Art in Sacral Space
The book by Norbert Schmidt, an architect and head of the Centre for Theology and Arts at the of Charles University follows artistic interventions in the Church of the Holy Saviour in Prague (also known as the St. Salvator Church) by the Charles Bridge from 2009 to 2016, and in several cases also artistic and architectural feats in other religious as well as non-religious spaces which have roots in the experience of the academic church.
The monograph begins with two more extensive and theoretical chapters. The first depicts the history of the Clementine church and provides an opportunity to perceive its complex genius loci, including the most recent part, which since the fall of the Iron Curtain has been represented by the theologian Tomáš Halík. It was him who has transformed the Prague academic church into a place of an open dialogue of theology, spirituality with the contemporary pluralistic society and culture. The second chapter expands on this view by adding a few foreign examples, which have become truly significant for the author as inspiration, theoretical background and a source of necessary feedback. It portrays the thought of the French Dominican Marie-Alain Couturier, who has worked with leading avantgarde artists such as Le Corbusier, Fernand Leger or Henri Matisse. Through the theologian Romano Guardini and the architect Rudolf Schwarz we look into the German-speaking area, at the beginnings of the Liturgical Movement and new thought about sacral architecture, where it is precisely the space which becomes the key category of all Christian art. It might be said that the today much discussed spatial turn was here performed decades earlier than in other subjects of study. The fact that inside the church could be found men capable of running a progressive gallery of the highest world level is proven for example by Msgr. Otto Mauer, the preacher of the Saint Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, who was friends with artists such as Joseph Beuys, Arnulf Rainer or Fritz Wotruba. The author of the book considers the recently bulit Trappist monastery in the Czech farmstead Nový Dvůr not only a masterpiece by the British architect John Pawson, but first and foremost a result of the Trappist monks’ attempts at a modern adequate environment for their spirituality and also an unexpected proof of the French Dominican’s living legacy. Two examples from Cologne contributing to the current debate on the existential and spiritual aspect of art are given at the end of this part. The Jesuit Friedhelm Mennekes founded here the Kunst-Station Sankt Peter (“an Art station”), where he has so far invited the most contemporary artists, such as Anish Kapoor, Eduardo Chillida or James Lee Byars, and stressed the dynamic treatment of art in sacral space. Also, the Art museum Kolumba led by its director Stefan Krause has now for ten years been presenting its collection in a new building by the architect Peter Zumthor in impressive unusual constellations and changing concepts.
The interventions in the Church of the Holy Saviour were lucky to approach the top artists of the Czech art scene, such as Václav Cigler, Stanislav Kolíbal, Jindřich Zeithamml and Adriena Šimotová right at the beginning. Even though their work was not extensive, the respect to the target and the quality of performance were set high right from the beginning. The artists conceived the understanding of a work of art, an intervention, predominantly as an existential impulse in space, which further leads to new perspectives, encounters, communication with visitors and the particular space. This could be later followed by younger authors with bigger space experiments. After a vast, simple, Lenten canvas, which brought to the academic church a sense of silence, reduction and a crucial visual transformation of the church, the painter Patrik Hábl replaced all the historical altar paintings by his abstract contemporary paintings. The following year, the painter Jaromír Novotný borrowed a traditional form of church vanes in order to bring his work directly to the pews among people. Different reductive approaches in this historical church thus paradoxically showed a wide range of options of transforming and making the atmosphere of a historical environment new.
A complete opposite end of the same experience was presented by a series of interventions by South Korean artists. Choi Jeonghwa with his balloon flower called Beautiful! Beautiful Life filled the space of the Church of the Holy Saviour with simple joy and happiness. Another of his works, a twelve-meter red breathing lotus placed in the forespace of the Benedictine Břevnov Monastery, evoked a spontaneous encounter of Western and Eastern spirituality. Hong Soun brought to the windows of the baroque, richly ornate refectory of the Dominican Monastery in the Old Town not only another rich art layer, but also a pressing issue of socially disadvantaged children. Kim Byoungho gave sound and image to a semi-dilapidated Casa Sancta in a monastery church in the town of Slany. This invasion of Asian visuality into Czech historical environmentshowed among other things appealing simple courage to handle given heritage sensitively, yet without unnecessary prejudice and narrow-mindedness. It revealed creativity and courage inherent to the thought of baroque artists, which we mostly forgot under too much rational thinking and considerations. Norbert Schmidt also touches upon the issue of light in historical and nowadays used spaces (interventions by Vladimír Burian and Matěj Forman), he studies the difference between sacral and exhibition space (Convent of Saint Agnes of Bohemia and the monastery in Slany) and also the issue of music transforming the perception of space, the way it can build new spaces of unknown distances between real walls (Berg Orchestra, the composers Slavomír Hořínka and Michal Rataj). Also, the author deals with theatre, liturgy as a kind of performance and the world of wandering clowns and entertainers (Puppet theatre of Matěj and Petr Forman).
Based on the experience of the Church of the Holy Saviour with contemporary art in the historical context several smaller projects have appeared. An intervention above the graves of the deceased in a fatal battle at Bila Hora in Prague in 1620 touches a neuralgic point in Czech as well as world history, a question about the verity of memory and the sources of one’s identity is raised (Patrik Hábl, Michal Rataj and Norbert Schmidt). At a cemetery above the town of Volyně in Šumava mountains we may find a contribution by the author of this book himself — by an architectural intervention in the Gallery Na shledanou — to an unusual attempt to give a new aim to a desolated communist building, which has never become a place of a final farewell: a cemetery as well as contemporary art as a reason to meet and think.
In the tiny village called Číhošť, the task was to create a grave and a place for the remains of the priest Josef Toufar, who had become a victim of the communist repression in the 1950s. His belated burial was turned into a joyful event, that showed that evil and hate do not have to have the last say, that we may enter the past and try to correct it, compensate or make deeds right again. A separate chapter is also devoted to the question of the traditional topic of the cross (Václav Cigler, Stanislav Kolíbal and a new cross for the spire of the Saint Jacob Church in the historical centre of Kutná Hora).
At the end of the book, we get back to the academic church by the royal bridge below the Prague Castle. The threefold chord of rather strong, yet deeply sensitive space installations again reveals the great potential that contemporary quality art interventions may bring into a historical space. Michal Škoda placed a double-sided mirror next to the entrance, and it showed its cold surface not only to visitors, but also to the whole illusive baroque liturgical landscape of the church. Pavel Mrkus transformed the vault of the church into torn skies or a raging sea with the use of monumental videomapping. For some, this artwork became a reflection of their own soul or even of a topical escalating situation caused by the refugee crisis.
The German artist Christian Helwing divided the whole space of the church by a red line, which oscillated on the border of an abstract geometrical abbreviation of the church architecture and an emotional membrane which sparks in the viewers a range of poetic associations. The space dynamics, its experience through a work of art, erasing the border between a work of art, a sculpture and architecture thus becomes an existential tool, which is enriching both for the usual as well as coincidental visitors of the old church.
In a contemplation before the end of the book, the author is encouraging us to listen intently to the present moment, when we do not run away to the past, often far too comfortable securities, nor future utopias, which hinder our experience of the present.
He stresses patient, humble, yet careful “monk” labor. As experience gathered in this book shows, we may be rewarded by new findings and insights into new unexpected connections. And perhaps even that rare moment when aesthetic awe meets with the thing we have so many uncertain terms for: radical proximity, absolute presence, enlightenment, awakening, ecstasy, conversion, contemplation, mercy or the God’s hand’s touch. The monograph is concluded by an interview with Adriena Šimotová, who managed to discover brand new spaces of work and thought at the end of her life, which was complicated by her weaknesses. Again, the opportunity of art to become an existential mirror of human experience is stressed in the book. Šimotova even claims that: “The more personal I am, the more universal.“
Jan Skřivanek, the editor-in-chief of the Czech monthly Art & Antiques, in the Preface says that the book A Plea for the Present is not “a list catalogue, but more of a travelogue portraying the author’s searching and finding ‚places for art‘. Norbert Schmidt is an architect by trade, but his focus is much wider — from art history and theory to theology. Theoretical reflection meets in his approach with practical experience with implementations of the contemplated concepts. He writes with admitted personal interest about issues in which he is engaged and which are important for him. The result is a compelling and inspiring book which offers more than just a list of several interesting interventions in the religious context. In my opinion, the core of A Plea for the Present is not the question if contemporary art belongs to a church (of course it does, why should it not?), but the defence of art as something indispensable to our lives. Not as a kind of entertainment or representation, but as a way of understanding and experiencing the world.“