Sharon Alward

Negotiating Sacred Strategies: Creating Sacred Spaces

Dad lay dying in his hospital bed for two long days. I couldn’t imagine what was taking him so long. This big loud man was afraid to let go of his life. Maybe he was negotiating with the Almighty -- preparing his explanation for why he had never given money to the poor, shown any mercy to anyone, or done a single act of charity. Or maybe he was lost.

He seemed so small to me. I knew it was tearing him apart to be seen like this. So in that moment I asked the God that I had forgotten about, to please send someone to help him not be afraid, and to lead him away -- show him the way to go. My dad looked so afraid and so lost.

In that same instant, a light came in through the window and went up his body and settled at his head. His eyes, which had been closed, opened, and he looked up all peaceful-like--his breathing normal. In that same huge moment I felt something that I came to understand as grace. I understood the meaning of life and death, -- that the universe was perfect, -- all that it should be, and that everything was right and good. Then he closed his eyes and the light slipped down his body and dissolved. I never saw him take his last breath.

This story is an excerpt from my video, Christian Woman of Virtue. What it leaves out is that I had actually made a bargain that cold October morning. For my fathers’ redemption I had bargained my life. I would dedicate the rest of my life to God (never mind that I had no idea who or what God was).

In the beginning I searched for some understanding of that encounter but every explanation I received from priests and secularists alike was just too small. One Bishop dismissed my story as impossible, and suggested I become a social activist like Jesus if I really wanted to know God. A priest agreed I had probably had a mystical experience and was fascinated with why I (a self-professed agnostic) would be selected for the honour. Most simply couldn’t understand why God would choose to reveal something so profound to a sinner like me. After that I stopped trying to make sense of the experience. I didn’t talk about it anymore. It is only now that I bring it up in the context of this opportunity to look back over my work and situate it within the subject of the sacred and consider how metaphysics, ethics and culture intersect with and inform what I do as an artist.

My experience led me right back to the beginning, to rethink my mortality and to fulfill my obligation. I began to explore performance art and religious ritual as potential sites for creativity, for transformation and, in the words of Emmanuel Levinas, "to hear a God not contaminated by being”. Mark Taylor in his book Tears, talks about the art of the sacred as a non-absent absence. For him the sacred is the interruption of ordinary experience, and the art of grace defers for an indefinite period the end of time, dissolves time as a story, overthrows time as a linear movement. These ideas helped validate my need to create rituals without beginning or endings. I began to connect to the God of Jewish mystics; “Ein Sof” or Endlessness.

Jean Baudrillard claimed that when every thing is aesthetic, nothing is beautiful or ugly anymore and art itself disappears. He suggested returning to ritual. In some intuitive way I was arriving at a similar conclusion. During the early years of my performance/installations I read Edith Wyschogrod’s ideas on saintly postmodern ethics and Derrida's thoughts about the moment of endless waiting. I heard Suzi Gablik talk about ritual's symbolic significance and Rachael Rosenthal talk about "sucking the disease from society". I felt compelled to bring ethical actions into the content of my work, and the modernist notion of the artist as not responsible to anyone seemed trite after such a moment of grace. The challenge for me was to begin to think of how to reframe the sacred in our Postmodern, Post - Christian world.

Peggy Phelan says that performance, because of the presence of the body, is about displacement and pain. Performance arrives at the real through resisting metaphors and marking loss. My early projects involved opening myself up to the desires and projections of the audience. In Loves You So Much It Hurts (1989,) I locked myself in a pillory and people began coming early in the morning, waiting for the gallery to open, to read me poetry, offer me sips of water and leave flowers at the base of the pillory. They seemed stressed and needed to offer something. As people would tell me their stories I began to realize our deep yearning to connect. A woman whose son had died in a car crash opened up to me while I was in the pillory. Later, as I performed Totentanz (1990,) moving across the floor wiping up blood, people would get down on their knees to help me and to talk. While I was cleaning the bloodstained floor the same woman came to tell me how much our previous talk had helped put her son’s death in perspective. It was the first time she had spoken about it. We talked about dying, what we hoped for, and what we feared while we cleaned the floor together.

Aware of feminist theory and that the female who displays herself as a subject is forced to negotiate the rhetoric of the pose, I was also interested in what Thomas McEvilley describes as the “seeking of dishonour” as a vehicle to connect with the holy. Totentanz (1990) began as my self-conscious attempt to confront the inadequacy of art in the face of death (AIDS). Blood and semen were spread across the gallery floor as homage to the medieval plague. The medieval dance of death was transformed into cleaning this new apocalypse. It was stunning how quickly two fluids reduced my body to a site of social disgrace. Mayor Bill Norrie of Winnipeg called me a piece of trash and said he would not cross the street to see such garbage. I was publicly called a slut and a devil worshipper. There were phone calls to the university demanding that I be fired. On the last day of the exhibition my fluids spilled out from the neatly contained world of art and into the real world. More outrage. The news reporter only asked me if I was a lesbian. The artist is indeed the messenger. Later, wearing my lavender neon wings, I began binding my chest and wearing padded incontinence diapers. Just in case.

The appropriation of the human body to confer reality on beliefs and assertions is a universal practice. The Archbishop of Canterbury had just affirmed the negation of women as priests because as he said; women priests “offered up the sight, sound, and smell of perversion”. The next several works were my attempt to make sense of my constructed body-as-battleground. This body, that had been witness to something sacred, was not fit to lead worship.

The video works became text heavy --my voice within the performance/ installations. In Mutterwitz, (1992) secular bodies and sacred bodies confronted each other - Descartes disconnected my head from my body. Contre bande (1997) addressed Foucault’s assertion that society had gone from blood to sexuality; blood was death, and sexuality represented the norm and regulation. The use of real blood caused a public outrage and then was dismissed as fake fluid by the Arts reviewer. In St John the Baptist (1998), ketchup was more real than blood. Over my protest to the contrary, everyone insisted I was using real blood. In Ugly but Not Inferior (1997) I forced Freud to clash with my holy body. But while the theoretical battle took place on the video screen, I opted to go out into the Los Angeles theatre and give communion to an astonished audience.

I begin every performance with a prayer, always beginning, “Your will, not mine”. During every performance I pray for everyone I meet. I never know what will happen but I believe the opportunity to access each other in sacred space can lead to intimate encounters. Within these spaces there is the potential for creativity. Together artist and audience can co-create, unleashing the potential for an alternative consciousness to emerge. Inside of these spaces each of the participants may feel vulnerable and that vulnerability sometimes allows us to see things in new ways.

My hope in all of my performances is for love, mercy and healing. In these spaces, through encounters and conversations with the audience I try to hear and express “the God not contaminated by being”. Even post-9/11 feeling an unexplainable urgency to do performances as acts of charity/atonement/ reconnection, I experimented with taking sacred space into the communities; into Hamilton’s palliative care homes and food banks, (Reconciliation) and onto the streets of East Vancouver (Liminal Acts) sharing food with the homeless.

I admire the artist Mike Kelley, who talks about his work as resistance to attempts to universalize and canonize dogmas - practices that contribute to a world of suffering, violence and cruelty. In trying to make sense of my encounter with God’s grace, I have explored primarily Judeo- Christian expressions of compassion and mercy. Jewish mystics (August), the Hebrew bible and feminist theory (Covenant), Christianity’s deadly sins and gothic text (Christian Woman of Virtue), western notions of abjection and redemption, (Dreitta Inni) and the Christian New Testament (Receiving) were all sources of questions. I am expanding into other cultural notions of art and the sacred, specifically the Zen Warrior. The Bushido with its ties to Zen Buddhism, claim the path to enlightenment is through the practice of physical rituals; rituals I am beginning to explore.

With all my work I endeavored to create spaces that allow an alternative consciousness to emerge. Richard Rohr, founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and a Franciscan priest, suggests that sacred space is where we are capable of seeing something beyond self-interest and self will. According to Rohr sacred space allows you to live with paradox and mystery, feel indestructible yet vulnerable, weep for the evil of which both sides are victims and imagine an alternative universe because you have been there, and dare to imagine you can hear God.

In a world that is five billion years old we showed up yesterday And like the ultimate gunfight at the OK corral, we all blast away with both barrels against what seems like an indifferent light-- or sadder still, a light that only exists in our stories, describing a God that is way to small for us and our world.

And a few of us-- the artists, we focus on the ruptures; how the bullet holes feel rather than a literal history of who we are, where we come from and where are we going. Each of us longs for a history to reassure us of our own endings. So we can believe. And hope that we don’t just leak out into the abyss without so much as a remarkable whimper. In our own way, we give the dead a chance to speak, keeping them on life support for a sentence or two before letting them rest again. We create these stories that can lead us to a terrifying but meaningful journey into the mystery called God. Not about what is, but all that has become.

We live in possibility--each of us a sign of God’s presence.