Historical and Artistic Context:
The following will try to give some more historical and artistic context to the piece I will be creating. I will be continually updating this post as I find further relevant artists and information dealing with similar topics as I.
As the name implies, votive candles are essentially offerings made with the intention of some sort of spiritual return. Votives are common across many cultures and religious practices and take many different forms from swords and spearheads in Bronze Age Europe to precious metal and sculptures in Ancient Greece. In regards to the votive candle, specifically in the Christian community, is still in use today and probably the most recognizable (and accepted) form of votive offering in western culture.
The idea of ‘light’ (and in effect use of candles) is a very important signifier in Christianity as it is often used to signify the presence of God. This idea of ‘divine presence’ embodied by light and candles can also be found in Judaism and Roman Pagan religions which from Christians probably adapted it from. This communion with light and flame is even more pronounced within the Catholic religion because of its strong ties with Christ himself, often being synonymous with and not limited to his faith, truth, wisdom, virtue, and grace.
Moving back to its current usage, votive candles generally symbolize a prayer offered in the light of God as well as a desire to remain present to the lord in prayer even after we vacate the physical space. Some even go as far as to note a deeper metaphor toward Christ; beeswax symbolizing his purity, the wick his human soul, and the light his divinity.
In some Catholic churches, there are small votive candle alters where one can light a candle in prayer for another person. In some churches a donation is a mandatory exchange for the candle, but in light of newer ‘electric’ votive candle stands, this donation switches from defraying the candle cost to something else. Does the continual inclusion of the donation box despite lack of candle cost imply that God demands monetary exchange for answering prayers? Also, with the ‘electric’ candles, is the sacrifice aspect of the votive still apparent? Or does it just up the energy bill?
Christian Boltanski’s Monument: Children of Dijon is a piece that is set heavily in a religious context and shares a few of the same elements that I foresee being part my piece. Its exhibitions not limited to inside Chapelle de la Salpetriere, Paris 1986 and Palazzo delle Prigion, Venice 1986, the piece usually consists of small, framed portraits of children arranged about the walls of the installation space/church. Each picture is lit independently by at least three small lights whose wires are left uncovered and sprawling across the wall in an almost grid like arrangement. Even when not installed inside a church, the warm candle-like glow each light emits and their arrangement gives the piece a successful religious tone and turns each lit picture frame almost into a votive or vigil for those forgotten.
While not directly using votive candles in his piece, Boltanski is still able to tap into their power and connotation by his expert arrangement and color scheme of each light. This I feel is particularly powerful when the exhibit is present in a chapel. If Boltanski used actual candles (or even electric ones) the viewer might have mistaken parts of the piece for the actual church and vice versa. Being able to see the bare bulbs and wires connecting each help define the experience while their triptych-like arrangement and color tone expertly merge it into the religious context.
In regards to my piece, I plan on ‘carrying’ the church with me. That is to say, my piece would be different from Boltanski’s use of the church context by re-locating something commonly found in a church rather than locating my piece in a church. By using (or building) a real votive candle stand, I hope to create an immediate reaction from the viewer when seen in combination with the coin slot, instructions, batteries, and telescope. Finally, Boltanski’s lit portraits form a more passive relationship with the viewers than the votive candles in mine. The passive relationship for his piece works because it only compounds a vigil’s passive nature, to stand watch or remember rather than seek spiritual favor (such as in a votive). My piece will also reinforce its relationship to the viewer by requiring user interaction/sacrifice in order to keep the piece running (or gain spiritual favor).
With the inclusion of ‘coin operation’ to my piece, a little background into vending machines and amusement arcades is necessary. The first vending machine was of religious purpose and dispensed holy water to those who entered coin. Its creator was the so called ‘Hero of Alexandria’, a first century mathematician and engineer living in Alexandria, Roman Egypt. Ahead of his time, the next machines of note did not crop up until 19th century. In the 1880s, coin-operated post-card dispensers could be found in London, and a few years later in 1888, the Thomas Adams Gum Company installed gum vending machines on New York City train platforms. Also of note was the addition of small moving figures to Pulver Manufacturing Company’s vending machines in 1897 which opened up the possibility of coin operated amusements and the advent of the penny arcades of the 1900s.
Penny arcades were essentially venues for entertainment focused coin-operated machines, such as early pinball and fortune-telling devices of the 1930’s. These soon evolved to include other curiosities such as peep shows, slot machines, and love testers but ultimately gave way to arcade games by the 1950’s. Even though short lived, the penny arcade seemed to foster an interesting movement, dividing the world of coin-operated machines into two major trades, one of vending and the other of entraining.
Along the lines of coin operated machines, Trimpin, a Seattle-based composer and artist, created a piece named Klompen in which a key element was coin operation. While it would not exactly fit within a penny arcade, it definitely plays with elements of coin-operation and special experience only gained by such usage. On its own, it said to be an interesting sculpture in its own right (composed of 120 hanging wooden clogs) but the experience is completed when a quarter is inserted into a nearby machine and wooden mallets housed in each clog unleash their motions.
Similar to Trimpin’s piece, I hope mine to be as similarly, sculpturally interesting and enticing even prior to coin being inserted. With the combination of the fluttering electric candles, instruction panel, batteries, and telescope it will already be a small wonder to behold without specific interaction. However, my piece will probably look and feel more along the lines of a penny arcade fortune teller in comparison to Trimpin’s piece. Klompen (a bunch of hanging clogs) is more spread out with numerous separate and seemingly unconnected parts, while mine will be more or less all contained to one unit. Personally, I find Trimpin’s set up effective for his specific piece, for only when a coin is inserted does the relationship between all the clogs materialize through the collective rhythms they pound out. As for mine, I would really like to push the ‘penny arcade’ connotation by making it one discrete unit.
One artist who often deals with extreme scale in his work, from microscopic symphonies to beaming information into outer space, is Joe Davis. While not a direct influence to my piece, his work does fundamentally share ideas of ‘looking up’ and referencing the great expanse of space. Despite such lofty contexts and actions, Davis usually finds a way to root his pieces in the human condition by asking questions like “How do the specific ways we project ourselves into space generate more information about ourselves rather than what we are looking at?”. For example, in his piece, Poetica Vaginal, Davis attempts to counter the ‘perfect’ human images (no body hair and women with no external genitilia) sent out with the Pioneer space probes by transmitting vaginal contractions to two nearby star systems.
While not directly related, my system will attempt to light the votive candles by batteries charged off of star-light via telescope. Similar to Davis, I am not necessarily interested in what the telescope itself will see, or the scientific usability of the ‘star’ energy, but rather the relationship it generates with the viewers of my piece. Does the origin of the energy affect the value of the prayer? Or does the amount of money inserted into the machine?