David T. Hanson’s photography collection The Cloud of Unknowing takes its viewers into the mystical space between seeing and believing. Hanson’s photographs, which include holy spaces from both Eastern and Western religious cultures, lead viewers on a visual quest to encounter “sanctuary,” reminding us of the bright, empty mystery that remains at the heart of our lives.
Some may see this new work as a departure from Hanson’s earlier collections, Waste Land and Wilderness to Waste Land, both of which depicted environmental ruin. But Hanson explains in his preface to the photographs that his turn of the lens came out of a deepening desire to make representations of “good art: products of human work done with both imagination and affection.”
The images Hanson has selected for this collection bring with them a sense of quiet. They are rich with the colors of dyed tapestries and triptychs. He offers New Age, Native American, Muslim, Jewish, Jain, Hindu, and Sikh sites of worship for our consideration, inviting us to question what it means to approach something that is deemed holy. The wide, somehow harrowing depth of field reveals a level of detail that lapses into shadow and the slightest of contrasts, natural echoes of the ebb and flow of light. The photos are stunning, but more than that, they resonate with the energy of necessity, a contrast to a burning Amazon rainforest and a society that feels to be, in many ways, on fire. Hanson brings us into spaces where our spirits can attempt to make peace with the rot that begins inside of us, and the decay that will overtake us all.
The Cloud of Unknowing project started as an ironic examination of how religious symbols and icons can oftentimes signify the differences between ideals and practices in contemporary religion. But as Hanson continued capturing images of sanctuaries and shrines, his motivation evolved. “Over time,” he writes, “my portrayal of these sites became less distanced and ironic and more sympathetic and deeply personal.” The more effort he dedicated to the documentation of belief, the more interested he became in its importance.
“Each of these shrines becomes a meeting place for the temporal and the eternal,” Hanson writes. “Resting places for the spirit, these spaces become beautiful, carefully crafted metaphors for many aspects of human experience. They embody the origins of art within human culture and demonstrate the vast chasm that separates most contemporary art practices from earlier theories and practices of art.”
The book takes its title from writings of the same name by an anonymous 14th-century mystic who emphasized that God could best be accessed through the discipline of silence in a practice known as contemplative prayer. The mystic’s writings clearly imply that only a naked and unrelenting desire and a sunken awareness of self could arm our souls with what we need to achieve closer communion with God while on earth. Reading the original Cloud of Unknowing informs the work on display in Hanson’s volume, as both the mystical teachings and Hanson’s images of sanctuary put an emphasis on experience over knowledge.
When what we can see merges with what is intangible, we are beginning to enter into what could be a mystical experience.
But why flip through a book full of images of religious sites, some of which seem to be in direct conflict with my own beliefs? Why should I learn about the worship of gods that are not my own?
These questions may seem a shallow critique of a stunning body of work, but they may be part of Hanson’s intention. To experience spiritual beauty to its fullest, we must be unafraid of what forms that beauty can take. The foreign and the familiar, when they are bound together, tell a story that is as curved and complicated as the journeys of our continents; a narrative of landmasses broken apart like bread, a history of chance that seems to have been expertly orchestrated.
“These spaces become beautiful, carefully crafted metaphors for many aspects of human experience. They embody the origins of art within human culture and demonstrate the vast chasm that separates most contemporary art practices from earlier theories and practices of art.”
“Whatever or whomever we call God cannot be known by names, ideas, or theologies but by putting all this clutter under what the author calls ‘the cloud of forgetting,’ and standing before the holy simply with eyes of devotion,” writes Diana Eck in a brief essay that grounds Hanson’s images in conversation with each other. We can choose to encounter what we see in Hanson’s photos with wonder, asking “What is this place?” But it isn’t long before we realize that the true place we are asking about is the naked and invisible space that our souls occupy, a sanctuary that could be useless or transformed or filled with weeping or crammed with junk.
All of us house a sanctuary that is just like, and still unlike, any other—an altar we can fall upon or ignore. As Eck concludes, “To be human is, in the deepest sense, to create an altar where we place what we value, to which we bring what we sacrifice, to which we repair for sustenance and for vision.”
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Kathryn Watson
Kathryn Watson is a New York-based writer covering culture. You can read more of her work in LitHub and Hyperallergic. Follow her on Twitter: @whatKathrynsaid