by Shirley MacWilliam
21st September 2009
In this commissioned essay Shirley MacWilliam looks at how prayer is presented in Daphne Wrights video installation.
Prayer is less visible than it once used to be when religious practices were threaded through the day-to-day procedures of state, entertainment and social rhythms. Secular society makes religious observation a matter of personal conscience conducted largely out of public view. Public professions of faith can cause political and cultural confusion and embarrassment.
In the making of the Prayer Project, Daphne Wright asks that she be allowed to make images of acts of prayer. Then she presents to an audience the filmed images of seven people at prayer and in meditation and we inspect their introspection.
We contemplate seven bodies in different positions, varied degrees of stillness and activity, inside and outside. And from inside these bodies, persons, or souls or personalities, contemplate the spiritual. Some prayer involves highly ordered and precise activity, some approaches stillness, some expends energy almost explosively.
A woman in a blue robe sits on a bench outside. Her open eyes move about; the shadows and highlights of leaves move behind her head; her mouth moves a little, her head shifts back. Her face seems to react and her attention to be caught here and there. This attention to the material world seems at odds with our knowledge that she is praying until we realise suddenly that she appears to be listening. She listens, apparently, to something beyond our ears, something other than the layers of reading, exhortation and mantra that we can hear in the space. Like a person on a telephone she exists in both her immediate surroundings and in a space beyond. But of course we do not know this - this is what we perceive and interpret from the evidence of our senses and the personal cultural knowledge we bring to the image.
Necessarily each of us approaches the work from our own assumptions about prayer and meditation - be these the prevailing and incidental religious influences of upbringing, one's belief, one's scepticism, one's animism or one's intellect. We respond as much through what we do not know and do not believe.
The Prayer Project does not attempt to represent a comprehensive range of religions. None of these individual acts can stand for the religion from which they arise. They each stand for the ‘mystery' of the individual moment of prayer, of the artist's encounter with prayer and of the audience encounter with the image of prayer.
Whilst the work might point towards the divine, the truth, and the idea of the universal and whether we can see it, it also functions on a personal level. The images are intimate and closely framed. In part they are portraits - except that in a portrait one expects the subject to be present to us and we feel that these subjects are not. We assume that portraits deal with self hood and that prayer and meditation minimise the worldly self. One woman, who has prayed with eyes closed for a long time, seems to emerge disorientated and twice catch the camera with the unsettling, uncomprehending eyes of a half-wakened sleeper before submerging again into prayer. This vulnerability and absence of self-awareness make for an uncomfortable sight.
Each of these acts of prayer and meditation was performed in the presence of an artist, a camera and a camera operator. It seems at odds to pray ‘for camera'. Somehow one feels prayer ought to be innocent or unaware of being image. Curious though that as people prepare for prayer they compose themselves - as if they make themselves into a composition, a picture. Hands clasped or enfolded or palm-to-palm or strapped are arranged into the recognisable gestures, the pictures, of prayer.
The installation of the images in the gallery on large facetted screens recalls the panels and doors of Russian icons. Theologically the Russian Orthodox icon is a special kind of image that is inherently connected to the divine. Icons are venerated partly because they correspond to incarnation - the existence of God in human bodily form. The icon represents the body and the spirit. From the same historical context we acquire iconoclasm - the breaking of and mistrust of images.
The Prayer Project reminds us of how much art and religion have shared similar preoccupations - questions of truth and meaning; of how to represent the ineffable, the unameable, the unpresentable; of how power and value inhere in the symbolic, the body, the image.
In a strange analogy to many religious metaphors here these seven bodies of devotees are dematerialised and become light.
Shirley MacWilliam is an artist and writer and lectures at the University of Ulster.