Introduction: Situating Contemporary Art and Religion
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1 Walking into one of the exhibition rooms of Bozar (the Palais des BeauxArts /Centre for Fine Arts) in Brussels in the autumn of 2010, I was puzzled by a sculptural work that offered a strangely familiar, yet enigmatic, image. Helix DHAACO, 2008, by Wim Delvoye (1965–), is part of a series of sculptures consisting of black crucifixes joined to one another in a chain and twisted to form a double helix (Figure 1). The work was included in his solo exhibition Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, 2010–11, which also featured his laser-cut steel Gothic tower installed on the roof, a scale copy of a Gothic cathedral, and a series of sculptures consisting of similarly modified sculptural works. Religious art and architecture were the very “material” of Delvoye’s works, to be altered in a manner that demonstrates the use of advanced technology and craftsmanship. The bronze crucifixes were rendered in such way that they appeared flexible, and were twisted in a manner that can only be done to soft, yet strong, material. The blending of a cruci fix and a DNA model in Helix DHAACO alludes to two different definitions of the concepts of image and image-making, which converge into the motif of the true image, or acheiropoietos. Christ as the true image of God and the genetic “image” of man are, in their respective ways, not created Introduction Situating Contemporary Art and Religion 2 Introduction: Situating Contemporary Art and Religion by the hand of an artist. Plasticity as conveyed by the elaborate modification of the crucifixes is a central aspect of the sculpture, which highlights the very gesture and practice of image-making. During the past decade, a number of exhibitions have explored such issues as iconoclasm as a practice situated between art, religion, and science ; gravity and levitation as a motif in both religious and contemporary art; ways of seeing God in art; heaven; religion as medium; and the return of religion as a myth.1 Such exhibitions demonstrate a distinct interest in religion, its different traditions, manifestations in public life, gestures, images and practices. Yet until relatively recently, religion was largely ignored by the contemporary art world.2 The open expression of religiosity in a contemporary artwork was usually regarded as kitsch or bad taste, inviting quick aesthetic judgments that distinguished between high art and popular culture.3 This book focuses on the continued life and afterlife of religious motifs in art produced since the early 1990s in Europe and the United States. Many artists have reappropriated, recycled, and transformed Christian motifs, themes, and images to produce works that cannot qualify as “religious ,” but that remain in dialogue with the visual legacy of the Western, mostly, and more specifically the Catholic, version of Christianity. Their Figure 1. Wim Delvoye, Helix DHAACO, 2008. Bronze, black patina, 470 ⫻ 82 ⫻ 82 cm. Courtesy of the artist, Studio Wim Delvoye. Introduction: Situating Contemporary Art and Religion 3 works are not displayed in a religious context; they circulate within the institutional frame of display of the contemporary art world: museums, galleries, and biennales. Many of these works have a distinctly critical approach to religion. They pose a set of questions concerning important moments in the transforming relationships between religion and art, and the ways images are produced and displayed within their respective regimes of representation. The appropriation of religious images, their distinctly nonreligious interpretations in contemporary artworks, and their display in such contexts as the contemporary art museum or gallery are significant symptoms of the shifting positions of religion and art in the present moment. In many exhibitions and art works, religion is taken as a subject of critical reflection, while art is considered as the medium of that reflection, a frame for rethinking the role of religion. This indicates a desire to re-evaluate the respective regimes of visibility of art and religion, as well as questions related to the very regime of identification of art images and the distinction between art and non-art. How does contemporary art reposition itself with regard to religion and religious art? How are the boundaries between the sacred and the secular, religious and nonreligious art defined and redefined in the present-day moment? Does the citation of religious motifs tell us something about art and its production and circulation in the present? In what way do the meanings of these motifs change when they are embedded in...


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