Over the years, there have been many documentaries of monastic cloisters, life, and silence. Through them we have seen why men and women have been attracted to monasticism, why they have entered communities, and why sometimes they have left them. Br Simon Hòa-Phan’s video installation, Contuitus, however, is not one of those documentaries; rather, it is a work of art that leads us to consider the something more fundamental to monastic life, specifically, its ability to take the ordinary and live it in an extraordinary way.
The title itself, Contuitus, from the Latin verb, contueor, meaning to ponder, contemplate, or survey, gives us a clue to the kind of exhibit attendees will see. Br Simon-Hòa’s installation does not provide any answers, not a single one. He only asks a question, then another, and another. Sometimes he shoots a series of questions in rapid-fire order, and at other times he studies only one drawn out inquiry. Yet, all the time the interrogations are visual; not a word is spoken: Why is that elderly monk standing there among the leaves? Why does that monastic habit fall on top of the young monk over there? Why do we have to walk past a photo of a dead monk projected on the floor? Why do two monks pause on a path to await a third to join them? Why is one monk caressing the crucified Christ, while two others walk away with the altar crucifix?
Then there is the stunning photography incorporating architecture old and new amidst the natural landscape of Saint John’s: Stella Maris Chapel in all seasons, the mist-shrouded Sagatagan, and numerous processions in and out of the Abbey Church. What kind of life is Br Simon-Hòa showing us, and how privileged are we to be invited in to see it?
The installation is not limited to the photography; sound is used sparingly but resolutely. Within the main gallery there are numerous people—mostly monks, students, faculty, and staff of the School of Theology•Seminary—reading from the chapter on hospitality in the Rule of Saint Benedict. It is a constant refrain, in male and female voices, each with their different accents and emphases, “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ…”(53:1). Walk a few steps further, and the plaintive, almost melancholic, sonority of a single cello takes over, and in fact, becomes the dominant tone of the second gallery, if not the whole show. The mellow, baritone tune is most prevalent where photos of the same scene (the southern shore of the Sagatagan) taken from three different angles are fused onto a single screen. Here, Br Simon-Hòa presents one of Saint John’s most beloved views; it is something familiar now displayed as a texture of flora, fauna, water, snow, rain, and sunlight, lots of sunlight.
What makes this installation so captivating is the poetry. The digital photographs, modulated voice-overs, and a hypnotic cello move the viewer into the heart and soul of the vocation. State of the art technology becomes the medium leading us through the Sturm und Drang of 1500 years of monasticism as lived at Saint John’s Abbey today. Br Simon-Hòa has given us a contemplative survey, a contuitus, of the whole ontological fabric of monastic life with its faith, doubt, joys, sorrows, pitfalls, triumphs, beauty, and ugliness. No documentary this. Br Simon-Hòa maintains that monks seek to do ordinary things in an extraordinary way. With his Contuitus, we see the grace necessary to do so.
Contuitus: A View from the Monastery
February 3 – March 14, 2014
Alice R. Rogers Gallery and Target Gallery
Saint John’s University’s Art Center
The clearly defined space and subject matter created in this video installation by CSB/SJU art faculty member Simon-Hòa Phan, OSB, explores his personal reflections about monastic life.
Please note: the SJU Art Center will be
closed from February 28 – March 10, 2014.