Recycling Religionby Ann McCoy
SATELLITE ART SHOW, MIAMI BEACH | JANUARY 1 – 6, 2015
WHITEBOX | DECEMBER 13, 2015 – JANUARY 17, 2016
Recycling Religion represents a missed opportunity for a necessary discussion of a complex subject. “Recycled Thinking” would be a more appropriate title for this mishmash of tired Pop art, simplistic religious clichés, gadgetry, and scatology, that comes across as a traveling promotional for Marat Guelman’s stable and his new museum complex in Montenegro. Mr. Guelman is a Russian art dealer and provocateur with an antipathy for Christianity, whose past exhibitions have included icon-smashing, Orthodox Church models with “enema bulb” onion domes, and an exploitive Last Supper scene photograph featuring disciples with Down’s syndrome. He is also the alleged organizer of Pussy Riot, whose single was financed by the U.S. State Department and produced by the Guardian out of cobbled-together images and sounds.1 With the help of his co-curator Juan Puntes, Guelman—who once worked for Putin as a politologue—has brought this circus act, which is no longer playing well in Russia, to (he hopes) naïve Miami and New York audiences.
In a post-Charlie Hebdo world, bashing Christianity and Islam has become a blood sport for aggressive atheistic secularists. Westerners seem amazed that Christianity is protected in Russia. George Grosz’s World War I drawings linking German militarism to the church were hard-hitting, but they also included moving portraits of the wounded and the dead; they had a complexity and heartfelt humanity that the works in this exhibition lack. The only pieces that inspire any feeling here are Ukrainian artist Arsen Savadov’s “Underground” (2000) series of subterranean dwellings with distraught angels and a kneeling Christ. Puntes’s heroic attempts to keep WhiteBox afloat in New York are admirable, but this curatorial effect is grossly lacking.
The catalogue’s thesis—that the Russian Orthodox Church has become aligned with the state, and that its believers are in lock step with Putin and the Church’s Patriarch Kirill, who suppress popular culture—is an oversimplification. Orthodox believers are a group as diverse as today’s Catholics, and include a contemporary version of “non-possessors” who believe that ownership of land and wealth corrupt the church, and some who favor the restoration of the church as a symbol of Russian heritage. There is also a popular reformed Communist faction called Red Christians. Certainly problems exist—dissenting voices within the church have been sidelined, and fringe elements support militarism and “holy war.” Yet growing parishes sustain believers as they recover their faith; it is hardly a “dead ideology,” as the curators claim. Contradictions exist even within the church hierarchy. For instance, the culturally conservative Patriarch Kirill, with his gold Rolex and palatial apartment, has also proposed a radical system of interest-free banking that helps the poor and bucks global banking interests and the IMF’s usury. Outside-funded criticism, led by pro-Western factions, heated up when the church took anti-globalist positions against international corporatocracy.
For the catalogue to label the church “rancid” goes too far; Russians, echoing Solzhenitsyn, have used similar words to reject Western culture. In spite of its bumpy reemergence from close annihilation and the oiliness of the current Patriarch, the church is experiencing a revival. After decades of enforced atheism, including 40,000 clergy among the 66 million Russians murdered in the gulags, churches closed, and religious education forbidden, this is a work in progress, not the “finale” the catalogue suggests.
The exhibition’s opening piece, Federico Solmi’s Pope Fucking Machine After Leonardo (2015), is a mechanized sculpture where rotating dictators kiss the Pope’s erect penis. Are the curators equating the Vatican with the Orthodox Church? The Vatican has certainly been guilty of cozying up to dictators—but then, so has the U.S. government. Pope Francis, with his anti-capitalist stance, rails against defense contractors, and washing the feet of the poor, and his revolutionary encyclical on the environment is also part of the story. This sculpture comes off as simplistic and puerile. Oleg Kulik’s Art Belongs to the People (1995)—where he does a send-up of St. Francis absolving carp—comes off as an adolescent fraternity stunt. Many artists working with ecology today are again linking nature to sacred traditions. Kulik’s cynical performance art, which has included bestiality, reads like yesterday’s news.
The tired Pop look of Alexander Kosolapov’s works adds to this feeling of déjà-vu. Hero, Leader, God (2014), is a monumental statue of Lenin, Jesus, and Mickey Mouse. Komar and Melamid did this sort of thing better decades ago, and Grisha Bruskin has already cornered this high-end market. Kosolapov’s This is my Blood, This is my Body (2014) (Coca Cola and McDonald’s signs featuring Jesus) is supposed to be a commentary on religion as a corporate brand. Transubstantiation describes matter becoming spirit; sadly Kosolapov’s Eucharist commentary is feeble when put up against the likes of Hermann Nitsch on the same subject. His art enters the discourse on the most banal of levels.
Rather than including Robert Priseman’s badly painted icons of suicidal pop stars, they might have chosen Thomas Lanigan Schmidt’s iconostasis [Orthodox altar screen] featuring heroic “icons” of Liberation Theology (Archbishop Romero; the raped and murdered Maryknoll nuns). Choosing a 2015 Coptic icon by the Serbian artist Nikola Sarić of the twenty Copts beheaded by ISIS in Libya and the Muslim who voluntarily joined them would have moved the discourse to a higher level. Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Andrei Rublev (1966) describes an icon painter’s path in similarly dark times. Icon painters infused the object’s aura with their prayers—an art idea worth reviving.
Had Marat Guelman not been so invested in his aversion to Christianity, so hampered by his lack of knowledge of Orthodoxy, he could have advanced the conversation by drawing better choices from within the former Eastern bloc. A Slovenian collective called IRWIN has explored the writings of Hugo Ball, and hopes to republish Ball’s book about Byzantine Christianity. Ball claimed his concept of Dada came from a dream about Dionysus the Areopagite, a 6th-century Christian mystic and theologian. IRWIN made icons of Hugo Ball and had both Orthodox and Catholic priests carry them in processions, bridging the world of the Café Voltaire and Christian Orthodoxy. IRWIN mines Ball’s brilliant diaries first published in English by John Elderfield, showing the radical Christian roots of a radical art movement.
Mr. Guelman’s road show seems intended for U.S. consumption. He appears to advocate embracing American popular culture and globalism as replacements of Orthodox Christianity. This is ironic coming at a time when NATO has destabilized Iraq, and Libya and caused the destruction of Christian communities that date back to the time of Christ. Oddly, it was Mr. Guelman’s nemesis, Patriarch Kirill, who went to Syria to protest the destruction of Syrian Christians as American-funded “moderate rebels” destroyed churches, raped women and children, and decapitated men. If only there were some shady Russian NGOs to fund American artists protesting American imperialism and destruction abroad.
We would be more convinced had Pussy Riot chosen a Russian name, and rejected U.S. State Department funding. Now we see them with bit parts on American TV shows, and warning us of the evils of Trump. For a protest group that began with VOINA, by throwing live cats at a McDonald’s and putting chickens up their vaginas in supermarkets, they have come a long way. Now they are to be consultants, along with Marina Abramović, in developing Montenegro’s women’s museum—hopefully not wearing balaclava with white lab coats.
Approaching any topic requires looking at the shadow side, and an in-depth analysis of complex issues. The catalogue states that the artists approach the church as a “cut-out piece of decorative scenery,” in a “superficial manner as if not facing the ‘real’ thing.” This describes the exhibition’s main problem in a nutshell. It is necessary to understand the “real” thing if you are to critique it, and these artists come across as clueless outsiders. The superficiality of the discourse only adds to the viewer’s fatigue. Recycling Religion examines none of the larger picture, such as Moscow’s new giant mosque and the role of the Russian church in the current clash of civilizations. Guelman and Puntes come across as highly invested in passé sensationalism, with an anti-Christian bias that lacks balance and dimensionality. For museum professionals, we expect more intelligent catalogue writing and curatorial research. Instead, Puntes and Guelman have taken the easy way out to bring us a hackneyed and forgettable exhibition.
- August Brown, “Pussy Riot Releases Single, Gets Support of U.S. State Department.” Los Angeles Times, August 17, 2012.
ANN MCCOY is an artist and writer who lectures in the Yale School of Drama.