Sacred Space

Curated by Patrick Macaulay, head of visual arts at Harbourfront, Sacred Space is the second exhibition in the architecture gallery at York Quay Centre, Toronto’s newest venue devoted to architectural practice and ideology. To address the issue of what constitutes the sacred within a spatial construct, Macaulay approached three Toronto architecture firms with no specifically religious projects in their building portfolios, each of whom responded with thoughtful investigations into the nature of sacred space. The resulting installations recognize that the sacred can indeed be secular and moreover, highly personal.

Although the show would appear to have a regional bias in that all three participating firms are Toronto-based, the teams do recognize the subjectivity inherent in the question of what is sacred, and as such, have created installations that are open to interpretation and which are not determinative of experience.

Of the three, Taylor_Smyth Architects’ approach is the most literal, as they have chosen to exhibit an array of existing spaces located within the urban fabric of Toronto–hence, the name of their contribution, In Search of the Sacred in the Space of the City. The manner in which this is accomplished is through a random arrangement of large cardboard tubes suspended from the ceiling into which illuminated video screens are inserted at various heights. Like walking through a dense, dark forest, visitors can peer into the screens in each “tree trunk” for glimpses of the sometimes surprising choices by individual members of the firm. Whether it’s a massive chunk of granite located in an urban park or a frenetic and congested downtown intersection, the selections are united by a particular sort of resonance and a novel perception of what constitutes the sacred.

Levitt Goodman’s Twilight presents an abstract experience that could be anywhere: in a barely lit section of the gallery, a shallow ramp leads to a small vaguely auricle-shaped space defined by a pale scrim stretched tautly around the organic curves of the enclosure. In keeping with the twilight theme, projected on the scrim is a bluish light that morphs–barely perceptibly–over six minutes, in a temporal compression intended to mimic the 24-hour daily cycle of light. Accompanying the lighting effects are a faintly vibrating floor and a disorienting soundscape resembling a constant rushing stream of white noise, courtesy of artist Yiu-Bun Chan. This subtle manipulation of the senses takes one outside–or perhaps inside–of oneself, to create a highly personal and possibly sacred experience.

Making an even stronger statement as to the subjective nature of the sacred, Kearns Mancini Architects present a rigorously detailed construction, inviting exhibition viewers to share what they feel to be sacred. In this darkened corner of the gallery, Ceremony dominates with a visually arresting installation of 35 thin clear acrylic rods suspended from the ceiling in a 5 7 orthogonal grid, each fibre-optically illuminated.

The premise of this piece is that the meaning of sacred space is wholly subjective; in this case, it is derived from the viewers’ participation and engagement, as they are encouraged to take one of the many clear acetate strips available and with a Jiffy marker write down what sacred space means to them. These strips are then meant to be tied to the dangling rods to form organically generated foliage for this transparent forest. As in many interactive installations in galleries these days, participants seem eager to share their opinions– there are numerous statements dripping with heartwarming sentimentality describing sacred space as being wherever family members or beloved pets are, along with bizarrely irrelevant comments such as “Go Leafs Go!” (certainly less sacred, more profane). At times, the results are disappointing, as the comments reveal a lack of understanding of space but instead focus on condition. Nonetheless, the ethereal, pristine quality of the installation is undeniably appealing, animated by the brush of a hand which sets the rods asway, while the acetate strips flutter like transparent leaves.

Sacred Space’s obvious departure from any defined religious or spiritual focus is telling, as it acknowledges the pluralistic quality of our contemporary culture, whether from a religious, socioeconomic or political perspective. It is a gesture wholly reflective of multicultural Toronto, and as such resists any kind of homogeneity. The investigations and questions provoked by the exhibition will perhaps encourage the public to be more conscious of and sensitive to their environments, to think in a more sophisticated manner about space, and about the rapidly changing cities in which they live.

Sacred Space continues until September 7, 2008 at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre.