The soul exists partly in eternity and partly in time.
- Marsilio Ficino
Porta sancta, por anima: a holy door for the soul. Like the architectures of the contemporary world, the symbols and structures customary to early ecclesiastical spaces existed on the threshold of politics. The particular doxa and hallowed grounds of any earthly sacred is so often forged, after all, from the brick and mortar of mercantile enterprise, conquest, and Empire’s rule. In the transubstantiation of capital to edifice, of edifice to custom, and of custom to salvation, the tectonics of geopolitics define spaces, rituals and ornaments which etch deep grooves into the shadowed glass through which we perceive the spirit.
The visual arts have always existed within a certain preserve; originally this preserve was magical or sacred. But it was also physical: it was the place itself in which the work was made. The experience of art was set apart from the rest of life — precisely in order to be able to exercise power over it. Later this preserve of art became a social one, entering the culture of the ruling class. In pre-Christian Italy, the conversion of political leaders was followed gradually by other powerful families, marking the beginning of a period of remarkable social change - accompanied by a surge of patronage.
The system of patronage enabled the ruling class to craft a paradise in their own image: a bespoke vision of the sacred was executed by an artist retained for the purpose and tailored to the sensibilities of the buyer, aggregating the aura of metaphysical power in specific symbols, motifs, and gestures unique to the upper classes of a given place and time. The practice was further reified in the architectural endowments of the Church: the delineation of sacred ground, the relative value of expiation housed within golden ornament, the construction of side-altars within the church where families of ample means could negotiate the commission of space, decoration and ritual. Representing a privatized space within the body of the Church proper, the side chapel was a place where politically and economically significant parishioners could orchestrate prayer for their familial dead; the currency value of a soul bound indelibly to the greater visibility (and, perhaps, perceived moral superiority) of those with earthly purchasing power.
Time and again throughout history, the flights of the soul were mapped to feet of clay and interpreted through a given paradigm of technology. The facial features of the unknowable Christ slowly morphed throughout the Renaissance period to resemble the aristocracy of its age via the commission of paintings by rulers, estate-holders and merchants. In this new economy, wealthy citizens commissioned civic buildings, churches, frescoes and other works, all of them embodying and apportioning power within the new humanistic ideals of individual greatness that fuelled this new prosperity. The bodies which supported and fostered economic growth - aristocrats, guilds, monastics - used artistic patronage to reinforce social structures fundamental to civic sustainability: loyalty to family, church, and state.
With the ascendency of bourgeois culture, art began to lose its direct social function; aristocratic and church patronage declined, and new forms of aesthetics developed. Church services and public works were no longer the artist’s primary engagements. When an artist stops working for an ecclesiastical or secular patron, and offers their work for sale to buyers whose tastes and identities are not fully known, the artist begins to function within the market, producing works which bear greater autonomy to reflect their own values. This growing autonomy goes hand-in-hand with commodification, and the historical figure of the artist was caught between a situation of patronage on the one hand, and the market on the other. They could no longer count on the security of a tradition and taste they still shared with their aristocratic or clerical patrons, and their new bourgeoise audience was anonymous, fickle, and hungry for novelty.
Such was the situation when the stylized characteristics of Chinoiserie were born: artifacts obtained via mercantile trade and colonial conquest fell into the gaze of the early Modernist leisure-class’ appetite for exotica. Reproducible by new modes of industrial fabrication, factory machinery wrought new posessions with tropefied motifs – alienated ornaments supposed to carry and confer the aura of a tantalizing terrain outside its owner’s realm of experience and belonging. Such objects occupied a profitable compromise at the threshold of high and low art - objects imbued with qualities supposed to separate their appreciator from the madding crowd, yet sufficiently materially accessible to be possessed by the common bourgeoise.
Today, at a new kind of threshold, what kind of door for the soul can we envision? Working in the peripheral storage room of a former department store, Lim and Harris draw upon their individual research scholarships in Florence to renegotiate symbol and space. Lim’s works mirror the flat-pack tactics of globalized logistics, and provide structural supports for Harris’s reproducible wax-cast sculptures. Familiar motifs from Catholic iconography and Chinoiserie are admixed and reconfigured through an intimate grammar relative to the artists’ shared and individual practices. The work, having first been developed digitally, permitted the artists a sculptural dialogue, sending work rendered by photogrammetry back and forth to one another, adding and manipulating the object with each ‘reply’ prior to beginning the material fabrication and installation process.
Destined to be viewed only through online documentation, the space remains sacred to the artists’ motions within it, yet we can intuit their gestures – the logic of liminality, of the street-side shrine, neither set apart from the rest of life, nor fully defined by its boundary; such is a niche embedded within our daily activities and requiring no official sanction to hold its force or abstract value to carry its remainder. Against the backdrop of a present-day London, shrouded in snowfall and quarantine, we encounter a constructed moment - artificial, sensitive and burdened - extended into eternity.