Some artists find their inspiration in art history, some find it inside their own psyche, and others look to the natural, political, or social world for ideas.
For local photographer Ralph Burns, inspiration has for almost 30 years come from the spiritual practices of people around the world. But something more concrete — namely, a 1999 New York Times article — sparked his most recent project.
The piece reported an exciting new discovery in astrophysics: Scientists talked about a force termed “The Great Attractor” which pulled everything in the universe toward it — our constellation, it was revealed, is headed there at enormous speed. This force, the scientists said, exists ” … somewhere beyond the constellation Norma.”
Taking the dark attractions of religious fervor as his theme, Burns, in the resulting exhibit, displays photos he took from 1978 through 2004, all of them at some faith-based rite.
Don’t think for a minute that these images are “travel” pictures — although some, to Western Carolina residents, could appear quite ordinary. We see Billy Graham in profile behind a podium, his figure lit like a rock star’s, pointing, God-like, toward heaven. In another shot, a young boy in Naples, N.C., leans close to a huge tractor-trailer rig, straining to see, on the side of the trailer, the painted depiction of the horrors of the second coming. Also close to home, two little boys stand in front of a display of balloons, Styrofoam cutouts and artificial flowers at the lake in Union, S.C., where in 1994 Susan Smith drowned her two young sons. They hold a carefully made sign reading: “Michael and Alex are walking with Jesus.”
At the Million Man March in Washington, Burns shot photos inside the prayer tepee, where men prayed in small clusters: serious, ponderous men. In New Orleans, a group of people are pushing a casket into an above-ground tomb, and the bishop of New Orleans reads before a heavy, studded door raked with sunlight. Staid old Boston gets represented by a bellowing street preacher who holds an open bible in one hand, and, like Billy Graham, points heavenward with the other. Also in Boston, a small boy dressed in a plaid Eton jacket, his white dress-shirt tail hanging out, smiles shyly and offers a religious pamphlet.
A statue of a saint and a cross are visible through the window of a cheap motel in Memphis, Tenn. Inside the room a large woman looks from her chair beside the window toward the bed. Lying on the bed is an Elvis doll, about five feet tall, with jointed arms and legs. The doll is unclothed, and is discreetly covered with a blanket. Another Memphis photo shows a plaque of a blond, blue-eyed Jesus, his hands upraised, and a smaller Elvis singing away in the lower right-hand corner. The whole arrangement is surrounded by fake daises.
In London, a Muslim woman, her head properly draped, walks past a sign on a building that urges: “Rally for Islam.” In Mexico, an Indian’s long hair streams down as he struggles under a large statue of Guadalupe strapped to his back: He is dressed in shiny American basketball shorts and a fishnet top. And at Cuba’s Feast of San Lazaro, a rite of Santeria provides some of the exhibit’s most emotional images: a shirtless man stretched on the ground holding a candle toward the corpse of a starved dog; people with bricks chained to their feet, or who are flaying themselves with reeds; a scantily clad young supplicant begging for healing while a priest standing near her wrings the neck of a chicken.
Israel, too, offers many opportunities for such public displays of faith. A mob of Orthodox Christians crowd the narrow street leading to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher; two men, one black and one white, immerse a young woman in the river Jordan; a Muslim woman kneels on her prayer rug, her head lowered and her hands raised; light silhouettes an Ethiopian Orthodox priest reading his holy book; Hasidic Jews celebrate the Feast of Lag B’Omer; and a young Yeshiva student wrinkles his brow in frustrated concentration over his book.
No judgment is detectable in any of this work. Burns manages to distance himself from these people and their passions, maintaining his position as an observer; he makes no hierarchal decisions. The woman with the Elvis doll is treated with the same respect given Billy Graham or the Muslim woman on the London street. Perhaps the closest Burns comes to identifying with his subjects is in his quiet photograph of a young Buddhist student. The boy sits in stillness on a wooden bench; his shoulders are relaxed as he reads from a small piece of paper. Sunlight streams across the worn tiles on the floor. He is at peace, somewhere beyond the stars.
[Connie Bostic is an Asheville-based painter and writer whose work can be seen in the inaugural exhibit at Western Carolina University’s new Fine and Performing Arts Center.]
Ralph Burns’ Somewhere Beyond the Constellation Norma will show at Brevard College’s Spiers Gallery through Friday, Nov. 11. Gallery hours are Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. See www.brevard.edu for more information.