I never enjoy writing a blog post for September 11th, but also don't like letting the day pass with saying anything. Happily, our social calendar last night handed me the perfect topic to share today.
Last night Laura and I attended one of the Art Institute of Chicago's occasional "After Dark" nights. This one turned the Modern Wing into an Indian-themed night club of sorts. We arrived early and slipped away from the festivities just in time to catch a preview of a new art installation, Jitish Kallat's "Public Notice 3," about which we knew nothing. We were fortunate enough to be part, I believe, of the first public group to see it, and had unobstructed access that not many viewers will get when it opens today.
"Public Notice 3" is the first work to be installed directly on the Art Institute's Grand Staircase. You get there from the Modern Wing, as we did, by passing through the Alsdorf Galleries. This space used to be crowded with armor and armaments but is now devoted to religious art from India, Southeast Asia, and the Himalayas. Buddhas from different ends of those regions welcome visitors at each end of the gallery. It's hard not to dawdle with all the gods and demiurges on display. But there, through a portal at the opposite end, you can already see the field of varicolored lights framing one last Buddha.
Past that sculpture, you begin to take in "Public Notice 3." Kallat has gained a reputation for recontextualizing historical texts. In this case, the text is the remarks delivered on September 11, 1893, by Swami Vivekananda to open the first World's Parliament of Religions, which took place in this very building in association with the Columbian Expo. Vivekananda offered a stirring plea for tolerance, which Kallat has set flowing up the staircase in 15,000 tiny electric bulbs reminiscent of a Lite-Brite set. The words are rendered in the five colors of the Homeland Security Threat Advisory System.
It's a stunning journey to slowly climb the stairs, immersing yourself in the text, while following the flow of the words to their final elevation on the upper floor. The text is duplicated on every route you can take to the top, illuminating the swami's contention that "the different streams having their sources in different paths which men take through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee."
I wish everyone could experience "Public Notice 3" today, but failing that I wish everyone would take the time read Vivekananda's address in its entirety:
Sisters and Brothers of America,
It fills my heart with joy unspeakable to rise in response to the warm and cordial welcome which you have given us. I thank you in the name of the most ancient order of monks in the world; I thank you in the name of the mother of religions, and I thank you in the name of millions and millions of Hindu people of all classes and sects.
My thanks, also, to some of the speakers on this platform who, referring to the delegates from the Orient, have told you that these men from far-off nations may well claim the honor of bearing to different lands the idea of toleration. I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true. I am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth. I am proud to tell you that we have gathered in our bosom the purest remnant of the Israelites, who came to Southern India and took refuge with us in the very year in which their holy temple was shattered to pieces by Roman tyranny. I am proud to belong to the religion which has sheltered and is still fostering the remnant of the grand Zoroastrian nation. I will quote to you, brethren, a few lines from a hymn which I remember to have repeated from my earliest boyhood, which is every day repeated by millions of human beings: "As the different streams having their sources in different paths which men take through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee."
The present convention, which is one of the most august assemblies ever held, is in itself a vindication, a declaration to the world of the wonderful doctrine preached in the Gita: "Whosoever comes to Me, through whatsoever form, I reach him; all men are struggling through paths which in the end lead to me." Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilization and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now. But their time is come; and I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honor of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal.
"Public Notice 3" has been called "provocative
." But I don't see what's so provocative about an impassioned call for worldwide religious tolerance. Prescient, yes. Provocative, it shouldn't be.