Cauleen Smith – Pilgrim

There is a certain light that shines through the work of Cauleen Smith. This light is 35 both literal and metaphorical; it holds the content of her films and describes the horizon by which we orient ourselves to their worlds. This light feels cosmic and spiritual, both of this world and otherworldly. It lures you in, and it provides guidance. It is the glimmer of possibility and the glint in the eye, evincing a persistent hope.

Affectionate research and profound instinct place historical figures throughout Smith’s work, allowing individuals and the communities they built to serve as blueprints for the present and future. Pilgrim invoke the memory of Alice Coltrane (later known by her Sanskrit name Swamini Turiyasangitananda). Pilgrim begins with both veneration and gratitude: an applauding crowd greets the voice of Coltrane and she responds with thanks. A vibrant blue sky becomes the background for Coltrane’s “One for the Father” (1978), a song dedicated to her late husband John Coltrane. It was Alice’s grief that led her on her spiritual journey, and it is Smith’s response to injustice and suffering all around us that motivates her to center Coltrane’s legacy in these works.
The camera, with cinematography by the artist Arthur Jafa, continues to guide us through Coltrane’s Sai Anantam Ashram, founded in 1983 (and lost to California wildfires in 2018). What remains in the footage are the remnants of a community, frozen in time. A vitrine encases Coltrane’s piano; stanchions surround prayer surfaces. There is a museum where a worshiping congregation once was. Coltrane’s voice and music narrate a vacant sacred space. The work’s title, Pilgrim, refers both to Alice’s spiritual journey following the loss of her partner and to Smith’s project of locating people and sites that have the capacity to pass on something sacred to us today. The work evokes the power of resilience, searching and finding by any means necessary. Smith is committed to excavating peace and beauty among rubble, turning the viewer into a witness to transcendence.

As Pilgrim continues, the frame is then filled with dreamy 16mm footage taken by Smith at the Watts Towers in Los Angeles and at the Shaker cemetery and grounds in Watervliet in upstate New York. Like Coltrane’s ashram, these two sites pay homage to communities who fought to survive in the world. Both were built by people who immigrated to the United States in search of freedom and sanctuary. The Watts Towers were constructed by Italian immigrant Simon Rodia with the help of his neighbors between 1921 and 1954. They continue to stand today as a monument for resilience and land beautification, a necessary site through the years of turmoil and racial violence that the residents of Watts experienced before and after the Watts Rebellion of 1965.

All three sites were built through an emphasis on survival and generosity, and were radical departures from customary forms of relating to others, to ownership, and to the cultivation of land and spirit. In the footage of Watervliet, ecstatic shaky camera motions capture community gardens and lush grounds: spaces cultivated to return and amplify the care invested in them. These lands were developed by the Shakers, a Christian sect that was founded in England but gained strength in the US in the 1780s. They practiced communal land ownership, equality between men and women, and pacifism. The Shakers embodied their worship, the shudder of their bodies intending a communication with God, a dance that bid riddance to their sins. For Smith, the Shakers are a model from which we can learn how to assemble and relate.

—Amber Esseiva