Written in response to the Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art’s invitation to speak on the subject of art and worship, the following three short essays suggest possible readings of selected works by three contemporary artists that engage with significantly different concerns through their practice. While these distinct essays are meant to be read autonomously, they share a common understanding of worship as a set of practices that assert the existence of their object, and involve a particular commitment to that object that entails tying oneself to it: in other words, defining one’s system of belief, one’s actions, one’s values and morals, one’s personal production of meaning in relation to that object – be it God or art or anything else that might have the potential to (with)stand as an object of worship.
1. Professions of Faith: Kate Pickering’s “Untitled (I believe…)” (2007/9) and “Untitled” (2009)
Left: Kate Pickering, video still from 'Untitled (I believe...)', 2007/9, courtesy the artist. Right: Kate Pickering, video still from 'Untitled', 2009, courtesy the artist.
However much religious faith may remain a taboo subject in contemporary art, there is a undeniable measure of performative utterance and belief involved in its reception: in our willingness not only to accept the artist’s unique capacity to transform everyday life into art, but also to invest it with conceptual significance. There is a certain leap of faith involved in distinguishing between schizophrenic connections and symbolic rapprochements, in our openness to accept, as Dan Fox has fittingly put it, that a “lumpy fluorescent pink sculpture ‘refers’ to Søren Kierkegaard”.
Kate Pickering’s video “Untitled (I believe…)” (2007/9) and video installation “Untitled” (2009) both examine the role that belief might play in contemporary art while addressing its presumption of a liberal-minded subject. Both employ a similar format, individually recorded as single channel videos that last between 3 and 4 minutes each. Both show the artist in what appears to be a workspace, possibly her studio, making an apparently honest recorded statement about her practice and her views on art. Delivered as seemingly truthful and quasi-spontaneous first-person accounts, these carefully scripted videos operate both as artworks and statements on the artist’s practice.
“Untitled (I believe…)” (2007/9) is based on a series of interviews that Pickering conducted with evangelical Christians and young contemporary artists about their respective beliefs in God and art. She then used these answers to formulate a peculiar profession of faith in art under the guise of a sincere personal declaration. Throughout the video, her affirmations seamlessly move from fairly commonplace assumptions about art to formulations associated with religious creed. The script weaves in and out of informal almost conversational admonitions to performative utterances akin to a confirmation of faith. While it becomes clear after a few viewings that the word God could easily be substituted in several instances for the word art, the declaration remains unnervingly credible as an artistic statement, generating a great deal of discomfort and uneasiness. For it remains unclear at the end of the video whether Pickering is in fact telling the truth, thus throwing into relief the limits of what we believe might constitute an acceptable artistic position.
In “Untitled” (2009), Pickering begins by making a rather banal but wholly convincing declaration of intent. She starts by ascribing to art the usual capabilities: social, personal and political change, moving on to discuss the absence of separation between her practice and her personal life. After quickly lulling the viewer into absent-minded acquiescence, she surreptitiously segues into the somewhat risky though still fairly common territory of the vocational, referring to her practice as a calling. From there on, her motivational statement becomes imbued with a weighty sense of purpose. Despite maintaining the cool and confident tone with which she began, the content of her monologue becomes increasingly tainted with religious fervor as Pickering promises to reveal not just a truth, but The Truth through her work – a promise that is never quite fulfilled.
Although “Untitled (I believe…)” (2007/9) and “Untitled” (2009) were created as separate works, when taken side by side, they articulate an interesting proposition with regards to the idea of devotion. “Untitled (I believe…)” represents a profession of belief that has the potential to be substantiated by the promise of The Great Truth that “Untitled” never delivers. Ambiguously operating as both artworks and statements, these videos formulate a particular provocation. They assert the existence of their object: Art as Truth, without ever revealing it. As such, through this thwarted revelation, they truly position art as an object of worship by making it articulate a demand for faith in the absence of material fact and certainty.
2. Humble offerings: Andrea Büttner’s “Little Works” (2007)
Andrea Büttner, video still from 'Little Works', 2007, 10.45 min, DVD, courtesy the artist and Hollybush Gardens, London.
“Little Works” is an 11-minute single channel video that was filmed inside the cloistered Carmelite community of the Monastery of The Most Holy Trinity in Notting Hill, London. Prohibited from recording inside the enclosed community, Büttner relinquished her camera to one of the nuns who documented her fellow sister’s ‘little works’ – which include crochet, embroidery and candle making – in preparation for the community’s annual feast.
The title of the film ‘Little works’ refers to the nuns’ individual creative projects, which they are encouraged to pursue in their spare or recreational time. As the film stipulates in its opening credits: “The sister’s term ‘little works’ comes from the French expression ‘petits travaux’”, which signifies light works in the sense of preparatory works or handicrafts as opposed to heavy lifting. While the term ‘little works’ is an accurate interpretation of the French expression, the sisters’ choice to use a direct translation, which emphasizes its diminutive character, becomes indicative of how they perceive their creative work. This is particularly apparent when one of the elderly sisters who has stopped producing her little works is instead asked to sing one of her ‘little’ songs, which she obligingly performs to the best of her abilities without reserve or hesitation.
Before culminating in the little works’ communal presentation, the film shows individual interviews with the nuns conducted in their private quarters or workspaces. Despite the sisters’ sincere willingness to speak about their work, their disarming humility seems to encroach upon shame. Rather than presenting their working process or most successful achievements, many nuns chose to present flawed or failed projects. One sister holds up a crochet basket that hasn’t set properly even after several attempts, another is shown filing down a nail that has come through her crucifix, another expresses her dissatisfaction with her seemingly impeccable needlework work, likening it to painting by numbers. There is a growing sense of subtle and unintended apologetic-ness that transpires from one presentation to the next.
This ever so slight apologetic-ness might first be read as the cloistered nuns’ natural bashfulness before the camera, or self-consciousness at the thought that their little works will come under the scrutiny of aesthetic judgment when Büttner’s film is shown in a gallery or museum. However, their apparent openness and willingness to share their works, or break into impromptu song in the absence of works to show, suggest otherwise. Instead, it suggests that their little works are fundamentally tied to their devotional practice. Indeed, while pursued during the sister’s free time, these little works are not wholly recreational. They constitute a demonstrative act of diligence in the face of acedia – otherwise known as the deadly sin of sloth.
In the Christian tradition, acedia is a sin of omission whereby one does not make use of her God-given talents. Even though the sisters somewhat dismissively refer to their creative endeavors as little works, one nun qualifies her fellow sister’s ability to draw as ‘the gift’. Moreover, on the community’s website, it states: “On Sundays and special feasts, when the sisters are not engaged in remunerative work, and household tasks are limited to essentials, the sisters are able to develop their particular talent”. Thus, in relation to the idea of worship, their little works might be interpreted as small acts of devotion, acts of piety, that are meant to attest to the sisters’ virtue. And so, one might surmise that the subtle impression of apologetic-ness comes neither from a sense of bashfulness nor self-consciousness, but instead from the shadow of a doubt hanging over the devout nuns’ heads as to whether their humble, often-imperfect offerings effectively testify to a diligent pursuit of their God-given talents.
At the end of the film, the little works are communally exhibited on an altar-like display table in amateur fashion. In this way, they appear as little acts of personal sacrifice: small tokens of the sisters’ hard work and ceaseless devotion even during their spare time, offered up to God in full view of the community. Before the little works can be inspected and enjoyed by all, the sisters gather together in front of the display and break into song like parishioners at mass before an altar. After all, there is much to praise. For however little, these humble offerings represent a faithful struggle for humility and diligence in the face of the ever-present capital temptations of acedia and pride, which are certainly no strangers to the world of art.
3. Miraculous Apparitions: Corazón Desfasado’s “Sfumato” (2009)
Corazón Desfasado (Helena Martin Franco), performance still from 'Sfumato', 2009. Courtesy the artist. Photo by Steve Heimbecker
“Sfumato” is the third in a cycle of three web-cast performances entitled "Laberinto; la visite" (2009) that was realized by Corazón Desfasado – a saint of Catholic origin adorned with an over-sexualized porcelain breastplate with leather straps and chains, created by Columbian artist Helena Martin Franco. Corazón Desfasado, which roughly translates as ‘heart out of sync’ in reference to her native country’s patron saint of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, represents a substantial body of work in the artist’s practice, which includes detailed websites, sound pieces of recited litanies, written prayers for love and money, photographs of assembled altars, as well as internet and live public performances referred to as the saint’s miraculous apparitions.
The first two 15 minute long performances in the cycle of "Laberinto; la visite" (2009) – “Angelus” and “Confiteor” – follow a precise script. Both involve communal prayer with the saint and culminate in Corazón Desfasado’s announcement that the moment of the miracle has come, urging viewers to formulate a wish. By contrast, “Sfumato” is a much longer performance that almost appears as though it was caught on tape unbeknownst to the saint. Although it is an integral part of her cycle of miraculous cyber-apparitions, it does not follow the previously established divine protocol. This time, Corazón Desfasado does not deliver a holy message nor miraculously grant viewers their wishes. Instead, spectators are now positioned as voyeurs rather than chosen ones, made privy to the sensual saint’s intimate webcast, streamed live from some strange heterotopic space that sounds and feels – with its static pulsating noises and crimson projections – oddly like some early erotic computer or machine room lost in the heavens.
Scantily dressed in her Pamela Anderson breastplate, white biker shorts and hooker heels, Corazón Desfasado appears to be enacting an unusual and at times bizarrely domestic ritual, slowly improvised over the course of the 60 minute long performance. She lays out sheets of bubble wrap on the floor to form a makeshift catwalk; draws bold black letters that spell “I Confess” on the wall only to later rub them out; glues red sticker hearts over the face and shoulders of a small porcelain statue of the sacred heart, and paints the front of her body in white to half blend into the wall. At the end of the performance, she flicks on the proverbial battery-operated candles that signaled the moment of the miracle in her last two performances; but this time, no promises are made. Instead, the candles merely serve to highlight the saint’s oversized porcelain breasts that peer out of the dark as if they were glowing.
The transition from the earlier performances to “Sfumato” signals an important conceptual shift in the cycle of works. Corazón Desfasado goes from performing – or standing in for – the object of worship, to problematizing the relationship between visibility and devotion. For the latter paradoxically entails self-effacement (the gift of self) before the object of worship, but also the affirmation of this unseen object through a visible transformation at the core of one’s being. Corazón Desfasado’s ritualized performance represents an allegorical enactment of this fantasy of conversion, given a more corporeal and sensual form through the physical pursuit of perfection. It reflects on the idea of devotion by engaging with the redemptive doctrine of the living proof and hope-filled pledge of a miraculous self-transformation, silently articulating the promise that we can all be born again, cleansed through our channeling of the divine.