Mystery plays a major role in my art making, and it gives everyday life an infusion of risk and excitement. Mystery is a sweet, seductive pull, both a promise and a hidden agenda. Mystery feeds imagination, embraces the fear of the unknown and anticipates the triumph of palpable discovery.

It’s a romantic notion, I know, but my preoccupation with mystery stretches all the way back to childhood. We lived across the street from a magnificent cathedral. It was one of three churches in the city that were allowed to stay open in an officially atheist society. Old ladies wrapped in grey wool scarves lingered in the shadows of St. Nicholas’ walls, feeding pigeons and begging or muttering sweet nothings to themselves. Young people were strictly forbidden to be seen in the proximity of this place. I heard rumours that a young couple once had a secret wedding ceremony in this cathedral, but a mystery source ratted them out and they were both kicked out of university following a brutal public shaming campaign.

This was the view out of my window
St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral,
St. Petersburg

As a fairly independent 9-year-old, clearly, I was very curious about this place. Why was it out of bounds? So, one evening, under the cover of descending darkness, I sneaked through the giant wooden doors, and found myself in an expansive space, partially obscured with perfumed smoke and filled with a myriad of flickering candles. My heart still pumping from fear, when my eyes gradually adjusted to the dim lighting, I found myself surrounded by beautifully painted images. I saw winged figures, distant and alluring and melancholic faces, encrusted in tarnished gold and silver. Although I had been to museums, I had never seen icons before, and certainly have never experienced a space so powerfully mysterious and humbling.

I did not get much time to admire the art or my own act of courage in breaking the taboo to discover this amazing place. My presence began attracting accusatory gazes from the few old ladies, shuffling around like ghosts, putting out dying candles. I sensed that I should retreat to avoid being questioned, and then… I saw, what had to have been the real true reason why I should not have ventured into this place. At the front left corner of the church, there was what looked like a table with white tablecloth draped over it. On top was a body of a person, covered in a white shroud, hands folded on the chest, the almost translucent profile chiselled starkly in a way that was immediately recognizable, even to my young mind, as a hand of Death. Needless to say, this was the first time I saw a dead person, and it was a pretty blatant clue that I should get out immediately. I spun on my heels and ran, all the way home, barely breathing from fear, excitement and the new awareness of having a secret that I knew must be firmly guarded.

Perhaps as a result of this symbolic episode, I get profoundly enchanted when visiting sites of worship, where rituals retain the mystery of life and death. Since the Enlightenment established reason as a catalyst of human progress, we have worked hard to demystify the world, explain and justify its workings, and banish the fear of unknown from our existence.

Paradoxically, it is mystery that fuels curiosity. What is in plain sight is less likely to stir a powerful urge to explore, than what is hidden just behind the curtain, the veil, the edge of certainty. Perhaps, attraction to mystery is an individual preference. To be sure, I am not espousing the virtues of Dark Ages, when everything surrounding a human being was infused with metaphysical powers and mythical significance (although, it does seem wickedly exciting to have such a highly animated universe comprising and affecting human psyche).

I suppose, such backward ideas should be relegated to the realm of art, which is where we may indulge our fantasies without fear. As a true believer in the power of art to illuminate the path of human progress, I am merely attempting to shed light on the role of Mystery.

One Comment

  1. Mystery is such an interesting thing to explore with art. I can see the role it plays in yours. That must’ve been quite an experience as a 9 year old. Why was religion such a taboo? Is it still?

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