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Sacred and Sensual

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THE BODY

Simon Grennan and Christopher Sperandio

at All Saints Episcopal Church, the Church of the Epiphany, the Second Presbyterian Church, the Lake View Presbyterian Church, and Saint Vincent de Paul Church

"The Body"--a series of installations at five Chicago churches--is flawed yet fascinating. Master-minded by Simon Grennan and Christopher Sperandio, this ambitious project is well worth the time and effort required to visit the sites, which offer a unique context for viewing art. Even when some of the installations fall short of their objective, the churches' interiors and neighborhoods provide rich material for aesthetic and social contemplation.

Each installation is based on one of the five bodily senses. Fortunately, a small, well-produced catalog (available at each site) tells which sense is matched with which work--otherwise, this aspect of meaning might slip by unnoticed. For instance, a tent has been pitched in an antechamber at the Second Presbyterian Church (1936 S. Michigan). Because the bell tower is directly above, this installation is associated with hearing. However, nothing about the tent or the room it occupies supports this association, and since the bell is usually silent, most visitors would probably not make the connection. (Parishioners arriving for Sunday services might, though.) The sense of sight may be more appropriate to this piece: the small room's dim gloominess makes one aware of its one stained-glass window. The light falling through it onto the tent glows softly, and makes one think of the many meanings possible in "illumination." And despite the possible conceptual misunderstandings, a tent inside a church presents an interesting spectacle. In addition, the ornate interior architecture of the church's nave, which one passes through on the way to the antechamber, is quite impressive.

My favorite installation is set up inside the sanctuary of Lake View Presbyterian Church (716 W. Addison). It consists of ten loaves of homemade bread still in their baking tins, which are placed high on the walls. Inside each loaf a light bulb glows, powered by an electrical cord that encircles the huge room, running from loaf to loaf.

Smell is the sense here--certainly apropos to fresh-baked bread. And of course bread has both religious and social significance--as a metaphor for the body of Christ, and as the secular symbol of community (as in "breaking bread"). Bread also accords well with this particular church, which provides a variety of parish and community services. As the natural light shining on the tent had done, the light bulbs recall spiritual illumination; this time the reference is deliberate rather than accidental. And the appearance of these funky loaves inside a solemn place of worship is decidedly humorous.

Religious illumination is the main topic of the ceiling installation at the Church of the Epiphany (201 S. Ashland). This installation is technically problematic. The small, gilded, propellerlike objects attached to a grid of power cables hung high over the church pews depend on solar power for their spinning movement, and a fairly high level of ambient light is needed to activate them. But movement is crucial, for when the propellers move they glitter, providing the scintillating light essential to the installation's theme of sight. Not realizing the importance of daylight to this piece, I saw it during morning hours when the church interior was quite dark. The propellers were still, nullifying the work and its intention. (The pastor informed me that sunset is the best time to view it.)

The installation at All Saints Episcopal Church (4550 N. Hermitage) is also problematic. Here the artists have evoked the sense of touch by drawing black chalk outlines of faces directly on the walls of the modestly sized and decorated church interior. The open mouths and raised eyebrows of these faces indicate animated conversation. On a couple of walls, text has been written and partially erased so that the words are extremely difficult to read. The catalog explains that the text is parishioners' responses to two requests: "1) Describe (with writing and/or drawing) what it feels like to either: see, hear, smell, taste or touch. 2) Describe (with writing and/or drawing) what being alive feels like." With great effort, I managed to decipher some responses, such as "grieving and not knowing why," "being in bed with your lover making silly talk," and "Being alive feels like tears falling from a sad child." While the partial effacement of these answers may refer metaphorically to the hardship and ephemerality of life, there is too much frustration in trying to make them out. Our intense desire to discover how others perceive life is thwarted by the faint text. Also, the cartoon style of the faces is troubling. It is uncertain whether they represent specific church members or character types, but the caricature look undermines the text, which is "touching" in more ways than one.

The installation based on the sense of taste, the last one I saw, is the most complex in the series. Situated in the spectacular nave of Saint Vincent de Paul Church (1010 W. Webster), this work is dominated by a thick, shiny gold rope. At one end it's wrapped around a white marble fragment placed on the floor southwest of the main altar. The rope then runs upward to the top of a pillar and veers across a section of the huge overhead space to the east balcony, from which hangs a red velvet banner bearing the word "savor" in gold letters. The rope then crosses over to a pillar on the west side of the church and drops down to the floor directly below. Here it wraps around a stack of about ten pieces of marble (the catalog informs us these are altar-rail remnants). Folded bits of red velvet separate and cushion the remnants. The sumptuous gold, velvet, and marble refer to the association between luxurious materials and "good" taste. Traditional cultures and institutions may indeed be said to "savor" such expensive materials. Initially seductive, the combination of these materials is so rich it gradually becomes rather vulgar. The various degrees of taste are called into question. When does good taste become bad taste? In this installation, the materials blend well with the truly breathtaking, tastefully ornate church interior, creating a visual continuity that gives the work a context and rescues it from gaudiness.

The most enjoyable aspect of "The Body" is its scavenger-hunt format. As we journey from church to church, we anticipate what we will find at each location: What will the next church look like? What part of it will contain the artwork we are seeking? In every case, the installations are so well integrated with their surroundings that they are not immediately apparent. And each piece is quite individual, as are the churches themselves. The catalog says that Grennan and Sperandio participated in activities at all five churches over a nine-month period in order to familiarize themselves with the different parishes. Let's hope to see more of this rare degree of commitment, and of such creative, outside-the-mainstream undertakings by Chicago artists.

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