Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Prayer Requested (Christian Northeast)

Northeast has been getting some flack for the apparent vacuousness of his art exercise, Prayer Requested, in which he found inspiration for a book of illustration by looking for prayers published on the internet. It's hard to deny Northeast's technical ability and visual, interpretive imagination, but what seems to be in question is the worthiness of his attempt, which I think some are guessing is just a simple hook to ensnare the religious-minded and the gimmicky.

Part of the problem is that the book's text is muddled and unprofessional, embarrassing in its syntax, and sometimes deeply, ugly private. These aren't the voices of poets or professional writers: they're people. Just people. And what motivates someone to post a prayer on the internet? Is the hope that someone will notice? Is it the belief that inside electric cables and LCD screens and html is some uplink to a higher power?

Why doesn't Northeast include some idea of the religious background of each writer to lend a context, a hint, a clue? To answer my own question, perhaps it's to whitewash spirituality of religion. Save for a few "God"s here and there.
Northeast's visual skill clashes with the poor writing to such a degree that the mind has a hard time reconciling why someone with such prowess would waste time on such a fast-paced book, and, cynically, leads one to believe that it's pure capitalism. But I think there's something deeper at work here.

What Northeast is showing us with these segmented mini-stories is that spirituality has no boundaries; you can't judge one person's spirituality without judging all spirituality. He's stripping the prayers of their identities and offering them new ones. What's especially interesting is how what any of the people in the book are asking for is something anyone might ask for, except for the religiously disinclined the direction of the desire is sent inward instead of outward. But the yearning is the same.

The growing atheist population in the world may be distancing itself from the religious population for reasons of guilt and improved intelligence and greater communication access, but we may find ourselves looking back some day far in the future and realizing that embarrassing though it may seem, our religious counterparts were a natural and necessary part of our development, worthy of understanding and compassion. And maybe they're not too different from ourselves and our own convictions.

If Prayer Requested has a fault it's in the pacing. The books skirts by, succinct but rushed, no words wasted but no words particularly grabbing in and of themselves. Northeast's often off-symmetrical design sense doesn't take long for the eye to compute, and not a lot of symbolism or cleverness sustains the reader's interest toward dissecting the visual treats.

An unusual book from the ordinarily very literary Drawn and Quarterly.

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