It’s not new to suggest that art galleries and museums have replaced some of the functions of the medieval great churches in the modern world. I was struck by how true this has become several years ago, on a bend above Bilbao, looking down at the great silver beast that is Gehry’s Guggenheim: alien, eye-catching, spectacular, strange, utterly dominating the city, entirely cultural (or spiritual, or non-practical) in function. Has anything been built in the modern world that comes closer to the vainglorious spiritual display of the cathedrals?
Much the same could be said of Tate Modern, conducting a 1930s/1670s face-off across the Thames, umbilically/spiritually dis/connected by the Wobbly Bridge, with its nave-like Turbine Hall — and now it has a crypt, the Tanks.
We do here what we do in churches, walk through vast designed spaces talking in a whisper, stopping to gaze at Significant Objects placed artfully among them.
But Tino Sehgal’s current event/’installation’ in the Turbine Hall (http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/unilever-series-tino-sehgal) takes the analogy deeper, or it did for me: this is not art at all, in that there are no objects whatsoever; this is performance, and as any fule kno performance, theatre, ritual and liturgy are concepts that blur one into the other.
As someone who often participates in liturgy with emotions that are at once mixed and strong, the whole thing was partly a little test-tube sample of what such concepts might mean.
People wander the Turbine Hall. They come up to you suddenly, friendly and confessional, and tell you intimate emotional details of their lives, engage in conversations one rarely has with firends, with total strangers. This breaking-up of the normal orders of social interaction is an element of ritual, too, I think.
And then they run: like particles caught in some invisibly-ordered current, they start off slowly and end up zooming everywhere, filling the space with exertion (‘you can tell who are the performers’, said my daughter, ‘they’re the ones who are wearing trainers and are sweating’). The point being that, when they’re all running around, one wants to join in, to be part of this abandoned race in the great space. And sometimes, other people do (kids especially?), and it is hard to be sure who is a performer and who is not.
But also that most of us hold back, wanting to be part of it, but needing permission first; and when we’ve decided that it’s ok just to join in, realising that the running people are following some invisible rules about who is chasing who and where they are going, and that these rules themselves seem to vary, and so it’s hard to join in without asking what the rules are. You can try asking the friendly confidantes, but the answers are at once friendly and faintly evasive.
So one is forced into the position of observer. Does that mean the performers are some kind of priesthood, and I am a congregant? I stand among them, enjoying the spectacle, trying to work out how to participate, worried I’ll get something wrong, wanting to run in the Hall, too.
And then I notice that on the bridge above us, a large crowd has gathered, passively watching. This, then is the difference between audience and congregant. Tho audiences are complicit in performance in all kinds of ways, staying voluntarily silent, clapping at the ends of things, congregants are participating in a wholly different way. The event itself is less valid without their presence – mind you, that’s true of theatre, too; more to the point their participation, at certain moments and in certain ways, is part of the point of the things done.
So are these sweaty people in their trainers a priesthood, at once validating our observation and setting themselves apart by their knowledge of the unwritten rules, at once the focus of our attention and set apart? And standing here among them, am I trying to be of them, or bending the rules, or doing what it is that is meant to be done?
Perhaps one day these kinds of events and these kinds of places really will morph into a new liturgy, just as new liturgies have become more spontaneous and less formal. Rites without gods, yet still somehow essential.
In Cambridge, leading a tour of the medieval town and university, I’m reminded of one of my favourite quotes, written in Paris a couple of decades after the university first became a corporate body rather than a collection of independent teachers, that is, in the mid C13:
‘At one time, when each master taught independently and when the name of the university was unknown, there were more lectures and disputations and more interest in scholarly things. Now, however, when you have joined yourselves together into a university, lectures and disputations have become less frequent; everything is done hastily, little is learnt, and the time needed for study is wasted in meetings and discussions. While the elders debate in their meetings and enact statutes, the young ones organise villainous plots and plan their nocturnal attacks’.
Plus ca change?
We all know, of course: apart from all the obvious stuff, both the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholic churches are institutions forged by the Roman empire, and with continuities of sorts from it. And without Constantine, no official Church. But there are overlooked aspects, too: if one has a vast empire to run, it is unsuprising if in some areas one has to come down hard, creating millenarian movements among the locals. This is Judea in the year 0. So Christianity is one result. And the coming down harder of AD70, with the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, is equally crucial: without this event, the followers of the various cults of the areas, not to say the Jews themselves, would not have been scattered throughout the empire, nor would they have lost the place in which they lived. Judaism would have remained, like the Samaritans or the Zoroastrians, a middle-eastern monotheism of little wider significance: the followers of Jesus might have withered away altogether, or remained a sect within Judaism. In other words, Christianity, and the wider history of Judaism, and the world-changing events that flow from them, are to some extent the results of an inept foreign policy in a far-flung corner of a great Empire.
But there’s something else, too: something harder to articulate, but very interesting. This moment, the destruction of the Temple, when Jewish priestly sacrifice ceases and the faith turns to its books and its memories, is one crucial moment in the identity of Judaism today; but it’s equally interesting that, as these forces spin away from Judea and ultimately to Rome, one of them ceases sacrifice (and almost ceases liturgy) whereas the other does something rather new: transmutes sacrifice into ritual, at once adopting a liturgical richness unknown in Judaism and a refusal to practise anything other than metaphorical sacrifice unknown to Rome. There’s some kind of a Third Way here, a new direction that in the context of that moment must have been strangely powerful.
Just heard news of this report: http://www.parliament.uk/business/news/2012/june/lords-debate-future-of-english-cathedrals-update/ — in which our noble friends in the Upper House liberally quote and refer to the English Heritage document Creativity and Care: new works in English cathedrals (http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/publications/creativity-and-care/) — which was written by me!