The Mystique of Questioning
Hardly any artist has so shaped the spirituality of the congregation of St. Peter’s as the American James Lee Byars (1932–1997) in his exhibition The White Mass (1995).
Around the centerpoint of the church he installed The Ring (1990; marble, 20 x 150cm); at four points along the arches of the span pillars, between the points where they intersect and end, and halfway between the church supports and the outer circumference of the ring, he placed four stelae (1987; marble, 162 x 27 x 27 cm).
On one side of each of the stelae, at about eye level, a two-letter titular reference was chiseled. Each stood there with its eye-like inscription facing east: Q.R. - I.P. - O.Q. - Q.D.:
Q.R. - The Figure of the Question is in the Room,
I.P. - The Figure of the Interrogative Philosophy,
O.Q. - The Figure of the One Question,
Q.D. - The Figure of the Question of Death.
In this arrangement the empty center was encircled by the Ring, which was set within the room’s two squares, one defined by the four stelae, the other by the four center pillars. In this way the installation was connected within the room both formally and ideally, and derived its unity and shared foundation from the center.
When no liturgy was being conducted cordons marked off this square, which visitors were not allowed to enter. During the liturgy, practically the whole center nave, from the installation to the apse at the east end, formed a single large altar space. The dynamic void of the Ring was its center.
Byars’s room installation was lit up by a blazingly bright light bulb. This hung over the four blindingly white marble stelae, posed around a ring of the same material, in the middle of the space of the nave. This represented philosophical and religious thoughts. Byars understands the tradition of belief as a complex of questions that open up into specific pre-formed answers: in images, stories, rituals, and dogmas.
With his installation, The White Mass, Byars exhibited a work in the direct context of a concrete documentation of faith. Here religious forms of theory and practice were placed within the dialectic of question and answer. Three of the stelae represented three formal questions: the question’s presence, the question as an interrogative method, the question as focusing on the so-called last question; these three formal questions were confronted by the fourth stela that posed a question of content, and this was the question of death. The ring separated the questions that surrounded it as if the questions themselves would otherwise fight against each other. In its perfection it acted as a display of the consummate. The questions reached beyond any answer; they forced the ring, as it were, to raise itself beyond itself, and to imaginatively form and formulate itself anew. In this dialectic religion, as a form of belief, as principle and subjective act, could first be cancelled out. A reformatory principle took shape in the installation, where all received traditional answers were overcome in favor of gaining a new one.
Through the overlaying of artistic form and liturgical use, the sense of the installation was also transformed, specifically in the question and answer. The intercessor for spirit and grace, and all the achieved evidence of faith within the ceremony, are continuously surrounded by doubt. God can only be experienced as a question because the word of God, and the experience of the numinous, can be described as question. Those who do not engage in both faith and doubt are closed to what the word of God means.
The question as question: it alone can fill the emptiness of the church described above, as well as that of inner space. The question is itself sufficient. This is possible in reflected sacred spaces. James Lee Byars was an artist, and sought to avoid any appropriation by cultural groups in society. Therefore he often appended a question mark to his statements in order to fill them in with enduring life, and to shift them into the field of art and poetry. For religious individuals the problem arises of whether the question as question may perhaps be the most sublime form of mysticism and of belief. On a feast such as Pentecost, for example, should every answer perhaps lie not in the content of the biblical story but in psychological encouragementin the spirit of the Greek word parrhesia, for example, meaning dauntlessness, confidence, openness, freedom . . . as question?
The questions posed by the stelae reanimated the thought of a methodic and concrete interrogative philosophy, and in the question of death they called into question the direction of all interrogation. They awakened questions about life and existence, God and the world, the sense and the senselessness of human existence. Though at its core Christian belief denies the sole validity of the visible, and claims that what supports life and the word is transcendent reality, this is precisely the sort of norm that is called into question by the installation. The White Mass shatters the certainty of the often far too frivolously postulated matter-of-factness of the transcendental; it knocks it out of the hands of the encircling worshipers, forcing them to make an effort to gather it once again. This was, after all, the reason for mounting this installation inside the church. The act of questioning activated an answer from the questioning and pious energies of the faithful, from the pathos of their devotion. This was a time which in its shapelessness and triteness was both painful and mystical, and which was accompanied by desire as well as anguish. In this way belief was challenged by the artistic form and incorporated in the urgency of interrogation, in the tedious dialectic of position and negation, of establishing and calling into question, of venture and doubt. The question is thus the actual movens, the driving force of creative activity, the restless, never satisfied creativity that can only be experienced as long as one is in motion; art and faith, as they once again attempt to give form to formlessness without losing their tension.8
The Sacredness of Experience
Sacred space is today understood by many searching individuals not so much as a place of answers but as an energy-charged space for seeking and questioning. Sacred space should provide individuals with the strength to awaken their belief within themselves, to doubt and to question, to be skeptical and to listen. In this way inner certainties can be renewed and new ones established independent of association. Considering the old theological differentiations between fides quae and fides qua, it is the distinction between the content of faith in the Credo and the form as a vivid creative praxis.
For such an orientation sacred spacea space cleared, free, and emptyis an important pre-condition. This does not mean the deconstruction of a church into something profane. Quite the contrary! A stark space requires bold abstract forms in order that the character of sacredness and dignity may exist. It requires above all freedom from superfluous furnishings, which at best represent a denominational setting for the comfort of its staff. The modern sacred space must be freed from its seeming unambiguousness in order to retrieve it in its traditional openness and complex multi-layered meaning. This means no iconoclasm. From a Catholic perspective, for example, this means carefully selecting the places for the altar, the cross, the Madonna, and possibly the church’s patron saints. The rest of the space must be kept clear architecturally for the space to be a sacred space, and to maintain its openness.
The sacred atmosphere of a space is not static. It also has a dynamic dimension. The liturgical calendar implies transformation and openness toward images, but only as posed questions. In St. Peter’s, exhibitions of contemporary art (as well as contemporary music) are regularly presented in the space in order to fill and move it with new aesthetic forms and content. This confronts viewers and listeners with the times in which they live, and challenges their creative seeing, because seeing is the soul of art as well as being at the core of faith, as creative attention is for the music.
These aesthetic efforts allow the architecture of a church to once again become a multi-dimensional image, not to mention an existential stage. It should not provide individuals with answers but instead inspire paths to a personal belief. In this sense such sacred spaces open up paths and traces of the inconceivable presence of God in this world.
1. Hermann Schmitz, System der Philosophie, vol. 3, Der Raum, part 4, Das Göttliche und der Raum. 2d ed. (Bonn: Bouvier, 1995), 283.
2. St. Gallen: Erker-Verlag, 1969.
3. System der Philosophie, 284.
4. See Friedhelm Mennekes, Eduardo Chillida: Kreuz und Raum (Munich: Chorus, 2000).
5. Ibid., 76.
6. Ibid., 86.
7. Le Corbusier, In Ronchamp (Stuttgart: Hatje, 1957), 27.
8. James Lee Byars: The White Mass, ed. Friedhelm Mennekes, with essays by Barbara Catoir, Heinrich Heil, Thomas McEvilley, Friedhelm Mennekes, and an interview with James Lee Byars by Wolf Günter Thiel. German and English (Cologne: Walther König, 2004).
Friedhelm Mennekes, born in 1940, is a Jesuit priest. He studied philosophy, political science, and theology at the universities of Bonn, Munich, and Frankfurt (Main). From 1980 to 2008 he was professor of pastoral theology and sociology of religion at St. Georgen College in Frankfurt (M); from 1987 to 2008 director of Kunst-Station Sankt Peter Köln Centre of Contemporary Art and Music; since 1997 honorary professor at the Academy of Fine Arts, Brunswick, Germany; and since 2001 visiting professor at the department of art history at the State University of Bonn. His many publications about modern art and today’s spirituality include Joseph Beuys, Manresa (Insel, 1992); Joseph Beuys: Christus denken/Thinking Christ (KVB-Verlag, 1997); and he edited James Lee Byars: The White Mass, with texts by Thomas McEvilley, Heinrich Heil, Barbara Catoir, and a last interview with the artist (Walther Koenig, 2003).
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