Project title: Ephphatha (be opened)
inspired by “Belief” – the Singapore Biennale 2006
Multi-Media Installation Exhibited in NUS Cyberarts Studio in December 2006
“I’ve always been big on challenging the boundaries of institutionalization, not because im plain rebellious, or anarchist; but just because I advocate freedom as an individual – freedom of speech, freedom of choice, freedom of design, to truly just be who you are. Celebrating the differences in people and their subjectivities can sometimes be counterintuitive in institutions that encourage homogeneity as a means to success.
To me that means the difference between religion and relationship when it comes to the traditions of the church. To act and feel only in certain ways deemed suitable are not requisites to a healthy relationship under any circumstances, so it seems ironic that legalism has distanced us from our individual identities in a place that supposedly embodies personal communion with God. That’s most probably why the church is viewed as an institution in the first place. Growing up as a christian, the tall walls of the church had, always symbolized four walls of oppression, where one had to put on a morally upright front just to enter the church, and everything that happened outside of it was another ‘life’ altogether. I wanted a way to show people that the essence of the church was more about a relationship with the creator who accepts the imperfections of a diverse world through grace, and not a physical place where divinity is used as a yardstick to judge our iniquities.
Shortly after beginning on my ISM study project, I started getting very interested in the sound of footsteps as a means to show a person’s individuality. Just by listening to the sound of the impact, shuffles and clicks in a variety of footsteps, you could possibly identify the different characters of their owners. I found it really intriguing that these became a form of surrogate identity with each one carrying his/her own separate story. It followed very naturally to use this as the definitive touch to Ephphatha – to capture and playback the echoes of the footsteps of the viewers into the soundscape of the music piece to imply a celebration of subjectivity, of different identities, and a deconstruction of the distant and cold church walls.”
You enter the hall, where you see the images of a quiet chapel. Nobody is seen around you and there is a sense of calm. It is everything you knew a church to be, quiet, filled with sounds of prayers and rituals, and . . . holy. You approach the aisle and as you do, you see the carcasses of instruments lying on the floor. Overtaken by curiosity, you walk onto the platform and you are suddenly struck by the audacity of your own footsteps ringing back at you. With nervous trepidation you try to lighten your footsteps to restore the quiet sanctity of the place, but it is impossible as every step rings as clear as the last, and the echoes split into the chorus of prayers; then mingling, then interfering with the harmonious rituals – the hollowness of them synonymous with the lifeless limbs of the fallen instruments that you cautiously manoeuvre around. It is then that you realize that it is not just the physical space you are intruding; but also in the metaphysical realm of religious epistemology, as your footsteps assert notions of where your personal boundaries of sanctity lie.
22They came to Bethsaida, and some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him. 23He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spit on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, “Do you see anything?”
24He looked up and said, “I see people; they look like trees walking around.”
25Once more Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.
From The Gospel of Mark, Chapter 8: 22-25
The church is and has always been the centre of the Christian faith, being acknowledged as a holy and sanctified place of worship by their devotees. In this installation, this space is recreated using projection screens showing recorded footage of a church. The chapel is seen to be devoid of any human presence, if not for the life-like paintings of historical saints that line the chapel walls. However, the installation is bathed in a sea of prayer chants that envelope and overlap each other, ringing the voices and ideologies of historical martyrs through the songs of the modern day worshippers. It is a notably pure and calm space.
The advent of the visitor brings with him the reminder of a human presence, and as he intrudes into the physical space, his footsteps echo throughout the sound scape. The impact of his foot is not heard as loudly as the echo that comes back to him, implying the physical as well as the metaphorical distance that the individual has from these church walls. It implicates the notion of traditional beliefs and doctrines that have been prevalent in the Christian dogma – certain ‘absolutes’ like the sacred peace of the chapel, or the traditional rituals and elements that although assert the foundations of this religious institution, simultaneously reduce the worshipper to a simple objective element in the ritual.
In segueing the visitor’s footsteps into the same speaker outputs as the prayer chants, the installation brings out each individual’s pre-conceived notions of sanctity, and the boundaries to which something is considered scared. By listening to the sound of your own footsteps as a clear intrusion on the prayer sound scape and realizing the extent to which you are adverse to the impact of your movements, a threshold of sorts can be identified – a cognitive picket-fence that houses the ‘pure’, as opposed to the ‘noise’. The instruments lying motionless on the floor also help to aid this mental picture, drawing a parallel in the juxtaposition of the traditional harmonious music of the classical era (symbolized by fallen classical guitars and violins), against electronic musical equipment and modern day’s synthesis of sound (symbolized by upright electric guitars and digital mixers). All the upright instruments are plugged into the system and the visitor is at liberty to strum a guitar or hit a note on the keyboards, all of which create significantly distorted sounds that are fed into the prayer sound scape.
At a metaphysical level, this installation puts into contention the notion of human subjectivity in the post-modern church. The traditional church has placed much emphasis, historically, on dogmatic teachings of faith, belief, bible epistemology and even the very nature of God himself, although all these intangible ideologies are subject to proliferating interpretations at any academic level. It has been this religious exclusivism –a ‘holier than thou’ disposition that has caused disunity between nations and denominations of people. This religious exclusivism has also isolated its own devotees as much as it has isolated the rest of the world; and it is this exclusivism that has not allowed the influence of modernity (and of modern art) into the realm of religion.
In accordance with the theology of Liberation Christianity, this installation hopes to challenge the visitor to create an individual response; or an individual notion of sanctity, as opposed to a reproduced perception of these boundaries indoctrinated over time. The visitor can see his footsteps as a physical intrusion in the empty church, as well as an alienated entity disrupting the sound scape of prayer; or he can welcome it as an element unique but not separate from the ritual- justifying a human presence and subjective input into religion and religious rituals. It is at this point where the visitor can choose to accept the limitations he has placed on the openness of religion, or to open the door to his picket fence.
This installation also questions several other issues, including the institution of the architectural space of the church and its symbolic meanings by transporting images of church via digital media into a secular space. Also, it challenges the schism between art and religion and hopes to find coalesce in the joint compromise of the two – liberation of religious epistemology on the one end, as well as a closer understanding and appreciation of Christian history, and their traditional rites and rituals on the other. The installation also addresses the apprehension of the church towards the use of modern musical equipment and synthesis techniques in worship practices.