The act of accumulating objects is one of our oldest forms of visual expression. Whether deliberate, like ancient Celtic votive offerings thrown over and over into the same bogs, or unintentional, like the heaps of shells or other food trash from some lost civilization, there is something emotional about these collected objects.
While in New Orleans last month I visited the chapel at Saint Roch Cemetery, where since the 19th century people have left ex votos in thanks for healing. Ex voto offerings can take many forms at religious sites, from paintings of prayers answered in a Mexican sanctuary to the repeated word “merci,” or “thanks,” carved on plaques in a French church. At Saint Roch they are tributes to healing, a tradition going back to the creation of the cemetery in 1874 following a yellow fever epidemic. The then pastor of Holy Trinity Catholic Church, Father Peter Leonard Thevis, is said to have prayed to Saint Roch for his congregation to be spared, and when they were, he kept his promise to build a chapel to the 14th-century saint. Saint Roch is considered a saint of good health, and in Catholic tradition he’s known to have helped the sick and poor, contracting the plague in the process. A statue on the altar at the New Orleans chapel depicts him with the dog who licked his bulbous plague sores.
Plaster feet, full legs, hands, false teeth, prosthetics, and crutches all crowd in the small shrine space just to the right of the altar behind a locked gate. A bird’s wing, a painted brain, discarded casts, and of course some Mardi Gras beads that seem to be flung on every corner of the city no matter the time of year are also in the gathering of objects. The paint is peeling and there are still traces from the floods that followed Hurricane Katrina in 2005, with a fine line on a heart showing how high the waters rose. The cemetery and the chapel were completely empty on the rainy Tuesday morning of my visit, but there was still this emotional weight of all the pain of these individuals who had prayed to Saint Roch for relief.
The shrine is a forceful idea for art, through the action of pilgrimage and leaving of tokens to mark that passage. Currently at the Venice Biennale, Patricia Cronin’s “Shrine for Girls” is installed on three altars of the Chiesa di San Gallo, a 16th-century church. The center is piled with colorful saris, while on either side are more monotone heaps of hijabs and aprons. In turn they represent the women raped in India, the over 200 Nigerian girls lost, and the women in forced labor in Magdalene Laundries in Europe and the United States. Clarity Haynes interviewed Cronin about the installation for Hyperallergic, where she described how a group of Indian women tourists saw the saris, and “went back to their hotel rooms and returned with a large piece of black fabric they were traveling with. It is for mourning; they gave it to me to add to the shrine.” Cronin added that there “is beauty in bearing witness, there is beauty in lamenting, there is beauty in calling to action and there is beauty in speaking truth to power.”
Joseph Cornell in his lifetime also harnessed this idea of emotional objects adding up over time, saving both pop culture magazine clippings and rare objects for building intricate portable shrines from his Queens home. And similar to Cronin, Doris Salcedo has experimented with amassing objects for memorial, with 280 chairs crowded between two buildings in 2002 at the Palace of Justice in Bogotá in tribute to those killed in a failed guerrilla coup, a project she expanded in 2003 at the Istanbul Biennial with 1,550 chairs for the numerous migrants anonymously lost.
There are also works that act like shrines. The 2007-08 Francis Alÿs installation of 300 reproductions of a painting of Saint Fabiola, based on a lost original from the 19th century, were all installed on the walls at the Hispanic Society of America, or in a more outsider instance, there’s the Palais Idéal du Facteur Cheval where a French postman picked up stones for three decades on his route and turned them into a castle. In the Bronx at the Old Bronx Borough Courthouse as part of No Longer Empty’s When You Cut into the Present the Future Leaks Out, Abigail DeVille’s “…and justice for all?” has a huge jumble of objects collected from the abandoned building and surrounding neighborhood, with bits of marble, dried Christmas trees, television sets, and all manner of debris littered in this collected spirit of a place’s history. There is something very moving about each of these pieces which have a strong sense of place, like the Saint Roch shrine and its individual objects that add up in a meaningful measure of time and memory.
Saint Roch Cemetery is located at 1725 St. Roch Avenue, New Orleans.