A Modern Pilgrimage: Art and Wellbeing

Words: Alastair Davey

Conduit member and Goldsmiths University student Alastair Davey reflects on the psychological and spiritual power of works of art and the buildings that house them.

At the beginning of October last year I accompanied my partner on a work trip to Texas. Not wishing to feel like a spare part I formed a plan to navigate the art scene of Austin. Reading Alain de Botton’s ‘Art as Therapy’ a week before the trip, pilgrimage was at the front of my mind. This word is imbued with religion and can make any trip seem daunting; it creates expectation and suggests a degree of inner-self exploration. Botton’s text centres around the question ‘What physiological fragilities might art help us with?’, and approaching galleries in a non chronological or geographical way, I hoped to find solace in the subject matter of art and delve deeper into some of this psychological woe.

The destination of this pilgrimage ended at an off site exhibit, part of the Blanton Art Museum. Blanton contains a large collection of 20th century and contemporary art as well as a section dedicated to Latin works. The viewer is advised to visit the gallery before making the short walk outside the building and up the plaza to meet Elsworth Kelly’s ‘Austin’, a white stucco-clad structure of Roman Catholic chapel design. It was unclear if this journey had been planned, but the juxtaposition of the visually stimulating white walled gallery with the quiet, dimly lit chapel, allowed for a few moments to reflect on the work I had viewed.

Having Kelly design ‘Austin’ as a ‘totality’, both the structure and its contents created a space which seemed pleasantly at ease. This was a sheltering space to explore physically and meditatively. Eric Michael Wolf, Head Librarian at the Sotheby’s Institute rightly states on Austin that ‘seldom is an artist offered the opportunity of creating a complete space … offered complete control of the architecture, lighting, and contents’. ‘Austin’ is full of connections to art of the middle ages as well as work of 20th century influence. It follows the canonical form of a traditional Roman Catholic chapel. As Wolf says later in his review, ‘Kelly is known to have admired medieval Romanesque churches during his time in the army during the Second World War’. The Chapel is cruciform in plan and barrel vaulted with a central groined vault at the crossing. It contains fourteen black and white marble reliefs that clearly reference the stations of the cross, and a wooden totem sculpture in the apse which performs the function of the high altar. The highly polished marble made me recall Barnett Newman’s ‘Stations of the Cross’ (1958-66), as well as Mark Rothko’s chapel in Houston that features fourteen dark panels, referencing the same central theme in the Western art canon. Kelly seems to be cast as curator, artist, and historian which makes the referencing of these themes flow into his own practice.

Kelly’s stained glass windows at three of the walls of Austin opens up a link to religious rituals. “Colour Grid” becomes the windows on the South facade, “Spectrum” becomes the East and

West facade. Both are made from an array of coloured lights: patterns are cast that change with the day’s light and seasons, instructing the visitor to perform and dwell in certain spaces much like the church calendar and its congregation. This structure, conceived in the 80’s, appears to be built for the instagram generation, something which has become a ritual of visiting museums in its own right. This structure, his only architectural work, seems to be a final embodiment of the artists’ beliefs and thoughts on spirituality. Kelly’s final memento represents his beliefs about the order of the world much like a society builds a temple and a national gallery with the same purpose in mind. Reviews of this work present their journey to and around it as a pilgrimage, and this internal light seems to be at the front of any ritualistic behaviour. Jesuit priest, Jonathan Malesic describes ‘Austin’ as having ‘all the trappings of a chapel, but … no official religious function’.

This odd space, a combination of temple and gallery, challenged the visitor to interact. During my own ‘pilgrimage’ I was the only visitor. After looking at the marble reliefs for around ten minutes I decided to meditate in front of ‘Spectrum’. Eyes on the brink of being closed without actively looking, the coloured light blurred into a marbled white that had a heaviness on my brow and corners of my eyes, a glimpse into a visual totality. It wasn’t till after then that I noticed another woman who had crept in and looked rather embarrassed, pulling her phone towards her chest. She had taken a picture of me sitting there and rather excitedly showed me, claiming that ‘I had made her picture’. This moment really demonstrated a ritual. We had both performed in ways we saw fit; I meditated in the temple, the woman captured an image in the gallery, a stark contrast underlined by the fact that we were the only two people there.

Botton’s principle has certainly been cemented in my mind, “We need to approach art in the right sort of way. It needs to be framed not principally according to the criteria of art history but according to a psychological method that invites us to align our deeper selves with artworks”. As museums and galleries open up online but church doors remain closed, I would implore those with a searching soul to consider art, galleries and buildings as transformative; it took an artist creating a chapel pastiche for me to make this connection. Emerging out of Kelly’s chamber of reflection into the welcoming Texan heat, my physiological fragilities were relived and perhaps my psychological woes too.

Alastair Davey is a History of Art student at Goldsmiths University interested in the transformative properties of art and decoration in commercial and residential interior design.