This exhibition is a response to Trinity Institute’s 2011 theme of ‘reading scripture through other eyes’. This concept is considered here within the context of contemporary modes of communication.
If traditional scripture conveys the full spectrum of human experience, offering guidance and support, comfort and sustenance; referencing hope, pain, peace and consequence, then so too does the mass of written correspondence we send to each other daily through billions of letters, emails and the many other text based options available to us in our digital age.
Writes of Passage incorporates social and artistic elements. A sculpture by the American artist Ryan Roa anchors the museum space. Re-form is a large scale likeness of the cross of St. Peter, positioned with the head tilted toward the floor. The piece incorporates strips of emergency lighting; a globally recognized icon that acts as a monument to the extremes of humanity - danger and safety, life and death, beginning and end - encapsulating the communicative and empirical theme of this project.
On the walls surrounding the sculpture there is a flow of written communication conveying experiences and thoughts among friends, family, aquaintences and strangers; referencing the many facets of life such as adversity, joy, challenge and difficulty.
Museum visitors are invited to add their own responses relating to these themes.This stream of information will grow organically throughout the course of the exhibition ultimately building a textual and social cornucopia. It represents the free flow of communication at our fingertips and perhaps some of it will find its way to connect disparate and unknown individuals through the emotion of the written word.
Ryan Roa is an internationally exhibiting American artist working in a wide variety of media. Recent venues include the Moscow Museum of Modern Art; Jamaica Center for the Arts, NY; The Bronx Museum, NY and The Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, NY. He lives and works in Queens, NY.
Contemporary art of all genres imbibes meaning from the context of the gallery space, be it in a private gallery or in a public institution. Trinity Museum sequesters the objects it contains from everyday life, acting as a heterotopia – a site of difference and reinterpretation. This creates a sort of liminal experience where the visitor, as well as the art, is physically, emotionally and spiritually removed from the hustle and bustle of Wall Street’s manic pace.
But Writes of Passage is equally a site of transition and contestation: sacred and profane, public and private. This transitional site is closely related to the concept of ‘liminality’ developed by anthropologist Victor Turner to describe the second stage in a tripartite ritualistic process found in primitive societies. In the liminal stage, the initiate is physically and socially removed from the community and undergoes a mystical and emotional transformation where they emerge with a new social status. Liminality is has been applied to the museum space by art historian Carol Duncan, defining liminality as “a mode of consciousness outside of our…day-to-day cultural and social states…[to] achieve a liminal experience [is to] move beyond the psychic constraints of mundane existence, step out of time, and attain new, larger perspectives.” It can be no accident that Writes of Passage is a play on words based on Turner’s seminal text on liminality, Rites of Passage.
Re-form by Ryan Roa tackles the postmodern condition of finding ourselves in a chronic state of transition. We are never the same person we were yesterday and won’t be the same person tomorrow. When we encounter Re-form, we notice immediately the flashing emergency vehicle lights. Is this the police? An ambulance? A fire engine? At this moment, we are in between law and criminality, safety and danger, health and sickness, life and death; caught in a fluctuating status of being, operating in a perpetual state of ‘becoming’.
The formal composition of Re-form alludes to the Cross of St Peter. Traditionally found in Roman Catholicism, this symbol signifies the humility of Simon Peter upon his crucifixion when he declared his unworthiness to die in the same upright position on the cross as Christ. However, the Petrine Cross has also been appropriated by some satanic cults, claiming its inverted form is the antithesis of Christianity’s most profound symbol. This contested cross forms a dichotomy locating us back to that liminal experience of transition, of being ‘betwixt and between’ Christ and Satan, religion and desacralisation.
As a support and foundation, Re-form lies at an angle on top of a telephone pole that has been cut into several sections. We contemplate the arrangement – is this about broken communication? This sculpture asks more questions than offers answers, something of a one-way conversation. Communication, be it written, verbal, or by means of gesture, underpins our sense of self, our identity. As we grow, experiencing through interaction and communication, we develop ourselves based on both offering and receiving information that confirms or creates perspectives. We are the initiate that emerges newly transformed emotionally, socially, spiritually and maybe even physically.
The written texts that surround Re-form convey the dreams, tragedies, and all the other little yet significant events that comprise a lived life. Writes of Passage speaks about that liminal moment when we are transformed through communication.
One of the most iconic images of WWII is of a soldier in an icy trench opening a letter from home. Words of love from family and friends had a difficult journey to the front line and were treasured above all other possessions. The small rectangle of paper folded and unfolded many times and read before the battle was kept close to the heart. Sometimes these letters became talismans; charged with the enveloping power of love and warding off the deadly bullet. Most of us have never sat in such an inhospitable trench.
During a very different, peaceful summer’s day in 2010, at a little outdoor café in the heart of Manhattan it happened that both of us were far from our home countries; from parents, from those close to us with whom we have spent - as we all have - important parts of our lives sharing moments of happiness, grief, growth and disappointment.
My colleague was, as usual, lost deep in the vast ether of his Blackberry but then strangely he held it towards me. I started to read the screen; it was a mother’s letter to her son. His mother, thousands of miles away had reached him across oceans and time zones. It was impossible to hold her letter in my hand; one could only read and feel it deeply. In this experience was everything connected to the desire to care, protect, love and support.
Within the context of this exhibition, while we can all find multiple examples for our direction within spiritual documents and religious texts it also exists within our own words to each other. As the cross symbolizes atonement of troubles and sins so we all have our own crosses to bear. But practically we all feel responsibility to those close to us. We need to connect and communicate by offering support, guidance, help and care; it doesn’t matter how we bring these offers to them - whether by regular or electronic letter, by keyboard or pen - the main thing is that we bring it; that we continue, to write.