Where art and spirituality meet: An exploration of the numinous at Personal Structures

Spirituality has many different definitions in our world. Religious beliefs, faith in a superior power, ancestral practices, appreciation for the mystery in nature, connection with inner beauty. There is not one single interpretation. Time has taught us that spirituality has taken up many different forms and history has shown us that it has been an important feature of humankind. But art has been the one to provide us and inspire us with testimonies of those experiences.

Embracing this ever-present aspect of our lives, the European Cultural Centre is honoured to have welcomed to the Personal Structures exhibition several artists that explore the spiritual from their own perceptions. Karen Sewell, Mahiriki Tangaroa, ([{ collective, Chandraguptha Thenuwara, Hunt Slonem, Calving Teng and Shingo Francis, are some of the participants who have delved deeper into the concept of spirituality. In line with the theme of this year’s edition, they have reflected on the presence of the spiritual in their daily lives, and society as a whole, and how it shapes our thinking and living in the world.

With Mahiriki Tangaroa presented by Bergman Gallery, this aspect is beautifully included in their installation Kaveinga – Angels of the Ocean. In an intimate room at Palazzo Bembo, the notion of ancestry takes a central role. All the way from the Cook Islands, they have prepared an installation that examines and explores the islands’ traditional Polynesian history. For millennia, their ancestors voyaged across the Pacific Ocean, fought numerous battles, made many alliances and continued to create an empire to sustain and further strengthen the health and livelihood of a people. All of this they did with a strong and necessary understanding of navigation. As explained by the Gallery, “the ability to read the constellations of the stars, patterns of the ocean and ominous signs in the weather, ensured safe passage on what was an often uncertain journey”. The work of Mahiriki Tangaroa depicts the strong ancestral connections between the Cook Islands and the other islands surrounding them, and the strong belief and personal trust that travellers put in the legendary ancient ocean God to ensure safety on both land and ocean. 

'Kaveinga – Angels of the Ocean' by Mahiriki Tangaroa presented by Bergman Gallery | Photo credits: Clelia Cadamuro

'Kaveinga – Angels of the Ocean' by Mahiriki Tangaroa presented by Bergman Gallery | Photo credits: Federico Vespignani

The attention to the past shows willingness and responsibility to preserve their cultural heritage, local traditions, and natural environment. This is also picked up by Sri Lankan artist Chandragupta Thenuwara but with a slightly different turn.

Chandragupta Thenuwara embraces traditional practices and looks at historical motifs to connect them to the current context. As a result of this ritualistic approach, Thenuwara’s work Covert functions as a meditation on the continuous renewed and reimagined use of the same motifs, each time with an added layer of meaning. For instance, the motif of the lotus in Buddhism is a symbol of the purity of the body, mind and speech, but in today’s context with Sri Lanka’s current government, this symbol is co-opted and corrupted as a political tool that evokes the end of a lion’s tale, the grandiose nationalist symbol of the country. Even further, at Palazzo Mora, you can witness how the shapes represented in the sculpture comprise entirely of intertwined motifs constructed out of wire, linking and fusing, layer upon layer, like the meanings of the motifs themselves. The bendiness of the wire reflects the way that these symbols are bent, taken far from their traditional, spiritual or ancestral meaning, and reshaped to suit political purposes.

'Covert' by Chandragupta Thenuwara | Photo credits: Federico Vespignani

Mystery and introspection

Through art, we can communicate important statements and convey narratives of the past that concern beliefs and spiritual experiences. Art, however, can also be the means through which the spiritual is expressed ー the tool to show, elevate and connect with our deepest values.

Thanks to the internationality of the exhibition, there are multiple ways in which this is presented. From Taiwan, painter Calvin Teng astonishes visitors with artworks that depict nature as a genuine representation of his demeanour and state of mind. For Teng, the concept of “nature” resonates with the equivalent of the Greek word “physis,” understood as “to grow” or “to develop”, or of being in a world where all creations continue to thrive. Based on rich and poetic content and spiritual strength, the existence of all living things is made concrete and perceptible in the natural world, and so translated into the artist’s abstract paintings. With this installation, Calvin Teng pays tribute to the universe and the meaning of “being” in this world, reflecting on the “essence of life”.

Calvin Teng Installation | Photo credits: Federico Vespignani

From Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland in New Zealand, visual artist Karen Sewell brings her love and fascination for the stars and night sky. More specifically, what is hidden in the deepness of the sky and the mystery beyond that. 

Through sculpture, installation, photography, video, light and sound, the artist explores and expresses the human experiences of the numinous ー the liminal experiences that are felt rather than seen. Inside Palazzo Bembo, the public can join Karen in this exploration. Her installation Luminary I Luminare invites the viewer to think about the vastness of space, the cosmos and celestial events while being enveloped in sound and light. Karen explains how the exhibition offers “an opportunity for inward reflection and connection with what is beyond of what they can see; for viewers to step into a liminal moment of encounter with the unseen and unknown, to reflect on the balance in their lives and their world, and to consider the reality of the unseen spiritual realm”. 

"An opportunity for inward reflection and connection with what is beyond of what they can see; for viewers to step into a liminal moment of encounter with the unseen and unknown, to reflect on the balance in their lives and their world, and to consider the reality of the unseen spiritual realm”

The work seeks to evoke the unfathomable mystery and beauty of cosmic phenomena and acts as a potential threshold into the terrain of the numinous. To express this, Karen uses spherical and circular forms in sculptural and photographic works that reflect the artist’s interest in celestial bodies and sacred geometries. In fact, one of the first things noticeable when admiring Karen’s installation is the big spherical shape hanging, almost levitating, from the ceiling, which is presented with thoughtful details. The universal symbol of the sphere is a spiritual allegory that denotes infinity and for some the divine. According to the artist herself, “the sphere seems to float and hover in space defying gravity, and overcoming natural limitations, much like the cosmic bodies in our galaxy and beyond. This leads us beyond what we might have already known or experienced, to a sense of cosmic wonder.”

'Luminary I Luminare' by Karen Sewell | Photo credits: Federico Vespignani

'Luminary I Luminare' by Karen Sewell | Photo credits: Clelia Cadamuro

'Luminary I Luminare' by Karen Sewell

Following Calvin Teng and Karen Sewell, painter Shingo Francis offers an interesting mixture of cultures and backgrounds. 

Growing up between Southern California and Japan, Francis was influenced by both cultures and traditions. His interest in Zen Buddhism in Japan lead Francis to study and practice the religion and philosophy, which he later complemented with a training in meditation and the ways of Zen. This training exposed him to a deeper understanding of presence and existence, which has carried over to his studio practice. At the same time, Francis was intrigued by the landscape of his other home in Southern California. The inland desert behind Los Angeles is a space so vast and endless that made the artist feel the smallness of his and humankind's existence along with the inspiration of possibility. In the desert, he also observed the myriad colours of sands and rocks creating a patchwork of an earth-toned garden. 

These influences can be found in his work Infinite Blue, a three-panel installation of Interference paintings that juxtapose colours with circled shapes. The circles can act as a portal or either represent a mirror that, according to the ancient religion of Shinto in Japan, reflects oneself which means the god manifests in you as well as connects our world with the spirit world. 

'Infinite Blue' by Shingo Francis

'Infinite Blue' by Shingo Francis

'Infinite Blue' by Shingo Francis

'Infinite Blue' by Shingo Francis

Believing through art

In one way or another, all these installations seek to connect. To connect with an inner belief, a higher power or the beauty and mystery of the beyond. There is also a different stream at Personal Structures that connects with the spiritual but, unlike the beforementioned cases, these reconceptualise traditional shapes. The Italian group ([{ collective, for example, employs the figure of the Virgin Mary to reshuffle the focus of faith and does so by representing it with NFT art. With the installation art + faith ≠ farth, the group represents the lack of distance between art and faith by making faith, in this case represented in the shape of an ancient confessional, a piece of art.

'art + faith ≠ farth' by ([{ collective | Photo credits: Federico Vespignani

'art + faith ≠ farth' by ([{ collective | Photo credits: Federico Vespignani

Then painter Hunt Slonem shares with us his fascination for rabbits and the meaning they carry. The iconic rabbit portraits provide a moment for meditation and a gestural warm-up. They are brought to life, each carrying their own personality. They observe the viewer with curiosity and invitation, begging the spectator to get lost in their worlds. In a discussion with Hans Ulrich Obrist, Slonem explains how “the bunnies are biological and metaphysical. Each abstract painting is a warm-up for every day. It’s a Zen gesture”. This combination of personal reflection and spiritual meditation culminates in the realignment of Slonem’s sense of self.

Hunt Slonem Installation | Photo credits: Federico Vespignani

The intersection of art with spiritual experience is brought into shape in all these artworks, in some cases also through sound. For Karen Sewell, the sound component in her installation is created from NASA Voyager recordings made in deep space around the planets and moons of our solar system; providing greater amazement to her installation. For the group ([{ collective, the use of celestial and immersive music accompanies the vision of their installation and reflection. 

Faith and spiritual experiences encompass all the senses. Art is one of the many tools through which one can convey those experiences. It can transcend communication and has the potential for an inter-subjective exchange with different perspectives. Within this exchange and thanks to different creative processes, new ways of sensing, feeling, and being with ourselves, our experiences and our surrounding is brought forward. The unseen and unknown can be illuminated and we can access new insights and understanding of everyday life.

Where art and spirituality meet: An exploration of the numinous at Personal Structures

Spirituality has many different definitions in our world. Religious beliefs, faith in a superior power, ancestral practices, appreciation for the mystery in nature, connection with inner beauty. There is not one single interpretation. Time has taught us that spirituality has taken up many different forms and history has shown us that it has been an important feature of humankind. But art has been the one to provide us and inspire us with testimonies of those experiences.