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The prayer booth: an artist’s “exhibit” of faith

Dylan Mortimer’s installations in three US cities invite the public to participate in making belief less abstract.

By Correspondent / November 25, 2008

Fully equipped: The prayer booth at 60th Street and 2nd Avenue in Manhattan this fall had a pulldown kneeler.

Anne Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor

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New York

NEW YORK

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Many will offer elaborate prayers of thanksgiving at dinner tables and houses of worship this week, but for those who want to phone it in, well, they can do that, too. Prayer stations – public telephone enclosures fitted out with kneelers, and signage modified to advertise “prayer”– have been offering believers a whole new take on the idea of calling long distance.

In New York, the “Public Prayer Booths,” a public art project, until this week graced a pocket park at Second Avenue and 59th Street, underneath the Roosevelt Island tram station. They were installed in September by Kansas City, Mo., artist Dylan Mortimer, who has similar exhibits in Jackson, Tenn., and in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

“My intention is mainly to spark the dialogue about how individual faith functions in the public sphere,” the artist explains.

While some viewers focus on the art side, others take the invitation to dialogue literally: in New York, the prayer stations have had their share of users. Surrounded by graceful benches and tidy gardens, the booths have tended to be mistaken, at first glance, for public telephones. Then comes the double-take, then the giggles, the stares, the “no way!” incredulity, then the picture-taking, and, of course, the teenagers feigning prayer on a dare.

Residents and area workers who frequent the park have long settled into their opinions, which they shared during the last days of the installation there. Says Amir Jones, relaxing with a box lunch, “It’s more about provoking thought than about functioning, in my opinion.” With him, Bill Scanga, a production manager for a local gallery, observes that “it looks like a joke to me.” And indeed someone trying one out might expect to become, at any second, an unwitting foil in a David Letterman gag.

After all, few could imagine actually praying here. For one thing, there’s not even a pretense of privacy – no closet to “enter into.” In New York, there’s the lunch crowd and the pigeons and the strollers threatening to clip the ankles. There’s the half-dozen lanes of Queensboro Bridge traffic thundering by, horns honking, sirens screaming, so that even earthly conversation blows by only half heard. One booth had the distraction of the printed user directions: “at the completion of your prayer, please return the kneeler to its upright position”; the other, had the distracting fact that the instructions had been ripped out. The booths seem a kind of fake-out, suggesting the hushed sanctuary but serving up something faintly Euro – a spare, graffitied, garishly colored kiosk. No thank you.

But Mr. Mortimer sees the urban surrounds as a contemporary counterpart to the stained glass of yesteryear, and is no more put off by the notion of praying in the park than he is by making a phone call there. “It has all the same problems of a public telephone call – yeah, there’s some awkwardness.”

Kalsang Bhuming, whose carpet store abuts the park, is not so sure. It’s a nice thought, he laughs. “But I really do not see how someone can use that space. It is way too open.” Citing truly enclosed praying booths he has seen in other countries, he dismisses these as impractical “prayer poles.”

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