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Photographing the Void: Craters in the Clay of Being

By Pete Rollins

Burning Man in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada and the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas have each captured my imagination in recent years. In different ways they have provided an expression of ideas that have animated my work. The Burning Man festival culminates in two intertwined rituals. Thousands gather around the shared destruction of both a great effigy and a beautiful temple that has been inscribed with personal messages. In these rituals people are unified in a shared loss. Bound together in the destruction of something they have helped to build. For many, this act offers a way of letting past events go; events that have remained all too present. It provides a way to make peace with inner ghosts and to lay the dead to rest.

Thousands of miles from this exuberant festival lies the Rothko Chapel. Nestled unobtrusively in a suburban area of Houston. The chapel itself belongs to no denomination and offers a bare concrete interior within which fourteen black, colour-hued, paintings hang. Paintings finished by Mark Rothko shortly before his suicide in 1970. 

This sparse, void-like space, dominated by Rothko’s brooding work, invites the individual into an experience of negation. Together, these massive canvases, hung on cold, slate-coloured walls, sensitise us to the Real. The Real being that which cannot be colonised with words, or grasped through experience. The Real is an antagonism within being itself that cannot be reduced to some particular being.

The Rothko Chapel brings to mind a small sect of Old Believers in Russia who relinquished the use of icons and instead dug holes into walls pointing East, holes that would aid their contemplation of the transcendent. They abandoned the religious icons of their tradition, and opted instead for a sign of pure negation. By opting for an empty space over an object, they sought to protect that which can never be rendered visible. Rejecting any positive images that might become a Golden Calf.

In this way, both Burning Man and the Rothko Chapel revolve around themes of loss and lack. While the former takes places in the context of exuberant celebration, the latter offers a site of silent contemplation. Yet both act as a type of membrane where the seen and the unseen, the conscious and the unconscious, meet. 

When I first saw Stephen Wilson’s Liminal Spaces exhibition I was finally able to make a connection between my contemporary interests on the one hand, and long forgotten elements of my past, on the other. 

The images in the exhibition immediately brought to mind the Rothko Chapel. While looking at these photographs I was confronted by the idea that the hundreds of tiny, nondescript, Gospel Halls, dotted all over Northern Ireland, shared an intimate truth with Rothko’s last great artistic gift. For these photographs confronted me with the insight that these humble Gospel Halls also offer a type of architectural vacuum devoid of any religious iconography or worldly excess that might drown out the Real.

Suddenly, I was able to make another connection between the Protestantism of my past and my present work in pyrotheology. In Northern Ireland there is a yearly ritual in which working class loyalist communities build breathtaking bonfires all over the country, then set them ablaze on the 12th July. 

While I never directly participated in either the ecstatic celebrations of the twelfth, nor the solemn services of the Gospel Hall, Wilson’s work exposed me to the way that something of their symbolism had settled deep within me. Symbolism divorced from the more negative connotations that these events hold for many - the bonfires often being closely linked with sectarianism and Gospel Halls with fundamentalism. 

Wilson’s exhibition enabled me to find something truly beautiful and inspiring in these traditions, traditions that I thought I had laid to rest a long time ago. 

Within the pages of this book the Gospel Halls come to life. They are revealed as a type of hole dug by hand into the political and religious clay of Northern Ireland. They are craters carefully carved out of the dry cultural earth, craters that confront us with that which is not exhausted in the soil of existence.

There is a silence and spaciousness to these photographs. A stillness and otherworldly tone that can feel more disturbing than comforting, more alien than familiar. In our desire to fill our lives with all manner of things, the spaces explored by Wilson appear as sites of resistance. Places more concerned with subtraction than addition.

Within the Catholic Church, the desire to resist idolatry – the eclipse of the invisible in the visible - is often attempted through an excess of iconography. A vast cacophony of images overwhelm the senses to remind us that the unspeakable is omnispeakable. Our inability to visualise the transcendent is hinted at through the sheer excess of visuals. The desire to name the unnameable results in a never-ending stream of names, sometimes complimentary; sometimes conflictual.

Here, in these pictures of Presbyterianism, we do not find an excess, we find a lack. We find a spiritual vacuum chamber. A desert-like space penetrating the oasis of our daily lives, a space that encourages us to cultivate sensitivity to the unknown in the known, the unseen in the seen, the impossible enfolded in the possible.  

What you hold in your hand is an invitation to cultivate that sensitivity in your own life. To enter a placeless place where the invisible might speak its secret: that the land of the finite contains within itself an ocean much vaster than itself.