In 1912, Wassily Kandinsky wrote a theoretical treatise devoted to spirituality in art, “Concerning the Spiritual in Art.” Early on in this small volume, he states: “When religion, science and morality are shaken . . . when the outer supports threaten to fall, man turns his gaze from externals in on to himself. Literature, music and art are the first and most sensitive spheres in which this spiritual revolution makes itself felt.” These words came to mind recently at the opening of “Transcendent: Spirituality in Contemporary Art,” an ambitious exhibition at Burlington City Arts (BCA) that features the work of seven internationally known artists who explore and open the viewer’s eyes to the fluid realm of what it means to embrace spirituality in our contemporary world.
Shahzia Sikander, a Lahore, Pakistan-born artist, presents a large-screen video installation, titled “Disruption as Rapture.” Based on the tradition of Indo-Persian miniature paintings, the video is a tenminute and seven-second animation that transforms and recontextualizes the reading of the illuminated manuscript by which it is inspired, the “Gulshan-i Ishq, (Rose Garden of Love),” a traditional narrative retold by Mohammad Nusrat Nusrati in 1657, elaborating the story of two royal lovers who are separated and brought together through a series of challenges. The video invites the viewer to engage with the story and animation as it alters and recreates itself to the accompaniment of a musical score by Chinese artist Du Yun; the animation was a collaboration with Patrick O’Rourke. It was hard for me not to conjure up the Western fascination with the Oriental that so defined and determined the historical conflicts that have arisen from colonialism and imperialism. But that’s a whole other essay.
An installation by Anila Quayyum Agha, “Hidden Diamond — Saffron,” consists of a laser-cut cube suspended from the gallery ceiling, inside of which a single warm yellowish light casts the cube’s intricate design upon the gallery walls and ceiling. The viewer finds herself circumambulating as one would in a devotional practice. The artist was inspired by a visit to the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. Her experiences in Andalusia triggered memories of her early life in her native Pakistan, where she was both intrigued by and excluded from the sacred spaces of mosques based on gender exclusion. She invites her viewers to engage equally in the installation’s environment.
Another installation in the BCA’s lower level is Shelley Warren’s “Pradakshina: A Devotional Practice.” Warren, who is a professor at the University of Vermont, has been traveling and studying in the Himalayan regions of India and Nepal since the 1970s. In the gallery space, she has recreated a stupa, a sacred structure that most often contains the relics or remains of Buddhist monks and disciples. The installation includes video projections as well as an audio component.
Maïmouna Guerresi, an Italian-Senegalese artist who converted to Sufi Islam, is represented by five works in her “Aisha in Wonderland,” Lambda C-prints centered on the imagined experience of “Alice in Wonderland” as an African Muslim woman. Gueressi’s works embrace the duality of her identity as woman raised in a Western world as a Catholic and her conversion to mystical Islam. The works on exhibit depict women in hijabs, yet the poses of the figures, the drape of the extended length of their robes and their airiness as they float across the plane of the canvas suggests Madonnas in early Renaissance painting.