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Museum of religious art urges visitors to take a leap as it celebrates milestone

Lewis deSoto, Paranirvana, 1999-2012, installed at MOCRA in 2013.
Courtesy of the artist and Brian Gross Fine Art, San Francisco
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This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: An invitation to cross thresholds into unfamiliar territory is the theme as Saint Louis University’s Museum of Contemporary Religious Art marks two decades of existence. “Thresholds: MOCRA at 20” is a two-part exhibit reprising segments of previous shows dating back to the museum’s 1993 debut. Part One, open through Dec. 15, revisits MOCRA’s first 10 years.

Works examining all religions and spiritual quests have always had a place at MOCRA. Founding director Father Terry Dempsey wants to continue and expand that diversity.

“We’re trying to build a bridge among various faith traditions,” Dempsey said.

A Buddha reveals new meaning

The most prominent returning piece is Lewis deSoto’s 25-foot long nylon Paranirvana, a word for a reclining Buddha. When it was arrived at MOCRA in 2000, it was meant to be displayed in its inflated state, with the pump turned off at night. But 30 minutes after the opening exhibit was to end, dozens of visitors lingered, and Dempsey needed to move things along to get the artist to his next stop.

“I said to one of our assistants, ‘Let’s pull the plug on the Buddha,’” he remembered.

Guests first noticed the cessation of the pump noise, then began to watch in silent amazement as the Buddha collapsed in on itself, a half-hour process.

“For a few minutes you didn’t think anything would happen and then a shoulder would cave in," Dempsey said. “We saw the Buddha figure slowly deflating, and it was the closest thing I’ve ever experienced in an artwork to being at the bedside of a dying person."

After checking with the artist, MOCRA began opening the exhibit each day with a completely deflated Buddha so the first guests could see it come to life.

“Then other people would come for the death of the Buddha, a half-hour before the closing. We’re doing that again now,” Dempsey said.

Seyed Alavi, Noli Me Tangere, 1991
Credit MOCRA Collection
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Seyed Alavi, Noli Me Tangere, 1991

Serendipity also played a part in the history of another work first exhibited at MOCRA in 2008. Seyed Alavi’s “Noli Me Tangere” literally means “Don’t touch me,” reflective of the words Jesus is said to have spoken to Mary Magdalene after the resurrection. But when Dempsey first saw the honey-filled lead bowl at a San Francisco exhibit, he failed to heed the name and it ended up in MOCRA's permanent collection.

“I guess it was basic Catholic instinct. I stuck my hand right in there and I was dripping honey all over the place,” Dempsey said. “It wasn’t like a ‘you-break-it-you-buy-it’ kind of a thing, but we did buy it.”

No sugarcoating

In 1994, the subject of HIV/AIDS was finally emerging from the shadows, with the Centers for Disease Control launching bold TV ads promoting condom use.  MOCRA, in only its second year of existence, was also in the forefront of this burgeoning national discussion.

Collection of Teresa and Lawrence Katz Juan Gonzalez, Free Fall, 1993
Credit Nancy Fowler | St. Louis Beacon | 2013
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Collection of Teresa and Lawrence Katz Juan Gonzalez, Free Fall, 1993

The museum's “Consecrations: The Spiritual in Art in the Time of AIDS” was inspired by an artist friend of Dempsey’s, who was dying of the disease. Juan Gonzalez’s “Free Fall,” completed in the last seven days of his life when he was nearly blind, is back for the “Thresholds” exhibit. Then and now, the piece speaks to MOCRA’s mission.

“My goal was to show people that the artists of our time can address difficult subjects and can do it in such a way that doesn’t try to sugarcoat them but offers a threshold going through a sense of suffering and loss to a sense of hope and reconciliation and sense of healing,” Dempsey said.

The spirituality of Alvin Ailey’s choreography made him a subject of a 1993 MOCRA exhibition. One of its elements, a video of Judith Jamison dancing her iconic role in Alvin Ailey’s “Cry,” is part of the 20th anniversary show. Going forward, Dempsey hopes to bring in more video works.

It won’t be difficult to exhibit new artists. As the museum celebrates 20 years, it's currently fielding inquiries from 600 people who want to bring their work to MOCRA.

“Not in my lifetime is that going to be possible,” Dempsey said. “But it’s nice to know we’re getting that kind of interest.”

More about religion and art

Learn about MOCRA’s founding and history

Metropolitan Museum of Art discussion on responsibilities around religious art

Camille Paglia on religion and spirituality in art

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