“At the completion of your prayer please return the kneeler to its upright position,” states the operating instruction within the familiar blue public telephone converted to “Prayer Booth” by Kansas artist and pastor Dylan Mortimer, now on display at Trifecta gallery.
The white contours of telephone receivers are replaced by a prayer-hands graphics and any message a participant wishes can be sent sans the requisite quarter. In addition to Trifecta, the “Prayer Booth” has been recently been installed in public park areas in Chicago and New York.
“Reactions (to ‘Prayer Booth’) have been all over the board,” Mortimer says. “Usually people like it, a lot people using it jokingly, some use it sincerely…and then a lot of people hate it, and vandalize it; I’ve had death threats.”
In a country where one of the founding precepts is freedom of religion, the interpretation as to how and where that privilege is used in the public domain is a hotly contested issue. While not necessarily resolving the issue for those clamoring for legislated sanctions for religious acts, the non-denominational “Prayer Booth” functions more as permission. A given individual may be praying in public and nearby bystanders, more than likely, would be unaware that a private conversation is transpiring. Set up for one user at a time, the booth reminds us those murmurs of the soul are a one-on-one conversation between the individual and their beliefs, and encourages that dialogue while at the same time not forcing others to participate in the exchange.
Certainly a designated station is not needed to pray; it can be looked at as a reminder that any person of any faith can send up a spiritual flare whenever they need to. Believers in the Bible might point to verses that encourage private prayer: Rather than “standing in the synagogues and on the street corners…seen by others; when you pray go into your room, close the door.” However, rather than the appearance of pride, the kneeling with hands folded position assumed in the booth takes on an aspect of humility (something in short supply as we’re overrun with the self-centered fixation of social media self-promotion).
The gesture of humility also touches upon what might be seen as the core impulse of prayer, which is a search for answers.
Lining the walls and boldly contrasting with the humble “Prayer Booth” are hugely oversized gold hip-hop gangster-esque medallions sporting blingy phrases such as: “Amen Bitch,” “Love your gawd damn enemies!” and “I’ve learned how to be cool no matter what the fuck happens.” Taking note of Philippians 4:11 cited at the end of one of phrases, and viewers receive an important clue that the statements are biblical paraphrases.
“The New Testament in Greek is Koine Greek, kind of like a street version of Greek,” Mortimer explains. “The point being, let’s get this out in a way everybody understands. So I started to think about that with spiritual phrases and scriptural sayings. If I heard them at a bus stop, how would that sound? Probably wouldn’t sound like the ‘the Lord is my shepherd I shall not be in want,’ but might sound like ‘God hooks my ass up.’”
However, reading them as urbanized laymen translations of religious content doesn’t eliminate the commentary on material possession. Phrases such as “Ble$$ed” refer equally well to spiritual or material wealth, leaving the message open to the interpretation.
Ringed with sharp points and edges suggesting that wearing them might actually slice the wearer, the medallions are as sharp as the double-edge of their message. Rather than forcing a specific message, the satirical profanation of the sacred in the medallions, and the humorous mixture of a phone booth with prayer, Mortimer’s works provide instant access points to deeply philosophical and personal questions.
Through November. Trifecta Gallery, 107 E. Charleston #135, www.trifectagallery.com.