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BLOOMFIELD HILLS, Mich. — Works of art are built into and scattered throughout the labyrinthine hallways, assorted offices, and public and private chapels of Christ Church Cranbrook. Among them are a jaw-dropping floor-to-ceiling fresco by Katherine McEwen in the main chapel, an original William Morris wall tapestry in the library, a preponderance of astonishing Arts and Crafts decorative elements by master craftspeople, and stained glass designed by G. Owen Bonawit. Endowed by the same benefactors that funded the original Cranbrook Educational Community (now encompassing Cranbrook Schools, Art Academy, Art Museum, Institute of Science, and Cranbrook House and Gardens), George and Ellen Booth, Christ Church houses selections from their expansive art collection that consider religious themes, as well as commissions for the space. Whether or not one feels the animating religious sentiment of these works, their beauty and the profound skill attendant in their making cannot be denied. Yet none of them fall outside the range of expectation, in terms of what might be on display in a historic place of worship.
But downstairs, in the tiny Chapel of the Resurrection, the story changes. Surrounded by historic architectural features, ornate inlaid floor motifs featuring symbols of the Resurrection, references to sacred geometry, art deco fixtures, and a pair of angel candlesticks that date back to Medieval times, lies a sepulcher of a distinctly modern cant. An unadorned, bespoke structure in dark material forms the vessel for the body on display, which glows with a gentle, radiant white light — for the body, rather than being viewed through glass in the traditional manner, is projected within a series of four 47” LED televisions. The internal glow of the piece, heightened by candles, illuminates the room, while soft, repetitious tones play in subtle variations, enhancing the venerated hush of the space. Within the four cells of the sepulcher, the images shifts from one cohesive body — a photo-negative of the iconic image of Christ in the Shroud of Turin — to a rotating series of media images of Syrian refugees, captured in the midst of the traumatic civil war, displacement, and flight from Syria that has gone on since 2011. This is “Lamentation for the Forsaken,” a 2016 work by Michael Takeo Magruder, which has come, perhaps unexpectedly, to find a place here at Christ Church Cranbrook.
“I had been following the Syrian crisis since the start of the civil war, well before it became a mainstream issue in Europe at the point when refugees started dying in the Mediterranean and arriving in mass at the border,” said Magruder, in an email interview with Hyperallergic. She added:
I felt the West’s response to the crisis was short-sighted and ineffectual, and was highly related to the problematic rise of overly conservative us-vs-them (white Western Christian vs brown Eastern Muslim) rhetoric in the increasingly divisive socio-political landscape. Given that context, I felt that “Lamentation for the Forsaken” was a work that needed to be produced, because if I “got it right” then perhaps I could encourage reflection and dialogue that would engender some small amount of positive change.
Magruder is quick to emphasize that his practice is not in any way a religious endeavor — even with artworks like “Lamentation for the Forsaken” that explicitly reference a Christian narrative. However, the work struck a chord with Reverend Dr. William Danaher, Jr., who leads the congregation at Christ Church Cranbrook.
“We have a fairly vibrant but small representation of Middle Eastern Christians,” said Danaher, in an interview with Hyperallergic. “There’s also a large Syrian population at Christ Church Detroit.” Danaher has been instrumental in emphasizing contemporary art — particularly that which is associated with lamentation, grief, and healing — as a priority within the organization’s programming, which also includes a popular jazz series.
“This is going to sound very evangelical,” said Danaher, by way of outlining the four pillars of CCC’s mission. “We want people to meet Jesus, we want people to find joy, we want people to share beauty, and we want people to serve others. Those four, almost always, when you do them intensely, they reinforce each other in a powerful way.” Danaher speaks with open and engaging demeanor that balances the fervor of his dedication. He arrived at CCC four years ago, and has been instrumental in shifting the focus of the organization’s outreach efforts from removed acts of charity — such as building playgrounds — to finding “profound ways of being with people.” Danaher holds a B.A. from Brown and a PhD from Yale, in addition to his M. Div. from Virginia Theological Seminary. It speaks to the progressive nature of his faith leadership, as well as his background as a Professor of Theology, Ethics, and the Arts, that he sees contemporary art and ritual as a way of bridging understanding between the existing church structure and potential congregants who require a different kind of interaction with their place of worship.
As for “Lamentation,” the piece feels right at home in the Chapel of the Resurrection — inspired, as it is, to create a resonance between the suffering of Christ and that of Syrian refugees. Inscribed onto two offset transparent layers that slightly obscure the images beneath are names of 2000 refugees who were killed in 2016. In some cases, a casualty is listed only as “small child,” because an entire village was wiped out, and only broad demographic information about a certain victim was known. In a text accompanying the 2018 Stations of the Cross exhibition in New York City, where the work was on display in January of this year at the Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest, Prof. Aaron Rosen characterizes the work as “a lamentation not only for the forsaken Christ, but others who have felt his acute pain of abandonment.”
Clearly, the work has found an audience at CCC; more than 150 visitors of Syrian descent were present to celebrate and mourn at the official opening in May, and the church will maintain visiting access through the remainder of its long run at CCC over the next year or more. Whether one is a devotee of Christ, the arts, or both, this thoughtful installation is a beautiful opportunity to reflect on art history, human suffering, and personal faith. It is destination all on its own — but is absolutely worth an extra stop for anyone making a pilgrimage to the adjacent Cranbrook Art Museum. Even without any of the wider emotional, political, and philosophical associations, Danaher’s daring introduction of new work into a context and collection that stretches back hundreds of years reminds us that, as Thomas P. Campbell said in his 2012 TED talk, all art was once contemporary.