Out Of The Archives:
An Empty Gothic Chapel, A Set of Keys, and Silence

An Empty Gothic Chapel, A Set of Keys, and Silence in Kutna

Turning the ancient skeleton key in the lock, I entered the chapel, and turned back to the door to lock it behind me. Alone. I was in this one room chapel alone with no chance of anyone walking in on me. I walked down the stairs and sat on the bottom step. In all my searches for Gothic architecture, this was the first time that I had a whole building all to myself. Even though it was a small building – but that observation was really unimportant. As I sat on the step, I rolled the skeleton key between my fingers. The young woman in the office said that this key was the original key, passed from hand to hand, keeper to keeper, for the last seven hundred years.

Bozi Telo (Chapel of the Body of the Lord) was originally designed as a two story structure but for unknown reasons, only the bottom floor was completed. It is known as Gothic not because of its access to light (which is not present) but because of the rib vaults that hold up the low ceiling. The unusual aspect of the rib vaults is that they go right into the outside walls, without the support of a visible column. Built c.1385 for use as a cemetery chapel, it was used as an ossuary (a repository for skeletal remains) for a time, and now it is vacant and empty, quiet and serene.

Running my hands over the columns and the walls – I feel the cold stone beneath my fingers. Studying the room from every angle, corner to corner, light and dark, I impress it into my memory.

I return to sit again on the bottom step to take in the silence – something that is so precious and rarely found when touring the ancient sites of the world – and know that I can sit here all day if I like. When I’m in a space like this, I always let my imagination run away with me … imagining not only what this building was like and what it was used for when it was built, but also what I would use it for if it were available for me to use. A meditation room? A painting studio? Would I like to live in a room like this?

The stairs at the side of the building lead to the roof where a sweeping view of the river and the green landscape, and of the old town of Kutna Hora can be seen.

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Out Of The Archives:
Conversation With Artist Jason deCaires Taylor

Hombre en Llamas (Man on Fire), Isla Mujeres

As we all originate from the sea I believe all humans have an intrinsic, built in desire and fascination to return. — Jason deCaires Taylor

Creator of the world’s first underwater sculpture park, Museo Subacuático de Arte (MUSA), Jason deCaires Taylor has gained international recognition for his unique work. The underwater museum is located in The National Marine Park of Cancun, Mexico and will consist of more than four hundred life-sized sculptures creating artificial reefs for marine life to colonize and inhabit.

Through these underwater sculptures, Taylor explores the interrelationships between modern art, man and the environment. His work promotes the potential for a sustainable future, portraying human intervention in nature as both affirmative and regenerating.

When I first heard of the Cancun and Isla Mujeres Underwater Art Museum Museo Subaquático de Arte I have to admit that I mentally brushed it off as just another gimmicky tourist attraction set in one of the most beautiful environments in the world. When I did finally get a moment to check out the videos of this environmental installation piece online I was stunned.

I sat with the online videos and images for awhile, absorbing them. Before writing about Jason deCaires Taylors project, I wanted to make sure that this was something I would keep with me for the long term, that it wasn’t just a project that was stunning in the moment, although, it is that. The sculptures in this environmental project are all underwater, and the water, as well as the marine life of the coastal reef that is living in it, is as much a part of the project as the sculptures themselves.

Jason deCaires Taylor grew up in Europe and Asia, the son of a an English father and a Guyanese mother. Much of his childhood was spent on the coral reefs of Malaysia where he developed a deep love of the sea and a fascination with the natural world. His bond with the sea has remained a constant throughout his life and while he spent several years working as a scuba diving instructor in various parts of the world, he developed a strong interest in conservation, underwater naturalism, and photography. He graduated in 1998 from the London Institute of Arts, with a B.A. Honours in Sculpture and Ceramics. Later, his experiences in Canterbury Cathedral taught him traditional stone carving techniques and five years of working in set design and concert installations exposed him to cranes, lifting, logistics and completing projects on a grand scale.

I recently had the opportunity to sit laptop to laptop with the very busy Jason deCaires Taylor who took some time out of his day for our readers.

Unstill Life, from a previous project in Granada

kimberly: One of the project’s goals is to deter people away from the reef, which is under constant threat of damage-by-tourist, that runs from Cancun down to Tulum. But another goal is to replenish the reef. How can these two goals exist simultaneously? Isn’t the growing coral within the sculpture and the surrounding area also sensitive to the humans that are visiting them and touching them?

Jason deCaires Taylor: The location of the sculptures in Cancun is strategic as the Cancun Marine Park is one of the most visited stretches of water in the world. It has over 750,000 visitors each year, placing immense pressure on its resources, so the aim is to divert visitors to this artificial reef, in order to give the existing reefs a chance to regenerate and develop. Creating artificial reefs to divert attention from existing reefs and to provide an appropriate surface upon which new life can grow is a recognised strategy in coral reef preservation and protection. Obviously the artificial reef itself becomes a fragile habitat for marine life so it will be important for guides within the national park to ensure visitors do not touch the sculptures and the corals growing on them. I hope that the sculptures will raise awareness about the delicate nature of coral reefs that visitors will carry with them to other reefs they might visit in the future.

kimberly: Much has been said in previous media interviews regarding the reef replenishment part of the project. There are other concepts that I’m just as curious about when I view the images of the work. My thoughts are that time and evolution play really important roles in your work.

Taylor: Indeed. By design, the sculptures will evolve and change over time and in this I relinquish control as an artist to nature. This is an exciting and important part of the work for me, that nature propels my art beyond the imagination of man, to create new life that is constantly evolving. The very real and pressing concern with the degeneration of the world’s reef systems is a principal motivation behind my work and, through the use of these submerged human figures, I aim to illustrate how we are all facing serious questions concerning our environment and our impact on the natural world. The effect of time and evolution on the work itself will be obvious to the viewer but the work is optimistic and forward looking, expressing hope that there will be unity in dealing with this problem.

kimberly: To the fish and coral, the water is their air, their atmosphere. When viewing sculpture on land we don’t often think of our air, or the element of air, as being an extension of the artwork we are looking at. But when your sculptures are submerged in water, the water becomes an integral part of the work. The work actually extends out to the point where it becomes visible to the viewer.

Taylor: The light changes constantly in water, objects are magnified, sound is displaced, our sense of gravity is altered. So yes, the sea around the sculptures is indeed an integral part of the work, supporting the growth of new life. The space around the sculptures extends as fish begin to territorialise the area, there is constant movement and life and the visitor to the sculptures becomes a part of that world during their exploration of the park.

kimberly: Will the work be documented through its aging process?

Taylor: Yes, I have a photographic and film archive of all the sculptures from when they are still in the bodega, before they are put into the water, to their initial installation and then at various stages as life starts to grow on them and fish and other acuatic animals begin to live in the habitat spaces the sculptures provide.

Technical information on materials used in the sculptures:

The sculptures are created with a pH-neutral concrete which is a mix of marine grade cement, sand and micro-silica, which is also reinforced with a special fiberglass rebar. Some of the sculptures have additional elements such as ceramic tiles, glass, and paper and 95% of the materials are inert. The research behind the sculptures has been done in collaboration with marine biologists from the national marine park in Mexico and also from Reefball, an artificial reef company based in the US. It is very important that the materials used in the sculptures have the exact ph-factor that will attract the corals, that the sculptures are deployed at the right time of year to coincide with coral spawning, and the exact placement is defined by the depth and location of the work as this can attract various types of species.

Taylor is currently working with a team of local artists in Mexico on the production of four hundred life-sized sculptures entitled Currents of Change. Two hundred figures are now complete and are being installed in July 2010, with the remainder scheduled for November 2010.

Locations of the three sculptures installed in the Cancun Marine Park in November 2009:

The Gardener of Hope portrays a young Mexican girl surrounded by plant pots propagated with live coral. Built into the base of the sculpture are specialized habitat spaces designed to attract various marine creatures such as moray eels, juvenile fish and lobsters. It was placed 4m deep at Punta Nisuc, near the coast of Cancun.

Man on Fire is cast from Joachim, a local Mexican fisherman, and was placed 8m deep at Manchones reef nearby to Isla Mujeres. The cement has been drilled with over 75 holes and planted with live cuttings of fire coral. The man is on fire yet unaware of his situation, highlighting our dependence on, and over-use of, our limited natural resources, such as fossil fuels.

The Archive of Lost Dreams depicts an underwater archive, maintained by a male registrar. A collection of hundreds of bottled messages are brought together by the natural forces of the ocean. Various communities were invited to provide the messages which document contemporary values and aspirations for future generations to discover. It was placed 8m deep at Manchones reef nearby to Isla Mujeres.

Currents of Change, the newest installation of 400 figures will also be placed 8m deep behind Manchones reef.

The sculptures are located on sandy areas of substrate that do not cause harm to the existing ecosystems. All sculptures are easily accessible by diving, snorkeling and viewing from glass-bottomed boats. Cancun and Isla Mujeres have a vast number of tour operators working within the marine park. All visits to the museum must be accompanied by a registered guide.

You can see more information on the sculpture project on Jason deCaires Taylor’s web site.

His sculptures highlight ecological processes whilst exploring the intricate relationships between modern art and the environment. By using sculptures to create artificial reefs, the artist’s interventions promote hope and recovery, and underline our need to understand and protect the natural world. from UnderWaterSculpture.com

The Official inauguration of MUSA will be in December 2010.

Out Of The Archives:
The Black Madonna

A Black Madonna in Prague.

The Black Madonna is one of life’s little mysteries – one that very few even know about. There are several theories surrounding her existence.

Some believe that it is only a matter of circumstance that brought her into existence. She could merely be a result of the oxidation over time of a white lead paint that was used in painting her skin color. She could also be the color of the wood she was sculpted from. Or, as some believe, her existence is just a fluke.

Others believe that the The Black Madonna is black on purpose and is a symbol of a living connection to Jesus.

Comparisons have been made between The Black Madonna and Tara – the female Buddha of the Tibetan tradition, the black Hindu goddess Kali, and with the Egyptian goddess Isis. She is also compared to early pre-Christan goddesses that were more connected to the earth than the lofty Mary mother of Jesus. The Black Madonna has come to symbolize all that is uniquely grounded in the feminine in the world.

Then there is the Templar version of the Black Madonna and that of the black child that accompanies her. Under early Templar beliefs, the Black Madonna and her child do not represent Mary and her child Jesus, but rather, it represents Mary Magdalene and her child, which was believed to be a girl.

The cult of The Black Madonna arrived on European lands not long after the (supposed) ascension of Christ, when it was believed that Mary Magdalene arrived on the shores of the South of France with her child who was a girl, and was fathered by Jesus. The cult of the Black Madonna supposedly spread throughout France and into Eastern Europe, where there are a number of examples of The Black Madonna in Christian iconography.

In Prague, The Black Madonna adorns the building that currently houses The Czech Museum of Fine Arts. This Black Madonna was originally a part of a much older building that stood on this site until the very early 20th century. It was redesigned in 1912. It is known that at about seventy feet from Museum, the Templars had their center in Prague, although not even a stone or a reference to it, remains today.

The House of the Black Madonna | Dum U cerne Matky Bozi
The Czech Museum of Fine Arts
34 Celetná Street
Prague 1

Out Of The Archives:
In Vera’s Kitchen

In Vera's kitchen in Prague.
In Vera’s kitchen in Prague.

Vera’s kitchen became my sanctuary in a city that was at one and the same time home and completely alien and foreign to me. Waking in the morning I would wander out of my bed and through the door to the kitchen to put on my pot of coffee. Sitting on the red chair at the table, I would count the speckles in the blue linoleum under my feet, as a sort of waking meditation to start my day. Out the window I would watch the man leaning on the rail of his balcony across the street going through the same process with his cigarette, staring blankly at what I do not know down on the street, flicking an ash into the air every now and then. I would watch the sun rise higher in the morning sky and gauge the weather by the view over the park. I should wear a sweater, I thought. I would do my dishes. My laundry hung from the clothes rack by the doors to the living room, hung there by Vera before I woke that morning.

Later in the evening, after a day of walking and exploring, discovering and making photographs, I would arrive back at the house to find Vera in the kitchen, making her dinner. She would ask about my day and laugh along with me at my admitted stupidity or explain the culturally inexplicable to me. Oh, forgive them, she would say as I told her of a horribly wretched experience at the train station. Communism was so hard for them. One evening she kindly told me that I was mixing up the numbers 2 and 9 when I was trading English and Czech lessons with her grandson. She would ask me questions about my Czech family as she washed her dishes. Vera would listen to my stories and then cut me off abruptly with a smile when it was time for her evening soap opera to begin.

In Vera’s kitchen I felt grounded. I felt normal. I wasn’t burdened with the discomfort of not having the ability to communicate. I wasn’t alone. In Vera’s kitchen I felt like I was at home.

Out Of The Archives:
The Santa Casa

The Santa Casa within The Loreto in Prague.
The Santa Casa within The Loreto in Prague.

The Santa Casa, at least the original one, was the house where it is believed that the Archangel Gabriel told Mary about the future birth of her son Jesus.

It is also believed that the original house and the scene played out within it, were in Nazareth. The original Santa Casa was moved from Nazareth to Loreto, Italy in 1278 because it was being damaged by the Saracens. The legend has it that because of this, the house was lifted up and moved by a host of angels, but it is quite possible that the angels took the human form of sailors and the moving was done brick by brick on a ship at the bequest of an Italian family by the name of Angeli.

In any case, it’s a great story and there were fifty replicas of the house built in Bohemia and Moravia. This one, at The Loreto, is by far the most venerated. The building of the small house began on June 3rd, 1626, by the grace of Baroness Benigna Katharina von Lobkowitz. She chose an Italian, G. B. Orsi, from Vienna as the architect of the Casa. It was for centuries the focus of pilgrimages by Catholics from all over Eastern Europe.

The Santa Casa also contains a miracle-working Black Madonna, Our Lady of Loreto, made of linden wood.

The Santa Casa
The Loreto
Loretanske Namesti 7
Hradcany, Prague 1

Open: Tu – Su: 9am – 12:15pm and 1pm – 4:30pm

Getting There: Trams 22 and 23, go to the top of the hill and follow the signs. If you walk all the way to The Castle, you’ve gone too far.