What color is prayer?
In December we saw an installation by visual artist Jitish Kallat at The Art Institute of Chicago called Public Notice 3. (The Art Institute's page about it is here.)
In thousands of LED lights, Kallat spells out words on the risers of the stairs in the Woman's Board Grand Staircase — an open, radiant space. The brightly lit words were intentionally designed in the five colors of the United States Department of Homeland Security alert system. At first, seeing the neon-like letters mounted on the Beaux-Arts stairs felt jarring. The Art Institute is my favorite museum, and the multi-directional staircase under a skylight has always been a magnetic center of the million-square-foot building where I love to sit and watch people, listening to the echo of voices and footsteps. Once I learned the content of the words illuminating the risers, I read up and down and watched people climb, descend, sit, stand, and snap pictures. We were surrounded by words like stock exchange tickers (though not in motion, and not driven by commerce).
Kallat said, "Treating the museum’s Grand Staircase almost like a notepad, the 118 step-risers receive the refracted text of the speech. I see Public Notice 3 as an experiential and contemplative transit space; the text of the speech is doubled at the two entry points on the lower levels of the staircase and quadrupled at the four exit points at the top, multiplying like a visual echo."
This photo from the Art Institute of Chicago web site;
more photos here
What speech? The words Kallat mounted on the stairs were spoken by Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda to 7,000 delegates more than 100 years ago, in the first attempt to address religious tolerance worldwide: the First World Parliament of Religions, held in conjunction with the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. (Detailed synopsis of the Parliament at Boston University's Encyclopedia of Western Theology's site here.) This art installation was opened last year on the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attack, September 11, 2010. Part of what captured Jitish Kallat's imagination was the fact that the gathering of delegates of different faiths in 1893 in the museum's Fullerton Hall happened also to be on September 11 that year. Below is Vivekananda's speech, words that light the steps of the grand staircase like prayers rising and falling, adjacent to the hall where he addressed the hopeful delegates. (The building of the Art Institute was built for the 1893 Chicago World's Fair — officially the World's Fair: Columbian Exposition — with the agreement that it would house the Art Institute thereafter).
When you get to the last sentence of his speech, what do you feel?
Swami Vivekananda's speech to the First World Parliament of Religions, September 11, 1893 in the Art Institute of Chicago's Fullerton Hall:
Sisters and Brothers of America,
It fills my heart with joy unspeakable to rise in response to the warm and cordial welcome which you have given us. I thank you in the name of the most ancient order of monks in the world; I thank you in the name of the mother of religions, and I thank you in the name of millions and millions of Hindu people of all classes and sects.
My thanks, also, to some of the speakers on this platform who, referring to the delegates from the Orient, have told you that these men from far-off nations may well claim the honor of bearing to different lands the idea of toleration. I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true. I am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth. I am proud to tell you that we have gathered in our bosom the purest remnant of the Israelites, who came to Southern India and took refuge with us in the very year in which their holy temple was shattered to pieces by Roman tyranny. I am proud to belong to the religion which has sheltered and is still fostering the remnant of the grand Zoroastrian nation. I will quote to you, brethren, a few lines from a hymn which I remember to have repeated from my earliest boyhood, which is every day repeated by millions of human beings: "As the different streams having their sources in different paths which men take through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee."
The present convention, which is one of the most august assemblies ever held, is in itself a vindication, a declaration to the world of the wonderful doctrine preached in the Gita: "Whosoever comes to Me, through whatsoever form, I reach him; all men are struggling through paths which in the end lead to me." Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilization and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now. But their time is come; and I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honor of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal.
After reading this speech, I feel as I did when I woke up early Monday morning, before Don, to his hand written note from the night before after he'd heard the news and I was in bed. I feel: empty. Not joyful. Not sad exactly. Not hopeful, not hopeless. I'm somewhere floating in a noxious ether of mystery. How have we come to this? How did we get even further away from Vivekananda's closing wishes in these decades since he spoke them?
To watch and listen to an 8-minute video of artist Jitish Kallat's interview with the museum curator about his installation, go here.