Jenny Cathcart takes a walk around the displays of sacred art in Enniskillen

Sacred - Reconsidering the Sacred in Art was shown in three locations in Enniskillen - the Higher Bridges Gallery in the Clinton Centre, the Imperial Buildings, and the Castle Museum. The project, which was initiated by The Dock gallery in Carrick on Shannon, invited cross community groups from both sides of the border to take part in discussions about the concept of sacredness. Then, following visits to the Ulster Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, the participants, under the guidance of curator Linda Shevlin, chose 17 contemporary art works which they felt represented the sacred for them. Two artists were commissioned to make new pieces.

In addition to the exhibition, which brought unusual and unfamiliar art to the town, a 'Sacred Dialogue' took place in the Clinton Centre. The audience interacted with panel guests who included Helen Carey, an independent curator; Philip Napier, Head of Sculpture at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin; Father Turlough Baxter from Carrick on Shannon; Rev. Gary Mason, a Methodist minister from east Belfast and three of the exhibiting artists, Daphne Wright, Miriam de Burca and Karl Burke.

'Hoodies', by Stephen DillonThe discussions reflected preoccupations with change, reconciliation, tolerance, truth and innovation. Helen Carey believes that in the current era of Information technology a shift in thinking is required similar to that of the Romantic movement which, in response to the Industrial Revolution and years of rational thought, introduced notions of the sublime. Carey feels that the role of the artist is not only to articulate and bear witness but also to demolish 'sacred cows'. Daphne Wright’s 'Prayer Project' reminds Carey of the Book of Hours, prayerfulness and the passage of time.

Rev. Mason spoke of the Wesleyan imperative to address holiness and social issues. He has worked to modify the violent images portrayed on Belfast’s murals and is currently involved in the Skainos project to create a new church on the Rathcoole estate, a communal plaza and a street with no flags. The aim is to neutralise the current situation where 90% of people in Northern Ireland live in areas separated by sectarianism. 

Rev. Mason appealed to artists to offer up creative solutions for the four out of five boys who leave school without a single GCSE so that they, like the boys depicted in Stephen Dillon’s ceramic 'Hoodies', can imagine life in a sphere other than the narrow confines of their neighbourhood.

Through the ages the Catholic Church has been a powerful promoter of sacred art. For Father Baxter, Fergus Martin’s print of a rude table with protruding nails conjured up an altar. The Second Vatican Council changed the place and perception of the altar as a place of communion and encounter. Father Baxter believes the artist should be honest and speak his or her truth.

The overriding themes that emerge from the exhibition include prayer, peace, purification, filial and family love, faith and the beauty of nature. In the two years that it took to research and complete the filming of her projects - which depicts people at prayer - Daphne Wright met with resistance from individuals and groups who felt the process would be intrusive and voyeuristic. She said some of those she filmed do not believe in God as such but all of them believe in something.

Miriam de Burca, who has not espoused any religious faith, delights in the generosity and kindness of human nature. She created 'I’m Asleep Don’t Wake Me' as a metaphor for difference and harmony. It portrays a Protestant clergyman and a Catholic priest playing an Irish slow air, one on a flute and the other on a fiddle, one in southern Ireland and the other in the north. The two were filmed separately some hundred miles apart. They begin playing in sync then deviate but end up together.

'Domestic Gods II', by Janet Mullarney, Collection Irish Museum of Modern ArtFrom the audience at the launch of the exhibition, artist Bronagh Lawson defined sacred as 'something that allows the soul to soar'. The dictionary defines sacred variously as 'consecrated to or belonging to the divinity or a deity, holy… connected with religion or religious rites… regarded with reverence… reverently dedicated to some person, purpose or object'.

Many of the pieces in the exhibition feature everyday objects and situations. Sharon Keely’s mezzotint, 'The Tradition', displays a silk garment that could be a vestment or christening robe. Lovingly photographed in black and white, Amelia Stein’s series 'Loss and Memory' preserves treasured mementos of her departed mother - a trio of leather purses, delicate china cups, a trinket box with ballet dancers on the lid, a brass clock finely wrought, leather shoes complete with shoe horns.

In 'A Family Looking South', John Byrne chose a family photograph from the 1950s as inspiration. The parents and children sit or stand in front of St Martin de Porres wallpaper which at the time was as common in Catholic homes as a tray of holy water or portraits of the Pope. Superimposed is a handwritten text: 'We were a fairly typical Northern family facing South… People in the North and the South have so much in common… we have so much we share… we share a border.'

Artist Gary Coyle swims every day and his 'Lovely water swim 731' was chosen for its depiction of calm, serene waters and the idea of ritual cleansing. Abigail O’Brien’s 'Red Ribbon' rag tree, a landachrome print on acrylic, conjures up pagan and current beliefs in the sacred, curing ability of ancient sites. 

My own response to the exhibition is as subjective as that of the group who selected the pieces on display. Karl Burke’s 'Wood, Video, Sound' installation invites the viewer to watch a sunset over half an hour. I find the monotonous drone, presumably a meditative umm, almost as intrusive as the vuvuzelas at the world cup.

The most sacred moment for me comes not from an art work but from an audio recording made by Miriam de Burca, relayed anonymously, almost apologetically through a pair of headphones. The male speaker defines spirituality as reality. In essence he says that what we see is usually pre-judged and therefore not real. Christ is the personification of someone who could actually see for He was awake. He saw not what he wanted to see but what was actually there and he saw it with compassion.