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4. Images between Religion and Art
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98 Inversions; Discontinuities Contemporary artists deal with or refer to religious themes and motifs in a multiplicity of ways. Their works do not usually function in religious contexts and cannot be described as “religious art.” Instead, many contemporary works are about religion and its practices, concepts, ideas, and images in the sense that they thematize its continued cultural relevance. A number of group and solo exhibitions offer evidence that curators are becoming increasingly interested in the controversial issue of religion and its role in the contemporary art scene. Yet as Dan Fox observes in a special issue of the art journal Frieze on religion and spirituality, it is virtually impossible to find a piece of genuinely religious art shown in a contemporary art context.1 Religious art is taboo, with the exception of artworks that are about religion , or when a piece of religious art is displayed in the safe frame of a context that provides a critical framework of reflection, and that uses religion as a theme instead of conveying a religious message in a positive sense. It is safe to show an interest in religion, but only when it, and its texture, gesture, images, and practices, are considered an object of research interest. c h a p t e r 4 Images between Religion and Art Images between Religion and Art 99 When religion appears as a theme in an artwork or exhibition, it entails the presence of a two-fold structure. There is an object that is critically examined, and a research frame or a critical context that examines or highlights different aspects of the thematized object. Each context or research frame, no matter how neutral it claims to be, has its own set of rules that determine how knowledge is produced, or how visibility is assigned to objects. The object embedded in the new infrastructure is taken out of its usual context, which inevitably gives it new visibility and changes its meaning . It would be too easy to assume that we learn only about the object or the image placed on display. On the contrary, by virtue of its contrast with the “host” structure, the object makes visible some of that host structure’s previously less visible aspects. Placing “a bit of religion” on display in an art context can shed light on aspects of that very context that usually remain in the background. Religious motifs are present in contemporary artworks in a variety of ways, each producing different effects. In the past two decades, artists such as Bill Viola, Jan Fabre, Sam Taylor-Wood, Ron Mueck, Wim Delvoye, and Gilbert and George have embedded and reinterpreted religious iconography and symbols in various ways. In most cases, their works do not convey positive spiritual meanings. The religious motif embedded in such contexts functions as litmus paper, revealing something about its new context . Such motifs raise questions including: Why are images from the past still relevant to us? Can a religious image be used in a nonreligious way, and what would be the effects of such use? How are images invested with the status of being true? In other words, the questions raised address central issues concerning the infrastructure of the regime of visibility within which they are circulated. Religious motifs are not the exclusive tool used to pose questions concerning the framework or a particular set of rules that regulate the visibility of the image. But compared to the reuse of other motifs from the past, they do seem to have specificity, insofar as they are associated with religious art and demarcate the difference between regimes of production and the circulation of images. In this sense they are not entirely neutral citations of the past. The effects of recycling religious motifs in contemporary artworks bear at least some similarity to the Renaissance practice of borrowing motifs from Antiquity as a means of emancipation from religion and a way to establish the grounds for defining a new type of art image. Arguably, when contemporary artists use religious motifs, those motifs no longer have a religious function . This discontinuity in their function allows the new works to both point to a past tradition of image use and to claim their difference from it. If the 100 Images between Religion and Art definition of the art image in the Renaissance was an affirmation of the figure of the artist, the contemporary reference to religious motifs makes a symmetrically opposite claim. It contests notions of...