Dispatches from a nonbeliever

From the sublime beauty of the natural world to the transcendent power of art, Larissa Pham details her quest for the divine

When I told my boyfriend I was going to write this essay, I said, “It’s going to be one of the ones where I talk about wanting to believe in God.”

“Nice,” he answered, kindly. “I like those.”

He knows God. I don’t. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want God, when I didn’t crave being close to something so many people believe exists. I’ve always wanted to know a thing deeply like that, to be subsumed in a belief so strong I think it must fill a whole life. I want to be that sure. I want to know what it’s like to know. But when I try, I can’t. Maybe there’s a part of me that failed to form, and now it’s too late. When I try to make the belief stay in my head, like affixing a sticker to the tiled wall of a swimming pool, it drifts out of reach and floats away.

I like to visit the medieval rooms in museums. Gothic, Romanesque, Byzantine: To me, it doesn’t matter the era, so long as it’s before 1400 CE. I mean the rooms with the wood panels painted over with gold leaf, so many layers of it that it starts to look supple, malleable even; the rooms with the fragile triptychs, standing in the low light in their glass vitrines. I like the tininess of these pieces, of the haunted-looking Christs and angels, their robes painted ultramarine blue and vermillion red, their wings a flat, static idea of wings.

Medieval icons aren’t naturalistic. They’re not meant to be. They’re two-dimensional interpretations of an ideology, turned into the kind of object you can pick up and carry around to keep God close at hand. They’re not like the rippling canvases of the Renaissance, bursting with dynamism, beaming down at you from inside a chapel as they pretend to be the vault of heaven. Instead, they point to a cruel, touchable God; an inexplicable God, who doesn’t take human form but instead is transformed into sacred geometry. The God of plagues, of conquistadors. The God of people who kept saints’ bones in gilded reliquaries.

Early in the pandemic: I become convinced that all angels are ten feet tall.

Later in the pandemic: An image of the reliquary of Mary Magdalene, a skull encased in a gilded bust with sculpted angels, its grinning death’s head encased in a bubble of glass like the helmet of an astronaut or a deep-sea diver, goes viral on Twitter. I see it on my timeline again and again, interspersed among the faces of the other, more recent, dead.

During the pandemic, another kind of post goes viral: photos of swans and videos of fish in the newly clear canals in Venice, the tiny, wriggling fishes looking like suspensions in jelly; a dolphin spotted in the East River. “Nature is healing,” the captions comment at first in earnest, and later, sarcastically. I’m happy seeing the pictures, the same way I’m happy to find out air pollution is diminishing in Wuhan. I hear that residents of the city are hearing the birds again.

But there’s something sad about it to me, the way we fetishize nature from inside our own loneliness. It seems hard to live in a world where there shouldn’t be people in it, even though I agree.

Later in the pandemic: Going for walks in the park with a friend who lives in the neighborhood, I take up birdwatching. We see starlings, cardinals, robins, black-capped chickadees, red-winged blackbirds, two swans, and a mourning dove.

Would I know to recognize an angel, if I saw one?

The first time I see Vija Celmins’s prints, I mistake them for black-and-white photographs. I’m at a gallery in Chelsea, in fall 2019, a few scant months before the city shuts down. On a closer look I see it, the infinite depth of how they’re made: fine, minute lines, combining to create areas of subtle, rich grays and soft, coruscating highlights. The surface of the water is built up of these tiny strokes, the treatment equal across the paper’s canvas—there’s no area that’s more emphasized than any other, no focal point. The effect varies with the medium Celmins chooses: the tiny, dark, regular hatches of a woodcut; the feathered lines of an etching with drypoint; the dreamy, almost fantastical aura of a mezzotint, looking like an imagined scene.

It’s deep looking Celmins demands of her viewers, an intense engagement with surface. I read the laborious prints as an act of care—her hand marking down the individuated waves, captured in a photographic instant, then returned to again and again. Celmins began making these images of ocean waves in 1968, from her studio in Venice Beach, California. She’d make multiple variations of the same photograph, as though revisiting the texture of memory itself. Of making images, she said, “If you really look at an image…it stays in your memory. So then memory does other things to it. Sometimes a work fades…. Sometimes it stays. Sometimes you have to run back and see if you remembered it correctly.”

It’s been fewer than two or three years since I saw the Vija Celmins show, but until this moment I thought it had been more than that. In my head, the last pandemic year has run together into an unrecognizable blur. The only way I know when anything happened is to check my camera roll. Meals, selfies, nudes, flowers in bloom or about to be.

I’m thinking about how life is a series of instants. It’s one flicker after the next. They run together and, suddenly, a life emerges, almost too much life to handle. How do you narrow it down? How do you know when an era begins or ends? I can’t blame Celmins for trying to hold onto a moment, just a little longer, to spend time with that instant, until even the memory of it becomes its own nearly physical object, with its own history. I’ve done the same with my own memories. All the times I picked one up to run my fingertips across its surface. All the times I ran back to remember.

“The last pandemic year has run together into an unrecognizable blur. The only way I know when anything happened is to check my camera roll. Meals, selfies, nudes, flowers in bloom or about to be.” 

Sometimes I want to believe so bad it ravages me. I’m scared to go to church, so I look at art instead, hoping to be slapped in the face with it, scored open by it. I’m always standing in high-ceilinged halls and cold white rooms with my hand over my heart, hoping to be moved. I want that sublime, that awe, that Stendhal syndrome, whatever they’re calling it, though I’ve never managed to weep in front of a painting. I’m envious of everyone who has, in the way one might be jealous of people who orgasm easily. But then I wonder if I’m trying to ask the art to wake up something inside of me when I should be looking for the thing inside me that awakens to the world.

Looking at the paintings of Hilma af Klint, I’m thinking about how she was a mystic. How her spirituality informed her work, shaped it wholly. Born in Sweden in 1862, af Klint began making her major, abstract paintings in 1906, predating the work of Kandinsky, Mondrian, and Malevich. In these paintings, known collectively as The Paintings for the Temple, af Klint was guided by the messages she received from another, higher consciousness; they directed the content of her paintings, which combine af Klint’s fluid vocabulary of visual and lexical symbols, resulting in work that both flattens the picture plane and arranges it, like a text to be read, just one tantalizing clue away from unlocking. Motifs recur: frilled flowers, biomorphic hourglasses, a pair of horses holding hooves. They teeter on the edge of semiotic meaning—not sentences, but entire gestures. The colors are lush: rich coppery oranges, pastel pinks, dusky lavenders, and deep Virgin Mary blues. Even now, there’s a sense of the future in her work, like she was painting into another galaxy. I can tell there are whole solar systems here, spinning, just out of reach, outside of comprehension; I feel dwarfed by the scale, both conceptually and literally, of af Klint’s paintings.

In my memory, it’s a good day. February 2019. Af Klint died in 1944; in life, she kept her work largely private, and she stipulated that her paintings not be shown for 20 years after her passing. In 1986, her work began to be shown, and a hundred years after she made them, they’re now on display at the Guggenheim, in the first major show of af Klint’s work in history. Today, I’m at the museum with a friend I love; it’s her birthday. We wander up the spiral ramp, nearly the temple af Klint had imagined. We stand in front of her series The Ten Largest and, for a moment, the door of my heart creaks open. I’m drenched in beauty and mystery, and I try to let it in.

We’re not alone, standing in front of the paintings. We’ve come here seeking sweetness; all around us are visitors hoping to traffic, however briefly, in the sublime. There’s a lightness to af Klint’s work that’s instantly appealing; the show is packed every day, and for weeks after my visit, I see photos of it all over Instagram. Some of this is surely due to the color palette, which feels like the embodiment of spring—yellows and golds and even rainbows—but I think its resonance has more to do with her abstract forms, which feel orgastic, half-remembered, like objects seen in dreams. Everything is a little familiar and a little strange. It invites our own interpretations. I keep walking to a painting, leaning in close, thinking I understand it. But then I realize I don’t understand.

There are children, too, in the museum, gathered at the base of the spiral, where there’s a small, eye-shaped fountain nobody ever seems to notice or mention. They’re draping their bodies over the flat white ledge, laughing and playing. Their shouts touch at something in me—something that’s reminded to be present.

I don’t know if I’ll ever know God. Maybe I’m too late, or maybe I’m knocking at its door too early. Maybe it has to be like a lightning strike, a moment that sweeps me off my feet. Maybe it’s okay to only know what I know, which is that I want it. Is that enough, to know something by its wanting?

When I think of the sublime, I think of two things. I think about the winter night in Connecticut when I crawled into a dumpster through its side door, headlamp casting a blue-gray halo on the metal walls, and looked up expecting to see the grimy underside of the plastic lid but instead was met with a perfect rectangle of pure velvet-black starry sky. I think of that moment, and I think of Anoka Faruqee’s paintings: deeply pigmented, layered acrylics that build up into a mesmerizing surface of vibrating color.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever know God. Maybe I’m too late, or maybe I’m knocking at its door too early. Maybe it has to be like a lightning strike, a moment that sweeps me off my feet.” 

In Faruqee’s work, also made in collaboration with artist David Driscoll, the paint is applied in layers with a custommade trowel, which looks a little like a rake. After being built up, the final painting is sanded down to create a smooth, flat surface. The result is abstract compositions of regular, parallel lines in concentric circles or moiré-patterned waves. Some are reminiscent of iridescent CDs or shimmering bolts of fabric, but they resemble these objects in the way that a word resembles its image.

It’s the closest thing to pure color I’ve seen, these paintings. They’re like hallucinations. But their surfaces have depth to them, a translucent thickness. On the edges of the canvases, which are left raw and unsanded, you can see the way the paint’s been built up, so thick it seems it could lift right off the linen, making visible all the work that went into the making of the thing.

Fall in Brooklyn. An unseasonably cold day. I’m depressed, deeply so, and walking around the city with the person I love most in the world. But when we poke our heads into a gallery to see Faruqee and Driscoll’s paintings, these apparitions of pure color, I feel lit up with a searing brightness. I’m in love with the work, unable to tear myself away from it, incredulous that something like this could be envisioned, and made. I thought I couldn’t feel this way—now I have, briefly. I’m like a peasant in a cathedral—no, a peasant outside a cathedral, a passerby, staring open-mouthed at the house where I know God lives.

Early in the pandemic: I walk my bike over to the bike shop in my neighborhood. After two days, it’s fit to ride again, and I start cycling ceaselessly. It’s still cold out at the end of March, and I ride with my mask on, wary of every surface, frightened of what the very air holds; the science, it seems, tells me nothing. On a spring day, the first warm day of 2020, I meet my boyfriend in the park and we’re afraid, at first, to even hold hands. He hands me a buttercup that I tuck over my mask string. The world is green and feels like a threat—then, so quickly, it becomes a sanctuary. I’m outside more often than I’m in; it’s the natural world that feels like the only place that’s safe, where we can be social again. I take to noticing how few trees there are in New York. Real trees, I mean, ones you can get up and climb in.

Later in the pandemic: I’m still birdwatching. In Prospect Park, I see a snowy egret, its neck S-shaped, elegant and otherworldly. I feel a pang of joy that we haven’t driven it out: I don’t know how, but we haven’t. Turtles swim in the lake; plastic bags float in the water. In my boyfriend’s apartment in the city, I lay in bed, listening to the cry of a bird I can’t see. When I ask, he tells me it’s a mourning dove. I ask how he knows if he can’t see it—if I had seen it, I would have known, I think. But he just smiles and says, “There are things you can know without seeing.”

Then it’s April in New York City, and the cherry blossoms are in bloom. Two days before I get my second shot of Pfizer, I’m supposed to go to a tattoo shop with the friend I saw the Hilma af Klint show with. She’s getting eros written on the inside of her arm; I’m getting—I don’t know what I’m getting. On my way to the train I’m scrolling through my photos; I find a picture I took of one of The Ten Largest, the one that represents childhood and innocence. There’s a wreath of white flowers in the top left corner, which almost look like orchids. For some reason, they stay with me. I’d like to say there’s more meaning to it, but there’s not: Twenty minutes later, I’m lying on a vinyl-covered table while a man inks an outline of a flower onto my skin.

The pain is startling; it’s good, delicious, alive-feeling. There’s no blood, only permanence. The lines from the needle are perfect, sharp and thin. I admire them briefly before the bandage goes on.

Later that night, I take a picture of the tattoo in the mirror—the new me, I think. Here I am again, trying to hold onto something bigger than I am. But I’m always becoming new, I’m always becoming.

I go to bed an unbeliever. I wake up as one, too. I wonder if a belief can form around this lack—this absence. One day I’ll find out, I think. I’m waiting.