Cologne cathedral window by Gerhard Richter

(photo July 2009)

We were amazed when we walked into Cologne cathedral and realised that we could take photos, perhaps God these days is so invisible that the church realises the futility of asking people not to record his presence.

We have become used to going to galleries and understanding that they don’t want you to suck the light out of their exhibitions, although it has got to the point where someone rushes up to you when you’ve only just walked into the gallery space to tell you that you cannot take photos. This seems to suggest that the art you are about to see is sacred (the judgement has been made for you before you have even seen it…) I thought of this walking into Cologne cathedral because what immediately strikes you is that people have not come here to experience the space, internalise it, they have come here to take pictures. the experience is externalised, quantified by static photographs. Whilst the experience of being in the cathedral is hollowed by the act of taking the photographs, the memories of it resurface later when i see the photos, which act as catalysts for feelings that would otherwise remain buried… but the moments they record are impure, tainted, not real.

So the feeling was wrong in both the art gallery and the cathedral… it was as if they had switched places and there was a discontinuity, a dysfunctionality… I am left with the strange feeling that the art gallery is trying to be a more sacred space than the cathedral. When we are herded into the white rooms of a gallery, like sheep to be branded or sheared (or slaughtered), we are entering into a system of control: you cannot touch this work (only the artist and the technicians can do that – perhaps they too also realise that they should not really be touching the work in stasis…), you cannot breathe on it, you cannot record it, because otherwise you will contribute to its decay… a work of art must stay perfect, idealised, for ever… and in this way, galleries destroy art…

…and the cathedral, inspite of it’s history, is actually now a more meaningful and free space than a modern art gallery. Perhaps this is because a cathedral is based on belief, the intrinsic impossibility of touching the untouchable, the sense of which, when all words have been exhausted, remains without limit – the foundations might decay but they are unbreakable by definition. To see a cathedral like the one in Cologne is to see madness made real, but it is a pure madness, a structure that could not be made today, even with all our technology we could not conceive of a building like this, awe-inspiring spiraling, grasping towards empty space (we climbed up hundreds and hundreds of stone steps, as far as the steps would go, and at the top all I saw was scaffolding, repairing the stone built there in the heights by brave souls long ago).

The art gallery is always, undeniably, a cold and empty space… in to which paintings and sculpture that were intended for life are preserved in a lifeless formaldehyde atmosphere… we walk into a huge white room and are faced with a massive stone sculpture that is begging to be touched, caressed, without which it is just a lifeless object, the sculpture is alone and suffocating without any contact with real life. But we cannot even photograph it – which actually isn’t any great loss, because we have never had the chance to experience the weight of this sculpture, it’s warmth and coldness, so a photo of this non-experience would have no memory or substance anyway.

All this leads me to a depressing thought that our cathedrals and our art galleries are not, fundamentally, ours; they are neither for us nor with us. So it is senseless to attempt to reclaim them or pretend that they preserve the spirit of God or art: these places destroy God and they destroy art.