Blog: MCA DNA

The 1,000-Year Selfie

By Matti Allison

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The Manciple: pilgrim from Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

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I’ve developed quite a reputation among my colleagues at the MCA—somehow, they all seem to know I love medieval art. It’s become a sort of secret handshake: a furtive discussion of French Romanesque architecture next to the photocopy machine, the librarian passing me a discarded book on medieval Italian painters, and a plethora of forwarded memes featuring bizarre creatures from the age of illuminated manuscripts. It’s entirely true—I adore medieval art—but I just love art in general (maybe not those boring 19th-century landscape paintings with cows, but pretty much everything else). The thing is, loving both medieval and contemporary art is not necessarily a contradiction. Lately I’ve been thinking about medieval pilgrimage culture and how it relates to the way we interact with contemporary art.

A key to understanding medieval culture is recognizing the importance of the pilgrimage. Pilgrimages were enormously popular during medieval times. People traveled at great personal expense and danger to see the relics of saints, which were housed inside churches. As the popularity of the pilgrimage increased, church architecture developed alongside it, with the construction of spectacular buildings decorated with lavish sculptural detail. The most common pilgrimages were to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the shrine of Thomas Becket in Canterbury, England, and the Camino routes to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

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At the cathedral of Santiago de Compostella after finally completing the Camino pilgrimage. (The Manciple from Canterbury Tales wishes his blue poncho was half as sexy as mine)

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These days when we think of a long trip, we imagine a 10-hour flight in coach where we’re rubbing arms with a sweaty man next to a screaming baby in desperate need of a diaper change. In the middle ages, a pilgrimage took years. Years of walking or riding a donkey, exposed to bandits and every sort of weather. (I really want to know where these pilgrims ate, slept, and went to the bathroom, don’t you?) People became ill and even died taking pilgrimages. So why take the time and the risk? Those relics I mentioned earlier—they had an intense mystical power. Being up close and personal with those relics transported dusty, foot-sore travelers to a state of divine communication with the honored saint, who had the power to advocate for the pilgrim in their next life and facilitate their transformation into spiritually eternal beings.

While I’m not suggesting that present-day tourists are visiting contemporary art museums to commune with saints, there are intriguing similarities. Just as church architecture flourished along with pilgrimage culture, many contemporary museums have developed into tourist-magnet spectacles of architecture (I’m looking at you, Guggenheim museums). These museums are decked out with site-specific art from the inside out: from plaza projects, to fountains, to text-covered stairways, to time-art pieces, to installations made to fill a gigantic hall. Since the scale and unusual materials used in contemporary art must be experienced in person to be properly understood, people flock to these museums. And what do contemporary art pilgrims do when they encounter art at a museum? They take a selfie, of course! They tag themselves at the museum on Facebook; they tweet and Instagram the bajeebus out of it. The real-life, present-tense art experience becomes a metaphysical internet event. It’s the 21st-century version of divine metamorphosis, and I think medieval pilgrims would totally get it. I mean, had #ItouchedthestatueofstjamesandnowImgoingtoheaven been around in the year 1200, people would have been all over it.

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Selfie in Kris Martin’s T.Y.F.F.S.H., 2011. Hot air balloon, basket, metal ring, and fans. Dimensions variable. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, gift of Mary and Earle Ludgin by exchange, 2011.43 © 2011 Kris Martin

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Don’t take my word for it though—come to the MCA and experience our unusual exhibitions in person. Take a selfie in the Kris Martin hot air balloon. Tag yourself in The Freedom Principle. Transport your art encounter into the divine continuum of the internet. And if you have a special interest in Romanesque church carvings, stop by the Box Office on the first floor and we’ll nerd it out.