L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley
Religion and art seem equally good at revealing people’s vulnerabilities, which is perhaps why the sacred often works so well as a subject for artists.
A month ago, I attended mass and was struck by how devout the acolyte looked, holding his brass candle-lighter and wearing his white robe. Then, following the service, I saw the same boy sans uniform, dressed in baggy jeans and impishly chasing girls through the parking lot. I did some cursory research after that, looking into how preteens came to be the church’s honorary lighters and snuffers of altar candles.
What I discovered wasn’t quite what I was looking for: the story of St. Tarcisius.
Tarcisius died at age 12, the victim of bad timing, bad laws, and misdirected passion. An acolyte in the early church, Tarcisius job probably didn’t differ much from today’s acolytes and altar boys: lighting candles, holding bibles, sitting and standing at the right times.
His problems began when a deacon came up missing (I don’t know whether said deacon fell victim to Roman centurions, or a common cold). No one could take the sacrament to the elderly and ill Christians, so Tarcisius hid the holy bread and wine under his coat– at this point, Christianity was against the law–and went out.
There’s some controversy over what happened next. Some say Tarcisius met two hostile Roman guards. Others say he met a group of boys, non-Christians his own age, some of them former playmates. I’m partial to this second version. In it, the boys asked Tarcisius to join their game (try as I might, I can’t picture them playing anything other than basketball), but he said “no,” maybe with a little too much self-importance (after all, he had Christ’s body and blood under his cloak). Feeling slighted, the boys began to tease Tarcius, asking what he was hiding. Feeling bold and maybe even a little holier-than-thou, Tarcisius became stoically obstinate, like Joan of Arc joined with a little Paul Newman from Cool Hand Luke. One boy let slip that Tarcisius was Christian, unleashing a brutality that surprised Tarcisius’ assailants as much as it surprised him.
I thought of Tarcisius while at the Santa Monica Museum of Art (SMMOA) this weekend, watching Nira Pereg’s video Sabbath. While not at all about child brutality or premature martyrdom, Sabbath is about the self-importance that comes from having sacred responsibilities (or responsibilities somehow tied to something sacred) and it gives a pitch-perfect portrait of the sincerest kind of confidence, the kind that belongs only to those who believe in what they’re doing.
Set in orthodox Jerusalem neighborhoods, Pereg’s video depicts the ritualistic closing off of roads and thoroughfares in anticipation of the day of rest. Wobbly gates are dragged across streets, primarily by young men, and the grating of the metal upon the pavement is often the only sound. The video has the crisp, non-nonsense feel of a documentary.
In one scene, a teenager who has just positioned a final, unwieldy barrier across a relatively wide road urgently waves both hands, warning an approaching vehicle to stop; it won’t be let through. In another scene, a younger boy gets distracted mid-job and cluelessly stands in a merge lane until the honk of an oncoming car brings him back to attention.
The ritual of road-blocking seems like a rite of passage, and an empowering one. It makes you wonder if that endearing, confidence the young people in Sabbath display (there are older figures in Pereg’s work, too, but the young ones commanded most of my interest) could spill over into the other areas of their lives without coming off as self-righteous. But it also makes you painfully aware of the fact that road blocks can keep confidence contained.