A New Sacred Space: Michael Somoroff’s Illumination I by Donald Kuspit

I think the answer is that Illumination I is ultimately more spiritually convincing and successful—more cosmic in import—than the Abbot Church of St. Denis or any Gothic church, including those that seem more window than stone, and thus more luminous.  Its ascending curves have a sweeping quality, evocative of what Roger Fry calls cosmic feeling—and also a certain resemblance to Gaudi’s cavern-like catenary curves, which Somoroff’s curves seem to distill (the two apex arches are also homages to Gaudi(12))--that no Gothic curve can match, and that the rectangular Gothic church as a whole lacks.  It represents the God-given cosmos, but it is not inherently cosmic:  however high it soars—however much it pushes its geometrical envelope (which is one of the functions of the radiating chapels in St. Denis)--the Gothic church is never unequivocally open to the Beyond, never completely embraces the Beyond.  In contrast, Illumination I is an open passage to the luminous Beyond, which fills its interior, also a grandly open space.  Unlike the Gothic portals, with their huge doors, and the Gothic interior, with its aisles and prayer benches, no doors mark the entrance to Illumination I, and there are no aisles and prayer benches to clutter its interior.  The spectator can move freely in its interior space, immersing himself or herself in its openness—its Beyondness.  It is only in the openness of the Beyond that the sacred becomes real:  the Beyond is its home, and it is the Beyond.  Illumination I is in effect a temple dedicated to the Beyond—a romantic temple, however “classic” its geometry.  If “the sacred is pre-eminently the real, at once power, efficacity, the source of life and fecundity,” as Eliade writes,(13) then the sacred becomes real in the luminous interior of Illumination I, rather than simply suggested, as it is by the light that illuminates the interior of the Gothic church. Illumination I is total light—a  grotto made of pure light and permeated with the glorious light of the Beyond—while the Gothic church is always in half light, however radiant the light in it, at least at certain passing times during the day.

We all wish, however unconsciously, “to be freed from the binding necessities of our actual existence,” Fry writes,(14) and the wish is both signaled and satisfied by “certain feelings which appear to have a high intrinsic value [but] get almost no stimulus in actual life.  For instance, those feelings to which the name of cosmic emotion has been somewhat unhappily given find almost no place in life, but, since they seem to belong to certain very deep springs of our nature, do become of great importance in the arts.”  For Fry art is the one place these deep feelings are allowed and possible in actual life; art that stimulates cosmic emotion acquires the high intrinsic value it has.  Fry connects cosmic emotion with “heightened power of perception,” issuing in an experience of “supersensual” beauty.  It is mystical (“supernatural”) in all but name, that is, the transcendental beauty that informs the cosmos as a whole.

Fry’s cosmic emotion is clearly akin to “oceanic feeling...a sensation of the infinite, unbounded, limitless—a subjective fact that was the basis for religious belief and conviction.&amp.”(17)  While the yearning “for transcendence of the ordinary human condition and its limits...derives from forms of grandiose fantasy,” and thus is infantile in origin, it issues in “a sense of wholeness”(18) that is inseparable from maturity.  Cosmic, oceanic, mystical, or transcendental experience is the difficult, paradoxical final step in the development of the self.  One may begin with “a feeling of something just out of grasp, a sense of something still to be apprehended, a revelation and a light just beyond reach,”(19) but one ends with “the discovery of a new dimension of self-consciousness,”(20) which brings with it the heightened power of perception that Fry speaks of.  The heightened power derives from the “free and unimpeded interplay of imagination and understanding.”(21)

                   Wire frame for Illumination I

Without that interplay, indicative of their integration, and thus psychic wholeness, one cannot actively perceive sacred and universal truths, engaging them with one’s whole being, so that one becomes a kind of participant observer in their sacredness and universality, gaining insight into their core existential meaning, and with that the realization that they are not as vague and remote as they appear to be when passively articulated in philosophical consciousness.  One is able to give them fresh symbolic form, making them emotionally real for others.

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Per Contra Winter 2006-2007