SHRINE exhibition :: Why We Make Shrines

Updated: Nov 4, 2021


Shrine- A place regarded as holy because of its associations with a divinity or a sacred person or relic, marked by a building or other construction: A place associated with or containing memorabilia of a particular revered person or thing; A casket containing sacred relics; a reliquary; A niche or enclosure containing a religious statue or other object.”

The Oxford Dictionary


Google the phrase “Why we build shrines” and the results may surprise you. There’s everything from: What is a Shrine to Don’t Build Shrines to How to build a shrine to your favorite celebrity.Humans everywhere have shrines paying tribute to Gods, honoring the dead and remembering life altering events. Art has always been an essential element of this. Think of the beauty of Saint Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal or The National War Memorial in Ottawa.


Some natural spaces are considered sacred. People return to these year after year. In Alberta, there are many Vision Quest sites running from the Crowsnest Pass in the Rockies down to Montana. Sites are often marked with cloth offerings tied to the trees. The most sacred sites are mountain peaks with views of the rising or setting sun. We have many secular shrines as well: The Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, The Whalers Shrine in Jewitt Lake and L’Anse aux Meadowsin Newfoundland where people come each year to visit the Viking remains.

The indie pop singer Robyn Hitchcock once said, “We have a need to be religious, we need to worship, we need to build totems and shrines and icons, but nobody’s sure in honor of what.” Change a few key words and Hitchcock could be speaking of our desire to create—We have a need to be artists, we need to create… In a way aren’t we making something sacred every time we create a piece of art?


In the next months to prepare for our latest exhibition’s theme, there will be several inspirational posts about shrines. This is topic filled with possibility. Think of concepts such as: life passages, birth, motherhood, remembering, healing, political ideals, ethics, anything one feels connected with. Shrines can even be interactive. Tributes to the past, a prayer to the future, even rock stars can have shrines—all over London spontaneous shrines sprung up in honor of David Bowie after his death.


Shrines can also be used as a political catalyst. The Oscar Wilde Templein NYC by artists McDermott & McGough is a shrine to the writer who they view as a gay icon. It is also a tribute to those who have died of AIDS and are still suffering.


Artist Patricia Cronin’s Shrine For Girls is a series of site-specific sculptural installations in different cities around the world reflecting on the global plight of exploited women and girls. Originally conceived for the 2015 Venice Biennale in Venice, Italy, the show continues on an international tour including the United States, India, Ireland and Nigeria.

Throughout history the careful placement of objects have been used to create meanings. Think of the alter in a church or the window dressing of a famous department store. How many visitors to NYC have made the pilgrimage to Tiffany’s or Barney’s.


Like a shrine, art often deals with the unexplainable, the most beautiful and tragic aspects of the human condition. It’s unafraid, it takes on moral dilemmas, birth and death even tragic loss. A visual marker for those aspects of life that cannot be put in words.


In Karen Armstrong’s book, “A Case for God” she writes of Mythos, these are the myths that people used in the past to explain the inexplicable. “Stories about the more difficult aspects of our humanity, about for which there were no easy answers. Like the fact that we are – we get sick, that there are all kinds of questions about suffering and pain that concern us, and for this, people turned to mythos.”Art like spiritual beliefs often provides answers that cannot proven in a rational manner but that are felt deeply. Therefore every time we  make art are we in some sense making a pilgrimage, a journey to the shrine of creation.


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