That definition of the Arlington-based group’s specialty is from its website, which offers extensive information about the six shrines and the rituals invented for each of them. The guide is useful, as the sites are far-flung and somewhat obscure in both purpose and location. Only two installations are at arts venues: Rhizome and the Arlington Arts Center. Of the others, two are at private homes, one is in a small park and the last is at the edge of a parking lot. All but the Arlington Arts Center shrine are outside, where divine winds can diminish viral loads.
Designed to be in place for a little more than a month, the shrines aren’t meant to be imposing. They’re mostly made of simple everyday things, which are supposed to be activated by the ceremonies. The sites are backdrops for performance art — or theater, if you prefer — with the twist that the viewers are enlisted to be the performers as well.
The project’s lead designer is Deb Sivigny, an acclaimed designer of scenery and costumes. She fashioned “Shrine to Life Cycles,” the piece at Rhizome, which focuses on something held sacred in many creeds: a tree. The trunk is wreathed in multicolored ribbons and the specified ritual calls for the visitor to weave another strand into the rainbow garland.
A tree also centers “Shrine to Your Sacred Power,” which was installed by Jessica Kallista just steps from her Fairfax City gallery, Olly Olly. Visually the most striking of the shrines, Kallista’s assemblage features reflective ornaments, rose petals and globes full of rosemary. A single rose’s petals, rosemary sprigs and a spoonful of honey are suggested for “Remembering You Are a Witch,” the ritual Kallista demonstrates in a psychedelic YouTube video. (It was filmed in a more bucolic setting than the shrine’s.) This is pretty funky stuff for a NoVa parking lot, and the piece is the most, well, arcane of the six.
Alan Katz’s “Shrine to the Hidden Depths” was partly inspired by the fact that its location, the Arlington Arts Center, was once a school named for oceanographer turned Confederate officer Matthew Maury. The piece features four wooden barrels meant to evoke depth charges, and a recording of a poem Maury wrote after learning of the South’s surrender. But it also invokes the ancient Athenian practice of ostracism and contemplates 2020-2021 quarantine with rolls of symbolic toilet paper.
Marshall Bradshaw’s “Shrine to Domestic Magic,” an East Falls Church shed outfitted with culinary talismans, is consecrated to food, a theme as universal as the Fairfax installation’s is esoteric. The site accepts alms in the forms of “a recipe that matters to you” and nonperishable edibles that will be donated to the Arlington Food Assistance Center.
The other installations are a second Katz piece, “Shrine to the Open Hearth,” a Brightwood altar designed to accept offerings of coins and old keys; and Mel Bieler’s “Shrine to Childhood Adventures,” a geocache scavenger hunt in a Rockville park where participants are instructed to unearth childhood feelings.
How seriously should pilgrims to these pop-up tabernacles take all of this? That’s a question whose answer will vary from person to person, and probably from site to site. Much of the power of established religious rites comes from their communal nature, but “Shrines” is best navigated solo or with just a few members of a pandemic-era pod. Most of the locations just can’t accommodate a crowd.
The project’s links to set design seem crucial. For the Arcanists, all the DMV is a stage, and what happens in each arena is up to your sacred self.
Arcanists’ Laboratory, 2501 N. Rockingham St., Arlington.
Arlington Arts Center, 3550 Wilson Blvd., Arlington.
Bullards Park, 130 Calvert Rd., Rockville.
Rhizome, 6950 Maple St. NW.
The Shoppes at Main Street, 10409 Main St., Fairfax.
1347 Tewkesbury Pl. NW.
Each site has different hours of availability. For more information, visit shrines.space.
Dates: Through April 25.