The Path of The Pilgrim
by Caoimhin Mac Giolla Leith

On July 27th Chris Doris climbed to
the summit ofCroagh Patrick. There he spent
forty days and forty nights enduring the
hardships of an inclement environment in
contemplative isolation from both the
comforts and demands of everyday life.
Although the physical severity of the place
precluded the possibility of sustained
meditation, this withdrawal nevertheless
offered the promise of some time and space
for reflection. The precise length of his stay
had an unavoidable resonance within the
tradition of Christian spiritual retreat that
goes back well beyond St. Patrick's legendary
sojourn on the Reek. His action was also
more generally an act of remembrance and
tribute to what Doris refers to as 'all those
individuals from other mystical traditions
who have sought to transform themselves
and the community through spiritual
practice". For in spite of his removal from
society Doris met and interacted on a daily
basis with a multitude of other people. These
were the host of visitors who, for their
various personal reasons, also chose to
detach themselves temporarily from ordinary
life, many of them in the hope of spiritual,
psychological or physical renewal or
transformation. Doris" extended vigil was an
art-work sponsored by Mayo County Council
who had previously appointed him as artist-
in-residence. On the evidence of the
substantial and immediate local support and
the national media coverage alone, seldom
has a publicly commissioned art-work so
effectively captured the attention of the
broader community for whom it was

intended. It was important for Doris as an
artist that his presence on the mnuniiiin be
both protracted and unembellished by any
superfluous symbolism or extranaeous
unnecessarily distracting activity. A fundamental
paradox of this piece of cleanly conceived
"social sculpture ' was that an action whkli
replicated the extremes of early Christian
ascetic withdrawal from community at the
same time brought the artist into close
contact with thousands of pilgrims.

This bond between the individual and the
collective is crucially important to Doris, who
is best known as a painter. He has over the
years been unusually successful in
insinuating the fruits of that typically private
pursuit into the public domain. As early as
1986, before he ever exhibited his work in
the formal setting of an art gallery, Doris
caught the attention of the Dublin citizenry
by posting a series of 800 hand-painted
heads on various public sites throughout the
city. On that occasion the artist's avowed
purpose in exposing the public to these fierce
depiction of seemingly tormented souls was
to make "an assertion of physical pain in the
context of the street, (and in the context) of
advertising's denial of pain and insistence on
happiness.' These days his views of the power
of painting is not so much a matter of
bending the resources of expressionist
figuration to the purpose of strident social
protest. What is most radical and liberating
about the actual process of painting in Doris"
current view of his vocation is that it
establishes an ideal context in which it is
possible to be "fully present". The words

'presence', "connectedness" and "interdependence"
crop up again and again in his rumination on
his life and work, both as an artist and as a
practitioner and preceptor of the Sahaj Marg
system of spiritual training. Sahaj Marg,
which may be translated as 'Natural Path" or
'Simple Way", is usually presented as a
refinement of Raja Yoga, and has been
described as "a practical method designed to
give,the direct experience of realisation, right
here, right now, in the midst of our daily
situations'. As an artist his conviction is that
the constant striving after 'real presence' in
the privacy of his studio practice will, through
the power of personal transformation,
ultimately have an equally transformative
effect on the collectivity of which he is an
inalienable part. This conviction is perfectly
reflected both in his action on Croagh Patrick
and in the tangible results of his sojourn there.

The latter include, most importantly, a
'visitors book' containing the signatures of
several thousand pilgrims who made the
ascent to the summit of the mountain during
the course of artist's stay there, and a suite of
paintings on paper which Doris refers to as
'The Pilgrim Series'. These works are
complementary in that they both present the
viewer with traces of a procession of
individuals: traces which, in their very
different ways, also reflect the physical
contexts in which the artist encountered
these individuals.

^ signature is of course, under ideal
conditions, a unique and invariable index of
the presence at some point in the past of the

a given surface. It is conventionally assumed
that a signature can also be an oblique
indicator of personality. What Doris found is
that certain physical circumstances, in
particular the ever-changing weather
conditions on the summit of Croagh Patrick,
seem also to affect in a more general manner
the way people signed their names. His six-
week log thus turned out to be not merely a
record of a stream of discrete individuals but
the story of the interaction of groups of
people under a common sky, the nature of
their otherwise unique marks changing
collectively depending on whether they
happened to sign in rain-beaten or wind-
blown haste or at their leisure under a
benignly beaming sun.

In a similar manner the suite of works on
paper represents both a response to the
artist's encounters with a number of
individual pilgrims and a reflection of certain
elements common to their shared pilgrimage.
In conversation Doris speaks warmly of
various specific encounters: with a Navajo
mystic who likened the Reek pilgrimage to
Native American spiritual quests for
enlightenment through withdrawal of their
sacred mountains, with two' returned
missionaries from Kenya who discussed with
the artist various African parallels to his
retreat, and with an assortment of spiritual
pilgrims, tourists and local athletes. All of
these were memorable for different reasons.
As well as producing an amount of
photographic documentation of the
immediate environment of Croagh Patrick
Doris made a series of photographic portraits
of individual pilgrims. In conversation he
specific person who made his or her mark on

also refers to each of the graphic works in
the 'Pilgrim Series' by name in a way that
clearly indicates the specific person whose
'portrait' they are in essence, e.g. The Navajo
Pilgrim", 'The Sufi Pilgrim' and so forth. Yet
he has chosen in the end not to title these
works, not to designate them publicly in this
way. For to do so might be to block
unnecessarily too many other interpretative
paths available to the attentive and open-
minded viewer of these works. For they are,
after all, works which have been abstracted
considerably from the specific encounters
that inspired them. This decision also
facilitates a recognition on the viewer's part
of the fundamental link between the
particular and the universal, the private and
the public, the individual and the communal
which, as already noted, is an enduring
concern in Doris' artistic and spiritual
practice.

While all of the graphic works are unique
they are all painted on sheets of paper that
measure eighty inches by thirty inches. Most
are executed in Indian ink, though some of
them are made in water-colour and pastel.
They all share a common format of two thick
vertical lines, placed at some distance from
each other and from the sides of the paper,
which run from the top to the bottom of a
painting surface that is otherwise left blank.
These lines vary considerably, especially as to
colour, surface texture and the presence or
absence of various superimposed quasi-
calligraphic marks. Yet their fundamental
compositional structure recalls the basic
Structure of the Croagh Patrick pilgrimage,
the endless pattern of ascent and descent.

Or, more precisely, the recurrent pattern of
ascent and decent as perceived from a
vantage point which we might imagine as in
some way outside or above or beyond the
wearying exigencies and practical details of
the individual JouniL'y. These graphic works
also reflect the constant diiingrs of weather
and light throughout the period during
which they were produced. The general sense
of airiness, openness and calm which they
exude would appear tu confirm Doris' revised
perception of the Reek at the end his time
there. His initial concern that the summit
would be 'a dour and penitential place"
turned out to be unfounded. It was, rather,
as he puts it, "a light and joyful place" where
ordinary people felt a sense of genuine
accomplishment having made the relatively
arduous ascent, and where the palpable sense
of general release suggested that a certain
amount of emotional and psychological
baggage had been shed along the way and
along the pilgrims' more manifestly physical
encumbrances. Chris Doris' patient and
committed planning and execution of his
"sculptural action' and the elaboration of its
various subsequent manifestations combine
to offer us a view of one way in which the
artist's dream of the radical transformation
of community through individual spiritual
transformation might indeed become a reality.

Caomhin Mac Giolla Leith