The Holy Land
Text: Andrew Spira
Tuck Muntarbhorn’s most recent collection of photographic works, The Holy Land, represents a further stage in the artist’s quest to translate an ineffable perception of the Sacred into a series of contemplative spaces, accessed through visual experience. Although the works seem to be abstract or non-objective, they are in fact photographs of sacred sites that Muntarbhorn took during a trip to Israel and the West Bank in 2017. Concentrated in and around Jerusalem, the sites in question are sacred to the three major monotheistic religions of the world - Judaism, Christianity and Islam. They include one of the oldest synagogues in the world - at Capernaum, where Christ is said to have preached; the Sea of Galilee; the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem; the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; the Western ‘Wailing’ Wall and the Dome of the Rock which is especially sacred to both Jews and Muslims. Although these sites are highly charged with religious and political implications - now more than ever - they are abstracted here to the point at which their distinctive features cease to be recognisable. It is as if the images offer non-objective contemplation as a means through which to transcend religious differences, and the conflict and misery to which they lead.
At a purely visual level, The Holy Land invites comparison with the Rothko Chapel paintings of 1964-67 and, closer to home, Rothko’s Seagram murals (1958-9) at Tate Modern. Their solemn colours, their large scale - in some cases six foot square - and the subtlety of the relationships that they capture between tones and colours are all reminiscent of Rothko’s attempt to attract the attention of viewers to the numinous, indeterminate space of depth that hovers beyond the limiting surfaces of the seen world. However, whilst every brush stroke of a Rothko painting is consciously applied by the artist, Muntarbhorn capitalises on the ability of photography to displace the activity of creativity away from the ‘artist’ towards the autonomous processes of nature, and thereby to encompass aspects of the world that are not determined by the artist’s capacity to see and represent them. Moreover, he capitalises on the luminosity of light - in contrast to the opacity of paint - that is innate in the medium of photography. Speaking of his own working process, Muntarbhorn has said: “as I stand in front of an object, I ask for nature’s light to use me and the camera to reveal her sacred Beauty and, in this very case, unity – I don’t desire my conditioning to dull her Truth – that’s not my job. Hence, I am more comfortable in defining my works as nature’s ‘light drawings’ than ‘my photographs’.”
Although the associations of Muntarbhorn’s work with the great monotheistic religions infuses them with an aura of both sanctity and antiquity, they ignore - or ‘are ig-norant of’ - any fundamental ground for religious difference. On the contrary, they aspire to capture something of the dignity and mystery that characterises the austere religiosity of each of these ancient civilisations. One such association is the colour purple which, throughout antiquity, was invested with literally ‘awe-some’ characteristics. Largely due to the immense cost of the dye that was used to create this deep hue, the colour was reserved for the ruling classes. Indeed in Byzantium, it was associated exclusively with the imperial family. Mosaics from the sixth century show the emperor and empress draped in its magnificence. In some exceptional cases, the same honour was extended to sacred texts, especially gospel books. In several manuscripts from the same period, pages of parchment were stained ‘royal purple’ and their texts were written in gold, and sometimes silver, as if the words were directly transcribed from a transcendental source without ever being uttered in the world.
The Holy Land resonates with these elusive qualities, evoking a depth in time and majesty, just as it evokes a depth in space. It is a feeling for these depths that Muntarbhorn seeks to address in his viewers. But while the works are solemn, they are not grave. Rothko’s descent into darkness was paralleled by his descent into depression and eventual suicide, but Muntarbhorn’s work never signifies a metaphorical loss of light. On the contrary it is made of light, and constitutes a free meditation on graded zones of luminosity: indeed, by working on the same image in both positive and negative form, it explores the iconic effects of darkness and light equally - contemplating the act of seeing itself. Having said that, in some ways his images also resemble what one sees when one’s eyes are closed - a faint suggestion of light filtered through the blood of one’s eyes. As such, they also belong to an innately interior and living world; or, given that they sometimes resemble nebulae - an infinite number of stars and suns, both rising and eclipsed - perhaps an inner ‘universe’ might be more apt? Rich in imaginative associations, but also in the immediacy of sensation, Muntarbhorn’s work suggests that when sacred space expands, distant times and places can become included in the monumental moment of presence. Everywhere becomes The Holy Land.