241 Things

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241 Things

Waiting room in Brazilien Hospital.
Ex Votoos, collection MRK Uden
Waiting room in Brazilien Hospital.

They look like relics from a superstition of a bygone past: arms, legs, hands and feet of wax raised high, hanging from the ceiling of a waiting room at a Brazilian hospital.In fact, they’re a good sign. They represent the tangible evidence of recovery since its only when a patient is successfully healed that his gratitude and respect is expressed by leaving the due saint an ex-voto (Latin for: from the vow made.) Doctor heal their patients by the grace of a saint or by that of the holy Maria: a relationship that no longer seems plausible to us, but is still very normal in Latin America and Southern Europe.

The ex-voto culture is as old as it is diverse. Calling on saints and gods for health and fertility is an ancient tradition. Like the pits found in the vicinity of Etruscan temples filled with votive offerings—feet, hands, breasts and eyes. This tradition is still upheld in Catholic countries, although the material and forms of the ex-votos have become more varied. The more simple ex-votos are made of silver plated copper, the more costly ones of solid silver. Some of the most attractive ones depicts the ailments or accidents they are devoted to curing or preventing. A man falling from the roof, a rider being catapulted out of his saddle, a woman being struck by lighting. But in the cloud (heaven) Maria, or a saint, watches over and ensures that all is well.

Ex-voto painting: during an epidemic in a Bavarian village three three family members (with Red Cross in hand) were killed, one survived it. The vow after the rescue is this time focused on life here on Earth and in the afterlife.
It’s these little paintings, some of which are examples of great folk art, which have rekindled the interest in the ex-voto phenomenon. Erik van Zuylen dedicated a documentary to it: De wonderschilders (2000,) that tells the story behind these ex-votos. The most interesting reference book is still Ex Voto, Zeichen, Bild und Abbild im christlichen Votivbrauchtum, written by Lenz Kriss-Rettenbeck in 1972.
Meerveldhoven bij Eindhoven, photo: J. Bijnen
Calvinism in the Netherlands, with its aversion to superstition and folklore, had its effects on the ex-voto culture within its borders. In our country, the ex-voto is of modest size, of (plated) silver or wax, and is connected to Maria or a cult of saints. It’s often the cult and not the votive that draws the attention, as is visible at the Meerveldhoven in Eindehoven, where ex-votos are tied to the branches of the Maria oak tree inside the church.

Catedral de la Almuneda. It was in this church that I first came across ex-votos without knowing what I was looking at. Fascinated, I stared at a wall where dozens of beige coloured shapes were hung. Forms made of paraffin wax that seemed like they’d been moulded straight from a human body. I could discern eyes, a liver, a heart, limbs, breasts. I took a few photographs.

When I looked back at the photos, I realised this was the first time I’d ever witnessed such an exceptional presentation of blind faith. A faith in a higher power that could protect, heal, and that one could show thanks to. That is if you, as a faithful believer, were given the opportunity to hang an object of the sort on the great wall of the church.

Upon my return to The Netherlands, I asked the curator of the Catherijne convenant in Utrecht what’d I’d seen in Spain. He told me they were ex-votos, which literally means: to offer out devotion. Ex-votos are usually small objects, sometimes casts, other times paintings, drawings, or photographs. But essentially, they can be anything, as long as the're offered with the immense faith that someone or something in the heavens above is peering down with compassion.

Ex voto painting from Italy, bought in Venice

In the old days, the very rich could grant the church a candle as large as their weight in wax. As long as the candle burned, their existence was ensured.

Years later, a friend and I took a trip through middle Europe in search of ex-votos. We came to chapels where we found hundreds of wooden legs stacked in piles by grateful believers who might have re-grown a leg, or had otherwise regained their powers of mobility.

Unbelievably beautiful and naively painted images depicting the rescue of a loved one from a fire, or surviving a serious illness. Often in a corner of the painting there would be a saint who lovingly looks down upon the scene being carried out underneath him

Art work on the basis of ex votos
This trip led to an artwork in the courthouse in Groningen. A place where worldly power prevails, but where truth is still verified by swearing on the bible. You never know. A place where the air of the visitor room is pregnant with a sense of justice, protection, and mercy. Where each object might possibly be used as evidence, which is precisely the opposite of faith: attempting to convince the believer without evidence.
Along the way I came across ex-votos everywhere. Sometimes they were needy: pleading letters in a Cuban church and at a place of pilgrimage in Wallonia. Others were placed out of gratitude, like the long row of motorcycle helmets or the altar filled with photos of car accidents at a church in Padua. Or photos of fishermen in a small chapel on the Flemish coast.

Even in The Netherlands, with its ceaseless religious wars, there are places where ex-votos can be found. Of course, the grand St. Jan’s Church in Den Bosch is one of them, where countless metal trinkets are hung, as well as the St. Bavo Church in Haarlem. Here, a number of exceptional, carefully crafted little ships hang motionless—no , they float motionless—under the great arches. They are a testament to the faith in a higher power that will keep the fishermen safe until homecoming.

We’re all familiar with the search for protection or the desire to express our gratitude to someone or something. All of us hope for a higher power, for someone or something to see us. Maybe each one of us has our own, private ex-voto, hidden away in a secret spot of devotion. And maybe it doesn’t matter who you thank or who it is that protects you. Maybe all that matters that this object exists, and that it's you that knows it's there.

Various ex votos, including ex votos of wax from Fatima, Portugal

At the brink of a new century in which less is more has a bio-political connotation, paradigm shifts will dramatically alter the boundaries and limits of social, economical and media-landscapes and therefore the discourse on the opportunities and the responsibilities of the designers involved has become exceptionally urgent. It is obvious that tomorrows design-problematique demands an integral and responsible approach. No longer can the role of the designer be limited to obeying the rules of functionality and aesthetics. Although the impact of the latest rapidly evolving developments in media-usage cannot be measured in full effect yet, we now have reached a state where the best of both of social and mobile is being combined, enabling anyone to operate on a global scale, from the comfortable setting of our personal phone. New applications are being put on the market every day and new functionalities of usage are being discovered by users as well. Everyone has become a photographer, a video-artist/journalist, editor , news/content-caster and a graphic-designer.

The professional designer (or design instructor) has two options during this media-avalanche. The first is to join the masses, but maintain some leverage. This implies that the level of involvement in the new media-landscape is more or less the same as the large group of participants, but the trained eye of the professional will spot strengths and weaknesses sooner than the masses and could therefore take a leading role within this community. This person will adapt to new developments very quickly and could gain momentum by riding on the front-end of this wave. Authority will be generated by knowledge of the present, and therefore has to be maintained carefully. We will call him/her the Shepherd.

The second role the professional could assume is that of the outsider. Standing firm in the midst of the storm, keeping a strong believe in concepts and originality. Is much more theoretical based and chooses types-of-media as they seem appropriate for the process. Will stick to outdated systems and analogue techniques if necessary. Claims that quality will always have a market (and is probably right), but misses large scale connection with the public. Will behave very critical towards the revolution, but does not theoretically oppose to the development of new media-systems. We will call this type the Wolf.

Note that both types have abandoned the notion of objective media-design. Designing without a clear and well profiled opinion on the urgent global matters is a violent and destructive act. To look or not to look is a political matter.

Frank Lloyd Wright built the Robie House in an era where the Internet did not yet exist and travelling was still a true adventure. During an excursion through Robie House, a guide told me that after the house was finished and inhabited, Frank Lloyd would often visit to make sure that the furniture hadn’t been moved. He had designed the house, including the furniture, on the basis of his own ideals of how to optimally live in the space. Ikea’s slogan, are you just living or are you alive (woon je nog of leef je al, translated from Dutch), might very well have originated here. In light of the social relations and available knowledge of his time, F.L. showed an incredible, arguably dictatorial, commitment that surpassed the responsibility of designing a house. F.L. developed an entire concept and assumed responsibility over the lives of the inhabitants by being the director, as it were, of their domestic space.

A hundred years later, the Robie House is a museum and the status of the architect has shrivelled to a consumer of projects. Projects that comprise of little more than designing the money flow controlled by banks, insurance companies and project developers. During these hundred years, capitalism underwent a transformation that is reflected in the profession of the architect. The last decades of the previous century saw modern social capitalism exchanged for a predatory capitalism that, within current globalisation, is developing into brutal indulgence capitalism. McDonalds is recycling, Shell makes use of clean energy, and the Rabobank is sustainable? On paper, global problems like climate change are being braved with technological marvels. If we were to combine all the energy networks of the world or connect wind turbines in the North Sea to solar panels in the Sahara, we would have constant access to energy produced by the sun, wind, or water. Or, if we stack pigs in high-rise buildings, they could always roam free.

Of course, these plans still need to be conceived of, designed, and developed, but that should be allowed in today’s polluted conditions. A better world begins tomorrow.

Frank Lloyd Wright also had grand ideas. Broadacre City, for example, was the manifestation of his vision of a society where individual happiness was found in and around the yard. Technology was subject to this form of social living. What is most fascinating about this is not the technological aspect, that’s merely development done by engineers. What is particularly admirable is the engagement with which he applied his ideas in daily life. Moving around furniture in a house where the inhabitants have long moved in, can you imagine? In my thoughts, I can see Frank Lloyd walking past Broadacre City’s vegetable garden with a hoe, a straw hat on his head, pushing a wheelbarrow before him, checking all around to make sure there aren’t any weeds growing among the potatoes, that the beanstalks are neatly lined up, and that the chickens are clucking about happily.

What does this sort of engagement entail today? Rem Koolhaas sailing over the North Sea to turn the turbines himself to face the wind, or a Winy Maas feeding pigs on the 27th floor of pig city? These images don’t quite conjure the same romantic engagement as a hundred years ago. Nowadays, all global injustice is uncovered with a click of the mouse, rendering all form of engagement implicitly insufficient. We should also check building sites for slave labour or child labour, for working conditions, the building materials for how they’re produced and their origins, the waste, the air quality, the food, the money flow etc. It’s an impossible task that the current management society would rather “outsource” to external experts. As a result, even our responsibilities have become commodities. In order to reach a new Utopia, the architect must, as an independent thinker, free himself from the prison that he has locked himself in as a consumer.

An independently thinking architect takes responsibilities himself; an independently thinking architect practices insourcing. The “Moral Balance Sheet” is an experiment to apply the wide definition of prosperity to the architect’s practice, an experiment to locate one’s own responsibility and to take it. A Ton Matton, who produces his own energy, wears second hand clothing, slaughters his own chicken, and plants a tree himself. The tree is a beech tree, planted on my yard. This tree absorbs more carbon dioxide than is needed to write this article. But for every Google search, the same amount of energy is used as for a car to drive 400 meters. Should we wait around to see how many hits there will be and how long that tree will have to grow for it?

Katy Horan, When the Moon is Full, 2008

1836, in the countryside of Salento in Puglia, Italy. A farmer is found lying outstretched and pale-faced in the bushes after having eaten wild blackberries and falling into a delirium. It’s near the Dolmen of Caroppo, in the vicinity of Galatina. Her hands and feet are black. Musicians with tambourines immediately rush to her from the village. They assemble themselves around her and begin to play.

The woman, initially motionless, begins to move to the rhythm of the tambourine, her feet kicking and her body spasming. She dances for hours, overcome with ecstasy. Members of her family surround her and present her with colourful pieces of fabric. She picks the colour she hates the most.

Meanwhile, the priest has joined the congregation and offers her St. Bruno’s prayer cards. Deliriously dancing, she places them into her mouth and chews on them. She eats them.

Finally, after hours of mania, she vomits water through her nose and mouth into a well. Her face regains its colour and her sanity has returned. Her family takes her home to the village where she lives.

Where I come from, superstitious fascination for pagan ritual is interwoven with Catholic-Christian doctrine. Symbols overlap or are compounded; the Catholic Church has encapsulated pagan rituals and translated them into Catholic interpretations. This bizarre trans-religious scenario, further stimulated by changes in rural life and the modernisation of South Italy, has led to a need for spiritual transcendence. This renewed interest in the trance, in the voluntary loss of consciousness, is a reaction to, and perhaps compensation for, the loss of one’s role within society.

I’ve always wondered when the function of a symbol’s significance ceases, and I’ve noticed that significance is determined by an individual’s interpretation. The religious symbol emerges as exceptionally strong because it contains contradictions. I think an artwork functions in a similar manner, and is the engine for many different connotations. A quiet engine that harbours contradictions with in it is like a spinning wheel. It spins and spins until it transcends and exceeds itself. It dances to the rhythm of the cosmic drum, and the two polar opposites are reconciled on the axis of possibility.

A woman, a vagabond, repeats the same actions over and over. She falls in love with objects, she hates their colour. She asks if she could be dressed in mirrors. She lives near a landfill and sometimes she’s heard singing a mantra. She likes to repeat herself and remain absent, to miss herself for eternity. She lives in a large European city.

Her attempt to lose consciousness, to release material status, is a well-known technique applied in esoteric religions. With the necessary sacrifice, anyone can reach ecstasy. But in South Italy and elsewhere in Europe, reaching ecstasy becomes a shelter against social decline, the loss of traditional roles in society, the redemption of the minorities. It justifies the personal inadequacy to live up to a collective and productive model. To cease acting and become a living symbol, and if possible, one that others wish to see.

In a state of bliss, S. Giuseppe da Copertino, and more recently, Padre Pio, have both succeeded in flying and have appeared in two places simultaneously, like the electron... As real as double.