Religion in Contemporary Art - Alastair Gordon
A Walk of Faith
by Alastair Gordon
I propose a walk through a few galleries in London, England. As I walk I would like to consider the place of religion in contemporary art. Starting at Tate Modern I will head north through the city towards the Slade School of Art. It is, if you will, a pilgrimage of faith in contemporary art and I invite you to walk with me.
As I write, the Tate Modern has just opened its new and highly acclaimed extension. In a recent BBC documentary journalist Andrew Marr described it as a splendid cathedral to art with its central spire-like tower and cavernous atrium. The stairs lead up to cloisters of galleries. I choose to walk down into the Tanks, the basement section, once used to store oil when the gallery was a power station. Composed of three concrete, cylindrical galleries and devoid of natural light, it feels like a crypt or a network of catacombs or as an unholy alliance between an underground temple and brutalist car park.
Here an installation by Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul is on display. Titled Primitive it consists of seven videos of differing durations in which the history of the border town of Nabua in northeast Thailand is re-imagined as an elusive science fiction ghost story rooted in Thai folklore. Ambiguous figures occupy dark spaces as lightning strikes the ground. The gatherers seem ready for some kind of celestial event that never quite comes to happen. Their gaze is reminiscent of Caspar David Friedrich’s wanderer looking out over the sublime wilderness, yet it also reminds me of Richard Dreyfuss trance-like stare as the aliens arrive in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. There is no coincidence here as Weerasethakul’s work investigates the similarities between collective memory, historical events and notions of the supernatural within popular science fiction. It feels like he’s talking about faith and religion but to which belief exactly is open to interpretation.
Ascending the stairs to the forth level and over the bridge I am brought to a contemporary tower of Babel, a monumental structure built of second-hand analogue radios that the artist has stacked in layers. In describing this work Cildo Meireles refers to a ‘tower of incomprehension’. I hear different voices representing different languages and competing with one another so as to be utterly incomprehensible. The tower is bathed in an eerie blue light, suggesting some kind of phenomenological event. Meireles’ sculpture seems to shadow the hulking tower of the Tate Modern itself, perhaps comparing the voices of the artworks within with the thwarted communication of the people of Babel.
In his recent book, Religion and Art in the 21st Century, theologian Aaron Rosen expresses a positive alliance between faith and contemporary art. This view seems quite at odds with that held by Elkins and Fox five years previously or even with the tentative call for Christian contemporary art by older writers such as Francis Schaeffer and Hans Rookmaaker fifty years before them. Indeed, Rosen states,
…it is time to set aside old assumptions about the antagonism between art and religion and look at the topic with fresh eyes. When we do so, we discover a tremendous potential for reciprocity.
Continuing my walk of faith, I stroll through the city and up to the Slade School of Art. Here postgraduate students are putting the final touches on their end of year show.
Beginning again in the catacombs I see work by Michael Dryden who has created an installation inspired by a recent experience of prayer. Five buoys are covered in clay and hang from a vaulted ceiling. Indeed, the whole room has been covered in clay, giving it a feel of a monastic cell or hermit’s cave. As the buoys gently sway in the breeze they remind me of church bells or prayer flags. I hear the sound of running water from one, then another offers a voice of prayer. The voice is female, perhaps Dryden’s mother,
Our Father, I only have to return for all my worries to return also. My concern for my sick brother-in-law and for my unemployed grandson…
The work could be a call to prayer or meditation. At the same time Dryden is concerned by the sculptural issues of form, substance and materiality. His work effortlessly marries questions of the spiritual with questions about contemporary sculpture. At first I feel I am kneeling in the throne room of God, but next I am also debating form and substance in one of London’s leading art schools.
As I leave the Slade I consider the work I have seen on my brief walk of faith around London. Mostly I am struck by the lack of tension between religious ideas and the institutes of contemporary art that have hosted them. I find great joy in this and take a moment to pray. Thy will be done in London’s world of contemporary art…
Cildo Meireles: Babel, 2001. Author’s own photograph.
Michael Dryden: Monachorum, 2016. Reproduced with permission from Michael Dryden.
Cildo Meireles (born 1948) is a Brazilian conceptual artist, installation artist and sculptor. He is noted especially for his installations, many of which express resistance to political oppression in Brazil. Since the late 1960s he has created sculptures and installations which involve an element of participation, often drawing attention to the body in space and time, as a physical being and also as a psychological, social, and political one.
Michael Dryden is a London based artist who just finished a MFA at the Slade School of Fine Art. Through drawing and sculpture Dryden’s work evaluates the place of technology in relation to society and consciousness. His research in this area often leads to devised systems of making where old world technologies are combined with high-tech references. Dryden’s work has been shown both nationally and internationally and in 2014 he was awarded the Kenneth Armitage Scholarship towards his studies at the Slade.
Alastair Gordon is a London based artist and co-founder of MorpheÌ„ Arts, a mentoring charity for Christian Arts graduates. He also lectures at the Leith School of Art in Edinburgh. This meditation is reproduced from his forthcoming book, God Art, to be released later this year. http://www.alastairjohngordon.com
ArtWay Visual Meditation September 25, 2016