As I enter the room, daylight shines through brightly painted windows, casting warm, playful reflections of light on the walls covered with paintings. Four dark wooden pillars divide the space into two rooms. On the floor, the thick, colorfully patterned carpet transforms my heavy steps into muffled noises. I immediately lower my voice and begin to move more slowly as if I had entered an official sacred space and not just another regular part of the Bonnefanten´s exhibition. A hanging sculpture consisting of luminous milk-colored undefinable shapes is hanging from the ceiling, like stalactites absorbing the little daylight that peaks through.
Amongst many paintings on the wall, one especially catches my attention: a man wearing nothing, but a dark top is dancing tightly with a skeleton. Apart from a glimpse of a bare breast, the observer doesn’t get much information about the skeleton’s identity. While their bodies seem to be closely intertwined in a fluid dance-like movement, one still gets the impression that the skeleton is holding the man captive, adding a strong sense of malaise to the scene.
The lower part of the walls is covered in small bright mosaic patterns, creating a small ledge. This small space atop is crammed with small childish ceramic figures of colorful rainbows, big-toothed sharks, and bulky bowls.
In her work “Church 1”, Helen Verhoeven combines traditional techniques and floor plans of sacred spaces, such as the tinted glass windows and the orthodox division of space into a “nave” and a “chancel”, with rather modern dreamy multicolored objects. With her paintings depicting scenes of loss, humiliation, and obscene sexual acts, contrasting the rather naïve sculptures of big-toothed sharks and rainbows, she manages to playfully portray different facets of human existence.
Whilst standing in the room, I can’t help but think about the museum's attendant who, before I entered the space, whispered, “remember, this is a reappropriation of feminine space. You will notice that the only thing missing is a proper coffee table instead of an altar”. While I had politely laughed at his comment before entering the room, I now start to make sense of his words.
By deliberately leaving the space, which traditionally foresaw an elevated altar, empty, Verhoeven implicitly questions traditional hierarchical structures embedded in Christian belief. Instead, the empty space leaves enough room to imagine, as the museum´s attendant rightfully remarked, a small table around which a handful of people might gather to have coffee or tea. Whereas I had always felt like the atmosphere in Christian churches was somewhat cold, gloomy, and burdensome, this space radiates something tender, deeply communal, and spiritual. With her choice of colors and the vivid, childlike little sculptures spread along the ledge, Verhoeven curates a space one can embrace, even if not a member of any religious institution. Although Verhoeven´s chapel is probably anything but what one would consider a “traditional church”, she still created a space of contemplation and silence, much like people had been building and seeking for centuries.
Only later, after having left the exhibition, did I understand what the museum attendant had meant by a “feminine chapel”. This surprising sense of quietness and comfort I had never felt in Christian churches was undoubtedly emanated in Verhoeven´s little dream world. To me, the Christian faith had always been inherently bound to the idea of pain and grief. To be more precise, the aestheticization of suffering by depictions of crucifixions and death scenes had always created a repulsive feeling of discomfort. Verhoeven ́s art unquestionably also depicts raw and obscene scenes of human violence, yet the seemingly natural interplay with warm colors, soft and smooth materials as well as childish objects harmonizes opposites to the effect of a consoling experience. In a unique way, she creates a space illustrating the complexity of the raw human experience. Through complementing the elements of horror with salvation and communion, she breaks the cycle of hegemonic masculine structure and reinvents spirituality in her own way. Only by depicting the different facets of the human experience can we create a space for collective healing that ultimately leads to transcendence.
While writing this article, I stumbled upon the story of the first and only female Pope Joan, who had reigned for two years during the Middle Ages. Much like the destiny of generations of women before and after her - amongst which her namesake Joan d ́Arc - her presence had been completely eradicated from history after her cover as a man had blown up. What I had intuitively felt but could not adequately put into words when experiencing Verhoeven´s artwork was the potential that the feminine concept of spirituality and communion had always held and up to this day, still holds. I was never religious in the classical sense, yet with her revolutionary conception of the church and everything it entails, Verhoeven managed to create a sacred space centered around well-being and communion. Perhaps I had always been more repelled by the masculine invention of religion than by spirituality itself?