Ma and the Space In Between


Visitors to the Shaker community at Sabbathday Lake often stop to photograph the quiet view of trees, hills, and sky, framed by the Boys' Shop and the Spin House. Wolfgang Tillmans, one of the artists who participated in the project, did as well, but his vision questions our perception of this ambiguously empty space. What is the photograph of, if not infinite space divided and bounded by the presence of finite buildings? The harmonious Shaker way of life at Sabbathday Lake, however, treats that space and time between buildings in a landscape, between events of the day, and between people in a community, as part of a continuum that is more significant than its individual elements. The Japanese word ma connotes this space between, this interval of fullness and harmony, although it is a concept with endlessly subtle associations. It seems an appropriate metaphor, however, to conceive of The Quiet in the Land, a collaboration between artists and Shakers. The distance between Shakers and artists, and between individuals as well, was filled by a spirit of respectful collaboration that pervaded everything from barn chores, communal prayers, and oval box making, to shared meals. There was, however, a shared acknowledgment of how expansive that distance really was. The point was not to make Shakers out of artists, and artists out of Shakers, especially as the participants grappled more and more with the definitions of those very roles. The hope was to explore the confluence between spirituality and art in everyday life, without using the language of one to describe the other.

Some of the artists faced the predicament of having a brief, touristic view of the Shakers' spiritual lives, and of imposing their own generalizing visions onto a complex group of Believers with diverse personalities, ages, and backgrounds. As Brother Alistair Bate stated, the groups had a "shared humanity," but their ideological differences remained immense. The full space of understanding, then, was also necessarily a gap between them. But even with this gap, there was a mutual recognition of the similarities between the rather utopian choices of artists and Shakers. Brother Wayne Smith observed, "You have art, we have prayer"—two very different means by which both communities struggle to realize their thoughts and convictions, and two methods driving both groups along unconventional life paths.