This is what makes the confrontation between the Catholic Church in Brisbane and Father Peter Kennedy so complex; it is easy to sympathise with the priest’s sincerity, but improvised ceremonies that depend on an individual’s charisma are naturally viewed with misgiving by an institution that has lasted for two millennia and hopes to endure forever.
Apart from those ceremonies that deal with the life of the individual ( birth, death, marriage), periodicity is vital. Ceremonies give shape to the passage of human time. The most important ones occur at fixed intervals in the year, and it is no coincidence that the three represented in this exhibition are all in a sense markers of a new year.
The Tet Nguyen Dan festival in Vietnam is the lunar new year. Ramadan is not the Islamic new year, but is a more important observance, with its connotations of moral cleansing and renewal. Easter is similarly the most important of Christian feasts, while our new year has no liturgical significance. As a feast commemorating death and rebirth, Easter is the celebration of a spiritual new year; and its date, based on that of the Jewish Passover, coincides with the renewal of natural life in the northern spring.
Huynh’s photographs capture the material reality of these festivals, the preparations and customs that make them real for those involved. Paradoxical as it may seem, for the spiritual to be experienced deeply by human beings, it must assume a physical expression. One has to kneel to pray. One has to walk to make a pilgrimage. Ceremonies need to take our time, claim our attention and demand our effort. Eating, the most corporeal of activities, is one of the most crucial in realising the spiritual.
Thus, Muslims fast during Ramadan. Hunger and the effort of will required to endure it mark the significance of the time for even the coarsest sensibility. There are meals after sunset and, when the month ends, the feast of Eid ul-Fitr. Christians fast during the 40 days of Lent, which concludes with the celebration of Easter. All serve traditional dishes at the culminating feasts and the preparation of these foods is an important part of the ritual.
The most intimately documented feast in Huynh’s exhibition is, perhaps not surprisingly, that of Tet. It is also the one in which the preparation of the meal seems to assume the greatest importance. Huynh shows the various stages of preparing banh chung, cakes of sticky rice, pork and beans wrapped in dong leaves and cooked for six to eight hours. The process starts days before the celebration and involves a considerable effort. We see housewives washing vast quantities of rice, pounding an enormous tub of beans and assembling the cakes in wooden moulds to ensure they are square. A large number will be made, because they are offered as gifts.
Another set of photographs shows preparations for the meal and the family gathered to share it in a private house. The festival involves the welcoming and then farewelling of the gods among the family and community, and every home has its own small shrine, sometimes set on a dresser with more mundane objects such as the television. An older couple is shown making a more formal visit to a Buddhist temple.
Culture is a universal phenomenon but the concept, in the anthropological or sociological sense, originated in the romantic period. The romantics reacted against the universal rational thinking of the Enlightenment and rediscovered imagination, religious feeling and other dimensions of human experience so recently dismissed as irrational. German thinkers in particular felt Enlightenment standards masked French hegemony, consigning everything that was German to the status of the barbaric or the quaint.
In contrast such authors as J. G. Herder upheld the idea of a fabric of beliefs, practices and habits that evolved organically ( another romantic concept) among a people living together through time. This new perspective allowed Germans — and other peoples — to value their very difference and specificity. There was no longer simply one right and rational way to do things, but the many ways proper to various peoples.
The idea of culture has become enormously important in the past two centuries. We refer to it almost daily, whether in the context of the way of life of indigenous peoples or the peculiar ethos evolved within an institution. It has been invaluable as an analytical concept and for the part it has played in cultural conservation.
But it has also been appallingly abused. The idea of culture blended with the new political thinking of the 18th century — notably the cult of the state — to give rise to the dangerous compound called nationalism, and that mixture was made even more lethal when genetics allowed the vague idea of ‘‘ a people’’ to acquire the pseudo-scientific precision of a race.
Ideas about the nexus of race, culture and territory have probably caused even more havoc than the illusion of utopias to be achieved through revolution. Leaving aside the disaster of Nazi ideology, we have recently been through such horrors and absurdities in the Balkans and the Middle East that we may well long for universal Enlightenment standards and be tempted to dismiss what is called culture ( which too often entails intolerance of other groups) as barbaric ignorance to be swept away by progress.
But what is left without culture? The life of mall-man, as the contemporary consumer has been called, is preferable to one of civil strife and random butchery, but is this the only choice? We like to think that Australia is a multicultural society, but it is perhaps really one in which various immigrant cultures persist in their identity for a time before succumbing to a general reality that could be called postcultural.
It is not clear how we deal with this problem. Many cultures contain noxious elements as well as good ones; many have customs that cannot be tolerated. There can only be one law in a society and when a culture has to relinquish its laws and accept others in their place, it can be in danger of shrivelling into little more than ethnic cuisine and folk-dancing. But this does not have to be the case. Diaspora peoples such as the Jews and Chinese have been accustomed to living under the civil laws of other societies for centuries and have lost little of what essentially matters: the beliefs and customs that form the structure for their communal life and their distinct identity.
In truth, it is still only through shared and collective values that human beings can become individuals. The individualism of contemporary life — in reality merely egoism — produces isolation and alienation without character. Meanwhile the danger of cultures is that they can only exist in opposition to what they are not.
The contrast, in the exhibition, between the luxuriant decoration of the Russian Orthodox church and the stubborn plainness of the Islamic mosque is not accidental: each partly defines itself by rejection of the other. The Enlightenment dream of universal civilisation is not a culture in this sense and cannot play the same role for the general population. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that cultures become flexible and tolerant enough to flourish within transcultural societies based on universal principles.
Time of spiritual renewal: Left, Eid ul-Fitr prayers at Bonnyrigg mosque ( 2007); and below, mehndi patterns being applied for a celebration ( 2007), by Danny Huynh