I didn’t feel much in the Rothko Chapel, despite its venerated history, its inclusivity, its fame, and its metaphors. When we visited, there was a woman in a red dress meditating on a pillow on the floor, calmly beautiful, her friends on a bench behind her, bored. The anonymous guard was watching the watchers. “This is a sacred space,” the signs outside read. Is that all it takes to make a space sacred–language, naming it? Put up a sign? What is the value of sanctity, of drawing lines around the holy object, of creating hierarchy and difference? One answer: fulfilling the need for regenerative space, healing space, a space apart. Or: fulfilling a human compulsion toward ritual. When we walked outside, I handed my partner the camera.
“Take a picture of me like this,” I said, and then threw my sweater over my head, concealing my face and half my body.
“What does that mean?” he asked.
I guess I had been thinking of creating a photo that would convey an omission of emotion, but I could see how my body with a sweater over my head, standing in front of a pair of formidable black doors against a brick edifice, could mean something more sinister. I gave up. “I don’t know what it means.”
Rothko’s 1957 work, Untitled, in the nearby Menil Collection, was overwhelming. Can I catch violence from a painting like you can from a person? Untitled was a vector of disease; it infected me through my looking. Did the guard watching me watch the painting become similarly infected? I feel the painting is about violence, trauma, pain; standing in front of it meant bearing uncomfortable witness. I suppose I am unable to divorce those colors, that palette, from blood, or to suppress my instincts. Alternately, I am unable to control my projections, or my wild and relentless search for meaning. The painting is an experience, encapsulated emotion. How can I reconcile the viewer’s job to be vulnerable, open, and accepting with the toxic potential for absorbing “too much”? A parallel question: how can a post-traumatic person (as most of us are) regulate exposure to trauma, given that trauma itself nearly destroys the organism’s ability to self-regulate?
Oh, Rothko. I don’t know.