The facade at Storefront for Art and Architecture on Kenmare Street has been slathered with gold leaf as part of a new exhibit, “Sacred Spaces in Profane Buildings.” Unfortunately none of the pizazz seeps inside. It’s a rich topic for study, since so many religious spaces in the city are hidden within non-religious buildings. The exhibit has books cataloging places of worship throughout the five boroughs. And it has four “Spiritual Devices” designed by Matilde Cassani, beach towel sized platforms on which an individual can perform Buddhist, Islamic, Sikh and Catholic rites. (Were the Protestant and Jewish “Devices” excluded because the religions, and their rituals, are considered less exotic?) But there’s nothing magical, nothing otherworldly about the “Devices.” Maybe the curators wanted to strip religion of its authority. They’ve also succeeded in stripping it of its glamor.
I used to work in an office on Ninth Avenue, close to a Pakistani take-out place that prepared great, greasy curries and also served as a meeting place for South Asian cab drivers. One afternoon I walked in and there was no one standing behind the counter. The chairs and tables had been pulled back and eight men were kneeling forehead-to-ground on prayer mats that had been turned, in two neat rows, to face south. This — the rigor, the silence, and the strange, slender angle the men shaped between true south and Manhattan south — expressed perfectly the distance between the everyday and the godly. Nothing at Storefront comes close.