It’s art, dammit!

I’m not really a religious person. It was never my intention to construct a real shrine. The thing sits there in my living room, just another piece of furniture, with my old boombox and a motley collection of cassette tapes stacked on top of it.

It must be six or seven years, now, since I put the thing together. With a couple other people I was planning a small exhibition of chapbooks by local authors to coincide with the huge annual crafts fair that takes over the nearby college town for five days each summer. We weren’t planning anything fancy, just a table or two and maybe a few performances in the small plaza outside the bookstore.

I had always fantasized about throwing a public demonstration that would be the mirror equivalent of a book burning – a television bashing! You know, the usual activist’s delusion: make an impact by getting on the evening news. But it occurred to me that the bookstore might withdraw its sponsorship if I tried to do something like that, so instead I decided to take a television set and turn it into a faux-Voodoo shrine. I remembered my Dad’s old cabinet TV from the 1950s that had sat in the basement of the barn for decades. We cannibalized it for vacuum tubes when I was a kid – they made great little bombs – but otherwise it was still in pretty good shape.

The disemboweling went relatively quickly; after that, the four knobs had to be cemented back into place. The space created by removing the picture tube was almost 18 inches high and around 20 inches wide and deep. I removed the glass on the front, retaining the hard plastic or fiberglass frame whose ovoid shape alone still evoked a television. I attached a thin plywood back and lined all three sides with aluminum foil.

A good Voodoo shine should be assembled on a stepped platform. Given the limited space, I had to content myself with just three tiers, and covered the whole platform with red cloth. Now for the fun part: collecting the stuff to go on it.

Candlesticks were pretty easy to scrounge up; the largest and most effective were shaped like a pair of cobras. I bought some realistic-looking plastic fruit to go in the polished wooden bowl that went front-and-center. My other additions were even less subtle: a naked Barbie doll with arms upraised; a plastic toy policeman with one arm extended in a Nazi salute; a toy pistol; a bible carved from a piece of anthracite; a red plastic car; a hypodermic needle (unused, obtained through a friend of a friend who I think was a heroin addict); a cracked china pitcher filled with spent .45 and .457 shells; a Santa figurine; whiskey, beer, Coke and Pepsi bottles converted into vases for plastic flowers; a wooden marijuana bowl; and other such flotsam. Coins and monopoly money were scattered about.

What to use for a central image? For a little while I was stumped. But when I described the project to a friend of mine, she said, “What about a black mirror? I have one that I was going to get rid of — used it once for a ritual, but I don’t need it anymore.” “Sounds great!”

It wasn’t much, really. Just a black-backed piece of glass, about five by seven inches, mounted in a cheap wooden picture frame with a fold-out cardboard stand in back. The idea, she explained, was to confound peoples’ expectations. “They look into it expecting to see their reflections, but there’s nothing there.” Perfect!

With the black mirror at the back center, the shrine had a focus. Santa, Barbie and the cop all had something to salute. I had something to light candles and burn incense to.

The outside had to be altered, too. At the top center of each side I mounted a terracotta mask, one black, one tan, from the small collection of folk-art objects my brother had brought back from Honduras. Where the sound came out, below the space where the picture tube had been, dark wooden bars formed a nine-square grid. I cut cardboard to fit the four corners and the center square, thus leaving every other square to show the original speaker cloth. Pasted to the four corner pieces were the words ENJOY / ENSLAVE / CONSUME / OBEY. On the center square went the famous quote from William Blake (misappropriated by some third-rate rock band from the 60s, but I couldn’t help that): “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.” The shrine was, after all, a grotto of sorts.

I can’t say that I had either Plato or Bodhidharma in mind, though. This cave was wired. I strung some flashing Christmas lights around the back of the ovoid frame, where they wouldn’t be directly visible. Underneath, where the speaker had been, I stuck a radio tuned to an evangelical AM station – one of the ones with non-stop, ’round the clock, Pentecostal preachers from Kentucky.

This was art for the people. And I have to say, the people seemed to dig it. I reassembled it every morning for three days, and watched folks’ reactions from fifteen feet away where I lounged behind a table of literary goodies. I didn’t sell very many chapbooks, but the shrine got lots of laughs and even a few compliments. Some people tossed coins in it. One young woman asked if she could light an incense stick. I was reminded a bit of the way Japanese people behave at Shinto shrines: that same mixture of reverence and bemusement, animated by the kind of pragmatic superstitiousness one finds among professional gamblers. “Who cares if it’s real or bogus? It sure can’t hurt to go through the motions!”

To me, the whole point was to make people laugh. For all the lack of subtlety, I wasn’t really trying to change anyone’s mind. But who knows? I couldn’t help thinking that my original idea of a television bashing, while it certainly would have attracted more attention, probably wouldn’t have brightened anyone’s day.

Can the merely cynical be invested with a higher value? And if so, would this stepping outside of a stepping-outside require some leap of faith?

Voodoo (a.k.a Voudun, Vodou), the tradition I had been in some sense mocking, is itself supremely pragmatic, seldom requiring more than an open mind to participate in its ceremonies. One isn’t required to surrender one’s own reason or willpower – far from it. “Just try it, see if it works for you,” the priestess advises anthropologist-initiate Karen McCarthy Brown again and again. (See Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn, University of California Press, 1991.)

There sits the shrine in my living room, divested of masks and the four cynical words, which quickly warped. The weird thing is, four years ago when I wanted to stop smoking, this shrine to negativity really did seem to help. Through the worst of the craving I kept a half-dozen cigarettes there in the offering bowl, among the plastic fruit. Somehow just seeing them there, day after day, strengthened my resolve.

Addiction is a funny thing, and everyone’s different in the way they have to conquer it. For me, it was a matter of admitting to myself that I would never be able to quit – but I might be able to simply stop. For me, quitting implies finality, and a sense of finality breeds despair.

Tobacco, like most powerful drugs, is a deeply ambiguous substance. To condense and over-simplify just a bit, one could say that addiction is enabled by disrespect. The smoker begins by downplaying the power of the drug while idealizing the pleasure it symbolizes. The addict is an active participant in his continuing delusion, saying to himself, “I am not a slave. I can quit anytime I want.” Most addictions start during youth, because young people tend to think they are immortal and believe that bad luck is for other people. Such naive faith may even be the mirror-image of nihilism: “I am uniquely favored. Everything that happens is for the best; and even if I or others do happen to suffer, it couldn’t be otherwise.” It is the soul’s desperate alibi against the vacuum of nothingness. But eventually the alibi wears thin, and the addict comes to realize that his or her ability to quit hinges upon the merest chance. In the mythology of the American group-therapy movement, this chance is seen as the gift of some Higher Power.

Among the Yoruba, in the tradition directly ancestral to Voodoo, Orunmila is the highest god to whom human beings have direct access. He is the patron of divination, and as the first-born son of the supreme deity has perfect foreknowledge of fate-as-divine-will. His ability to guarantee outcomes, however, is continually challenged and subverted by the random acts of Eshu. This orisha is envisioned as neither good nor bad. “He was compounded out of the elements of chance and accident, and his nature [is] unpredictability” (Harold Courlander, A Treasury of African Folklore, Marlowe and Company, 1996). On the one hand, he may seem comparable to the Adversary, Satan. But in fact he is more: the trickster god without whom creative activity would be impossible — because where and how could inspiration ever operate without a certain element of randomness, an apparent chaos to bring order to?

Eshu — like his New World counterparts Ghede and Legba — is the master of speech and language, and every crossroads is his shrine. He alone “straddles the left and right of our universe,” according to the Ifa priest Wande Abimbola (“Gods Versus Anti-Gods: Conflict and Resolution in the Yoruba Cosmos,” in Evil and the Response of World Religion, ed. William Cenkner, Paragon House, 1997). The hymns of Ifa preach sanity and good will as the best way of deflecting evil, but sacrifice is also essential. Dr. Abimbola notes that “sacrifice is an act of exchange. When one makes sacrifice, one exchanges something dear, or something purchased with one’s own money, in order to sustain personal happiness. Sacrifice involves human beings in a process of exchange or denial of oneself, or giving of one’s time, forsaking one’s pleasure, food, etc., in order to be at peace with both the benevolent and malevolent supernatural powers as well as to be at peace with one’s neighbors, family, the entire environment and ultimately to be at peace with oneself.”

If priests or doctors are sometimes needed for their specialized knowledge, that shouldn’t mean that a client’s only duty is to be – literally or figuratively – patient. “In Vodou,” says Brown, “the one being healed remains active throughout the healing process – from the card reading, in which the client is free to agree or disagree with any diagnosis [the priest or priestess] suggests, to the manufacture of the pwen, in which the client has a direct hand.” (A pwen, “point,” is a charm: according to Brown, a crossroads in time and space where social, psychological and spiritual conditions are concentrated or condensed.)

The cigarettes – those that the mice haven’t chewed up – are still there in the bowl any time I want to have another smoke. The television-grotto is still pure irony, an anti-shrine, as far as I’m concerned. Who am I kidding? I’ve even smoked a few cigars. Religion’s interesting, all right, and there’s a whole lot more to it than meets the eye. But at a certain level, it seems to me, you have to step back and recognize that it’s just so much didactic art accompanied by poetry that you otherwise couldn’t even pay most people to read. The Yoruba people inhabit one of the most deeply religious cultures on the planet, but they keep their sense of humor:

Ijapa [the tortoise] said, “It emerges!”
His son replied, “I grasp it!”
Ijapa asked, “What do you grasp?”
His son asked, “What did you say is emerging?”
(Courlander, op.cit.)

3 Comments



  1. I enjoyed reading this. Good stuff. (And huh, I have a copy of Mama Lola kicking around somewhere; I haven’t thought about that book in probably 20 years…)

    Reply

    1. Thanks. I gather some folks in the vodun community found Brown a bit naive, but the book struck me as a very respectful and insightful participant-observer’s account.

      Reply

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