, as Duhamel points out, it acquires a delicious tinge of irony in this instance because the appropriating culture is nominally the same as the culture whose religious architecture has been appropriated.

NOTE: Marc's lecture was illustrated with slides; i await the opportunity to scan and place them here.


WHEN THE BEAUTIFUL BECOMES SACRED:

APPROPRIATION OF THE 'SPIRITUAL CAPITAL'
OF THE RIDEAU STREET CONVENT CHAPEL
BY THE NATIONAL GALLERY OF CANADA

By Marc Duhamel


(As presented at the 12th Boston University Symposium on the History of Art
at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, March 16, 1996)

(fig.1: The Chapel) The Rideau Street Chapel was built in 1887-88 as an annex to the building complex which housed the convent of the Grey Nuns in Ottawa. [1] The growing enrollment in the school run by this religious order justified the addition, and the chapel suited the liturgical purposes of their prospering community. (fig.2: Georges Bouillon) Priest/architect Georges Bouillon was commissioned to design the interior of the chapel which was consecrated on the 25th of June 1888 [2] as the chapel of the Convent of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart. [3]

The Chapel was sold [4] in 1971 by the nuns, who abandoned it because of, "...the exodus of the population from the centre of the city to the suburbs, declining enrollment, shortage of teaching staff, and [the deterioration of the] older buildings" in the complex. (fig.3: The Chapel in 1972) It was slated for destruction, but after much lobbying from non-religious heritage groups [5], the interior was declared a heritage site on April 28 1972. [6] The interior was dismantled and placed in storage until 1988, (fig.4: The National Gallery) when it became part of the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Canada, a structure designed by the architect Moshe Safdie.

Western High Art museums such as the National Gallery of Canada, as Carol Duncan points out, are temples dedicated to the worship of the aesthetic by determining which objects constitute the material basis for veneration of the Eurocentric dominant culture's secular cult of beauty. Like relics placed in the churches of Medieval Pilgrimage Roads, works of art lend their aesthetic power to the secularized pilgrims of our era, namely, tourists. Indeed, museums appropriate the 'spiritual capital' of objects which once held, and still potentially hold, specific liturgical functions which go beyond mere beauty or purported cultural importance.

(fig.5: The Rideau Street Chapel in the National Gallery of Canada) The purpose of this presentation, which is a work in progress, is to demonstrate how the Rideau Street Chapel is a concrete example of a spiritually important object which has been reconsecrated as beautiful within the architectural frame of the National Gallery of Canada. I will draw parallels between how high art and ethnographic museums are similar in that they jeopardize the sacred authority of objects which were once part of living spiritual traditions and present them as trophies dedicated to the victory of the dominant, secular culture of which both types of museum are tools. I have also drawn on Native artists and intellectuals' theoretical explorations on the subject of the sacred in their own culture as a guide to help me in deconstructing the world-view proposed by both types of museum.

The shaping of knowledge in any given society requires that certain institutions be created in order to justify who holds the reigns of power. To this effect, ethnographer Marian Bredin states that:

Ethnography has constructed an object of knowledge ('culture') [...which] is situated within networks of power and what Michel Foucault refers to as 'regimes of truth.' The ethnographic text is thus made possible only by certain historical, political, and epistemological contexts. [7]

High art, like ethnography, has constructed its own cultural vision of the world. Both disciplines have used museums as tools which work to reinforce these "regimes of truth" within the Eurocentric cultural apparatus which dominates North American socio-political thought. The National Gallery, itself a high art museum, is an institution which enforces the dominant culture's idea of what Canadian National identity is for its public. It presents the items on display inside its walls within a synchronic, static signifying system. This type of display is purposefully done in order for this ideological point of view to appear as an essential truth, to be used, more often than not, to justify National or cultural heritage.

The problematic of the institutionalization of culture and its decontextualization of works of religious importance finds its roots in the 18th century beginnings of the museum. Linda Nochlin has written about the nationalization of the property of the clergy following looting and destruction of a great number of the Catholic Church's monuments and works of art in post-Revolution France. In fact, the National Assembly, following this decree, as Nochlin points out:

...almost at once had to make provisions for the preservation and protection of the works of art which fell under this heading. It was precisely in these emergency circumstances that the Commission des Monuments came into being. Rescued from the fury of the people by revolutionary art lovers and scholars, the visual objectifications of tyranny, superstition and oppression were, through the alchemy of the museum, transformed into the National Heritage, the most precious possession of the people. [8]
The historical context might be different, but the institutionalization of Canadian culture by establishments such as the National Gallery produces results similar to the changes which took place in post-Revolution France. Such state sanctioned looting of spiritual artifacts raises some questions about the purpose of museums as agents of cultural imperialism within this power structure. James Clifford states that, "In the West... collecting has long been a strategy for the deployment of a possessive self, culture, and authenticity." [9] Nochlin supports this, demonstrating in her work that museums provide a physical venue for the display of the dominant culture's hegemony, a place to house its trophies. (fig.6: Hunt Cup of the Montreal Fox Hounds) The Chapel itself is treated as gallery space, currently holding 19th century trophies and presentation pieces from the Henry Birks collection of Canadian Silver. [10] (fig.7: Nova Scotia Provincial Prize Cup for the Intercolonial Rifle Match) This is ironic, since the Chapel itself, an architectural object integrated within the museum'swalls, has itself become one of the National Gallery's trophies. (fig.8: Angle View) The sacred building, transformed into a beautiful object, through the decontextualizing power of the museum has, paradoxically, been housed in a place where it is venerated as sacred according to the conventions of Occidental art. Has this been done by the museological cultural elite in order to render the sacred aspects of the chapel unproblematic for the secular viewer? Or is it blatant appropriation of the Chapel's 'spiritual capital,' symbolizing the triumph of the secular over the sacred?

The integration of the Chapel within the Museum's walls negates its original function by reconsecrating it within the traditional canon of Canadian art history. The manner in which the National Gallery presents the Chapel, as both aesthetic object and spiritual artifact has some similarities with how ethnographic museums present sacred objects from other cultures, as, "...survivals, remnants of threatened or vanished traditions". [11] The Grey Nuns' existence certainly appears to be in jeopardy at this time and probably was as well in 1972, due to decreasing enrollment to this religious order, as well as the aging of the current members. Artifacts of traditions which are constructed as being endangered or already dead by ethnography and the theology of art have particular appeal for museums. There is a demand for authenticity from artifacts of these traditions by the controlling cultural institutions. The museum going public requires, in turn, that this criteria of purity be met by museum authorities, creating a vicious circle of metaphysical supply and demand. This practice is prevalent in both ethnographic and high art museums. These same practices, which are responsible for the denial of, "...a living, changing culture" [12], for the Fourth World, can also, arguably, be held accountable for a similar denial of the authority of objects from the spiritual traditions of the First World. The museum and its quest for authenticity suppresses the ability of artifacts of both cultural traditions to change by placing their spiritual power in suspended animation.

The problem of the authenticity of artifacts within the museum context is not a trivial one, as it influences both the market value of these objects as well as their spiritual worth. However, Margery Fee states that, "...the idea of accurately or finally distinguishing authentic from inauthentic discourse [is] impossible: the ideal of 'authenticity' has been proven to be, like so many others, relative and context-bound." [13] By refusing to define the historical context of spiritual objects which belong, arguably, to its own cultural traditions, the dominant culture runs the risk, as is the case with the synchronic presentation of the Rideau Street Chapel, of causing this manifestation of a part of Canada's cultural/spiritual heritage to become "other" to the culture it is supposed to serve. The closest analogy to this type of otherness is what Todorov has referred to as, "...the other in oneself". [14] The Chapel can be considered as being an other within the National Gallery.

It is possible that the authenticity or uniqueness of the Chapel as architectural artifact was the prevalent criterion in considering the safeguarding of its interior. The groups who fought for its conservation were already sensitive to the sacredness of architecture as part of the traditional 'triumvirate' of the high arts. But does aesthetic taste suffice in reconsecrating the land upon which the shell of the recycled building has been placed, if only for the purpose of justifying the worship of the secular cult of beauty? I would propose that museums, as agents of the dominant culture, use a form of "spiritual capitalism" which denies the life of sacred works appropriated by them.

The Rideau Street Chapel has become a victim of this exploitative process within the context in which it now finds itself. Walter Benjamin argues that reproductions of works of art, "...[enable] the original to meet the viewer halfway... The cathedral [figuratively, in the form of an image], leaves its locale to be received in the studio of a lover of art." [15] The interior of the Chapel has left, literally, its original site. It has become an architectural icon, a shadow of the original, meeting the tourist halfway within the bounds of the National Gallery. Because of its new status as a simulacrum deprived of its original spiritual and physical context, the Chapel's liturgical function, the specific reason for which it was built, is placed in jeopardy. And in spite of the fact that the original elements of the fan vaulting were used in the Chapel's reconstruction, lending authenticity to the aesthetic artifact, the installation lacks functional purpose outside of being beautiful. By overemphasizing the visual aspects of the Chapel, its "... authority (...) [its]... 'aura,'" [16] is placed in peril and therefore, the building loses much of its symbolic potency. Indeed, does it still retain any of its former functions? What of its ties to the land upon which it was consecrated?

The largest amount of the Chapel's 'spiritual capital' was vested in the land where it was consecrated, and this cannot be transported into a new, secularized venue without producing an ideological clash. In her essay "Kinds of Knowing" for the Land, Spirit, Power exhibition at the National Gallery of 1992, Charlotte Townsend-Gault talks about how specific objects have spiritual importance for Natives, how they, "...hold meaning for people inasmuch as they represent and encapsulate a system of beliefs, an ideology. They are the symbolic capital, amassed in both the past and the present." [17] One of the problems facing works of art when they enter the museum context is that they are denied a present. As pointed out in the introduction of the catalogue to this same exhibition, "Modern society has, to a large extent, lost the sense of the sacred. This may be nowhere more evident than in its contradictory, contemporary attitudes to the land. The 'spirit of a place,' or the 'the spirit of the land,' is often spoken about lightly." [18] It is significant that the example of the Rideau Street Chapel proves that the lack of respect which the dominant culture has for native land also extends to hallowed sites which belong to its own cultural traditions.

Architectural conservation techniques, no matter how good a job they do at trying to capture the spirit of a place, cannot make it live again. Ricardo L. Castro, professor of architecture at McGill University, has been quite critical of one such practice, that of facadism. This preservation strategy, which has been fashionable in Montreal in recent years, consists in safeguarding the facade of a building, what Castro refers to as the, "...skin of buildings, complying with developers' demands for maximum floor rentability while providing a certified heritage front in an attempt to pacify those concerned with architectural preservation." [19] He has cynically referred to this practice as 'Architecture as Taxidermy.' [20] Former executive director of Heritage Montreal, Joshua Wolfe expands on Castro's point, remarking that, "When taken to excess, the preservation of facades and other bits and pieces of a building is exploitative, akin to necrophelia. Present design requirements too often seek the rearrangement of an old structure, leading the contemporary architect to neglect the spirit of the original building." [21] However, where the architectural taxidermy of facadism guts a building's interior, (fig. 9: Removal of the Chapel) the reverse has been done to the Chapel, resulting in what I refer to as 'Architectural Surgery.'

The intricate remains of the Rideau Street Chapel, numbered like pieces to some gigantic puzzle for the purpose of an accurate restoration in the future, (fig.10: Moving Day) were placed in a warehouse in 1972. This 'cryogenic chamber' on the outskirts of Ottawa [22] stored the Chapel's 'innards', awaiting transplantation within Safdie's architectural Frankenstein. (fig.11: Workers) The remains have been nicely integrated, one could almost say organically grafted, within the walls of the National Gallery, a tribute to craftspeople of priest/architect Bouillon's time as well as that of our own. (fig.12: Side Aisle) The Chapel must be understood semiotically within the context in which it is now located, as a vital organ within the body of the museum. It has become the Christian heart of the complex, emphasizing Catholicism's importance above all other religions (un or under) represented in the Museum's permanent collection. (fig.13: Floorplan) The Chapel's size and centralized location in relation to other works within the Museum, and the way in which it has become an integral part of the signifying system that is the National Gallery hints at permanence and fixity, and by extension, eternity. The political subtext implied by the privileged, central position which this material manifestation of the Catholic faith holds in the National Gallery is that other religions are perceived as being not quite as Canadian within this closed signifying system. The Chapel has become an architectural icon of Catholicism, the Museum's 'sacred heart.' (fig.14: The Chapel in the National Gallery) It has become a relic of the secular cult of beauty, lending its aesthetic power to devotees of this creed at the expense of the Chapel's original significance as a building with specific liturgical functions.

Nonetheless, as Carol Duncan argues in Civilizing Rituals, museums are ritual spaces, set aside by the dominant culture for reasons I have already discussed. I would like to argue that artworks, whether they were originally made to serve spiritual functions or not, are aesthetic relics of the secular cult of beauty. Analoguously, relics placed in shrines and pilgrimage churches in the Middle Ages exploited the 'spiritual capital' of the remains of the saints power contained within them. The theological establishment is what gave spiritual currency to these objects. However, it had to solve the problem of the popular appeal of the cult of saints, as worshippers were desecrating martyrs' graves by stealing relics. Pope Gregory I resolved this problem by granting spiritual power to pieces of cloth which were touched to reliquaries. These pieces of cloth, known as brandea, were considered authentic enough as guarantors of the 'aura,' containing the essence of saints power for liturgical or healing purposes. Can photographs be considered to be the contemporary tourist/pilgrim's secularized brandea? As stated earlier by Benjamin, the beautiful object, its mimetic essence captured on photographic paper, leaves its physical position to be admired at the adept of the secular cult of beauty's leisure. The validity of this analogy helps in confirming Benjamin's claim that, "It is significant that the existence of the work of art with reference to its aura is never entirely separated from its ritual function." [23] The fact that, in the case of the Rideau Chapel, the art object in question was originally constructed as a place of worship clashes with the ideology which relegates it to the status of visual relic for secularized ends. The National Gallery has acted irresponsibly in that it has failed to acknowledge the building's power, as well as by its failure to bring an understanding of how it functioned as a place of worship in its original context.

Indeed, the possession of a spiritually powerful object by a museum also means that the institution has power over how it is received by the public which it is supposed to serve. The reclaiming of objects of spirtual value by Natives from ethnographic museums has some parallels with the problem of the NG's appropriation of the Chapel. Jim Thunder, a Plains Cree, went on a pilgrimage of his own, which would make the quest to Santiago pale in comparison. He set out to reclaim a sacred medicinal bundle from the American Museum of Natural History, running from Alberta to New York city. This object's spiritual authority is as real to Thunder as the power of relics was for ancient pilgrims and currently is for Catholics of our own age. Thunder's words on this matter reiterate this fact; he states, "I wouldn't run from Alberta for an historical artifact. This is alive. It has power." [24] He wished to restore the sacred object's dormant energy by bringing it back to a community which could appreciate it for its living spiritual worth. The subordination of the sacred's power to that of the secular is also present in the case of the Rideau Street Chapel. The National Gallery of Canada owns it, hence it has power to exploit it as it wills, to the detriment of its former social value as a place of worship.

There are no evident solutions to the problem of the integration of sacred objects within museum walls. However, the problematic must be addressed not only in the instance of the Rideau Street Chapel, but also with respect to other objects which once belonged to sacred traditions. These works, reconsecrated as aesthetic relics when grafted within the body of museums, are exploited for their 'spiritual capital' with little or no regard for the artifacts' former spirit and ritual value.


NOTES
1
The Nuns bought the 'Revere House' complex which belonged to Thomas Matthews in May 1869. [back]

2
By the Archbishop of Ottawa, Monsignor Joseph-Thomas Duhamel; no known relation to this writer.
[back]

3
Luc Noppen, In the National Gallery of Canada -- "One of the most beautiful chapels in the land" (Ottawa: The National Gallery of Canada, 1988) 17. 'Rideau Street Chapel' is a pseudonym, and as it is more commonly referred to by this name, it is the one which I will use throughout this essay.
[back]

4
To the Glenview Realty Corporation.
[back]

5
The chapel was saved through the efforts of:

  • A Capital for Canadians
  • Heritage Committee
  • Action Sandy Hill
  • Save the Convent Committee
  • Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development
  • National Research Council of Canada
  • The National Gallery of Canada
  • Numerous individuals.
  • The chapel was restored and reconstructed through the efforts of:
  • The National Gallery of Canada
  • Canadian Parks and Services/Environment Canada
  • Canada Museums Construction Corp.
  • The Friends of the National Gallery
  • Corp. of the Cities of Hull, Ottawa, Nepean, and Vanier
  • Town of Aylmer
  • The Sam and Saidye Bronfman family Foundation
  • The Robert Campeau Family Foundation
  • Henry White Kinnear Foundation
  • Phyllis Lambert
  • Power Corp. of Canada
  • Richardson Century fund
  • Rideau Convent Alumnae Association
  • Thousands of others.
  • This information was taken from a plaque in the corridor leading to the entrance of the restored chapel.
    [back]

    6
    Pierre G. Normandin ed., "The Canadian Parliamentary Guide," 1972.
    [back]

    7
    Marian Bredin, "Ethnography and Communication: Approaches to Aboriginal Media", in "Canadian Journal of Communication," Vol. 18, no. 3, Summer 1993, 298.
    [back]

    8
    Linda Nochlin, "Museums and Radicals: A History of Emergencies", in "Art in America" Vol. 59, no. 4 (July-August 1971), 30.
    [back]

    9
    James Clifford, "On Collecting Art and Culture", in "Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures," 1990, 143.
    [back]

    10
    This is a list of artists and objects which are currently on display in the room devoted to the Chapel's remains:

  • Robert Hendery:
    Quebec Skating Club trophy
    Hunt Cup of the Montreal Fox Hounds trophy (p. 75)
  • Savage & Lyman:
    Field Officer's Cup for the Grand Rifle Match of the United Canada (p. 67)
  • William Herman Neuman:
    Nova Scotia Provincial Prize Cup for the Intercolonial Rifle Match (p. 65)
  • [back]

    11
    Clifford 1990, 161.
    [back]

    12
    Margery Fee, "Who Can Write as Other?" in The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, 1995, 243.
    [back]

    13
    Fee 245.
    [back]

    14
    Gerald McMaster, "Desperately Seeking Identity in the Space of the Other", in Edward Poitras; Canada XLVI Biennale di Venezia, 1995, 2.
    [back]

    15
    Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", in Illuminations, New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World Inc., 1968, (translated by Harry Zohn), 221.
    [back]

    16
    Ibid.
    [back]

    17
    Charlotte Townsend-Gault, "Kinds of Knowing" in Land Spirit Power, Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada, 1992, 80-1.
    [back]

    18
    Introduction, Land Spirit Power, Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada, (Diana Nemiroff, Robert Houle, and Charlotte Townsend-Gault eds.), 1992, 12.
    [back]

    19
    Ricardo L. Castro, "Significant Buildings of the 1980s" in Grassroots, Greystones & Glass Towers, Bryan Demchinsky ed., Montreal: Véhicule Press, 1991, 112.
    [back]

    20
    Ibid.
    [back]

    21
    Joshua Wolfe, "The Faćade Fad: Saving Face Isn't Always Enough" in Bryan Demchinsky ed., Grassroots, Greystones & Glass Towers, Montreal: Véhicule Press, 1991, 173.
    [back]

    22
    Noppen, 24
    [back]

    23
    Benjamin, 224.
    [back]

    24
    Gail Guthrie Valaskakis, "Postcards of my Past: The Indian as Artefact" in "Relocating Cultural Studies; Developments in Theory and Research," 1993, 163.
    [back]


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