Los Angeles

Peter, Don’t You See What You Have Done?

L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley


James Lee Byars, "La figura de la pregunta," 1986.

Unless you really take Lent seriously, and I don’t know many Protestants who do, Easter is a quick event. It’s especially so if you consider all it encompasses: betrayal on Thursday, death on Friday, mourning on Saturday, new life on Sunday. To condense all this into one weekend feels very Christian. We’re fixated on efficiency and the finite. The world is 6,000 years old and the rapture will probably come soon.

The Easter service I attended this April started at 6:30, but should have started earlier. “Pretend it’s still dark out,” said the pastor before asking the music leader to light the logs in the fire pit. “Someone more coordinated should do this,” said the music minister, passing the matches on to a young man in a windbreaker. It was an outdoor service, held in the backyard of a Presbyterian cathedral on Wilshire Boulevard, and they must have known not many would come out so early, because the nomadic, participatory itinerary would have been unwieldy with many more. We’d progress from one station to another, starting at a fire pit like the one the disciple Peter must have sat at when he infamously denied the newly condemned Christ: “I don’t know him.” In Andrew Lloyd Weber’s version, Mary Magdalene, the prostitute Jesus mentored, calls him out: “Peter, don’t you see what you have done, you’ve gone and cut him dead?” “I had to do it, don’t you see,” Peter replies, his singing voice whiny and fearful, “or else they’d come for me.”

Our fire pit must have already burned out all traces of denial, because we used it to light the big Paschal candle (“So much wax,” said the girl next to me), a stand-in for Christ as light of the world. Then, from the Paschal candle, we lit little candles for each of us to hold. We proceeded over to a wooden cross leaning against the easternmost fence. Someone had thought to wrap fishing wire around this cross, and we took turns sticking lilies through the wire after the gospel reading. Some of us tried to slide flowers through with candles still in hand, and hot wax dripped on our fingers.

We moved finally to the baptismal station, where more gospel was read and the Paschal candle officially baptized, bottom down so as not to put out the light of the world. Then we all baptized our small candles in the same manner, and put holy water on each other’s foreheads, saying “may you have new life” while making the sign of the cross with our fingers. A few of these rituals had roots in something traditional; others were likely invented that morning.

James Lee Byars taking questions on TV in Brussells, 1969.

The James Lee Byars exhibition at Overduin and Kite in Hollywood opened on Easter, which seems appropriate. Byars, a nomadic artist who lived in L.A., Germany, Japan, Egypt, and elsewhere understood sacredness as powerful. During Lent in1995, two years before his death, he installed The White Mass in the Church of St. Peter in Cologne. It consisted of a white ring right in the middle of the altar and then four marble pillars with signs inscribed on them: Q.R., I.P., O.Q., Q.D. Each set of letters stood in for a tenet of Byars’ Philosophy of Questioning, a belief system that really did just center on the conviction that questions — not answers — were all we humans had to push us onward. Q.R. meant “The Figure of the Question is in the Room” while O.Q. referred to “The Figure of the One Question.” No one could enter the installation unless they were participating in the mass.

James Lee Byars, "The Chair for the Philosophy of Question," 1996. Courtesy Overduin and Kite.

At Overduin and Kite, a collection of marble “books” shaped like sun and stars and encased in glass are like relics from some tasteful, medieval cult. In the adjoining room, a gold nail hammered into the wall recalls the crucifixion, and the Chair of the Philosophy of Questioning is installed inside a red silk tent. It’s not clear what one would do if sitting in that ornate chair; I suppose one would preside over the question-asking of anyone who ventured into the tent. “Basically I try to solve essential questions with questions,” Byars once said. But that makes his questioning feel particularly ritualistic; he’s living out his religion by refusing to ever answer.