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The Problem of God.

The Problem of God

K21, Dusseldorf

26 September 2015--24 January 2016

Contemporary artists, curators and art historians (myself included) love a good 'problem', a knotty proposition, an existential issue. All the better if there is a frisson of provocation about it, a touch of absurdity and a title with room for some satisfying semantic play. 'The Problem of God' is in such terms perfect.

This exhibition was created by the meeting of powerful institutions. The venue was K21, the major contemporary art gallery in the slick, affluent city of Dusseldorf, in Germany's traditionally Catholic Rhineland. It was bounteously funded (to the unprecedented tune of 500,000 Euro) by the German Federal Cultural Foundation, co-sponsored by a Christian art organisation together with secular partners and conceived as part of a wide programme of events initiated by the conference of German bishops to mark the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council. As such, it revealed much about both the pitfalls and the potential of a working relationship between the church and the institutional world of contemporary culture. Its title could not have been more apt.

The exhibition brought together around 120 works by 33 artists of international significance and calibre--Tacita Dean, Francis Alys, Bill Viola, Andrea Buttner, Aernout Mik, Georges Adeagbo, Ad Reinhardt, Danh Vo and many more. Through a rich display of great diversity, the show highlighted how these artists have creatively and conceptually engaged, if not with 'God' then with the culture of Christian religion--its materials, rituals, narratives and symbols. The show was expertly curated by Isabelle Malz. Worthy nods to the art historical methods of iconology were provided by Aby Warburg's unfinished 1929 'Mnemosyne' picture atlas project, images of which were placed around one of the central gallery spaces. Sculptures, photographs, installations, film and video works, texts, performances, vitrines and even the odd painting made for an aesthetically satisfying, thought-provoking and time-consuming experience. A loosely thematic structure was apparent, beginning in the first, large basement section, in which the visceral, fleshly and embodied aspects of religious culture, symbolism and experience were emphasized.

The first few objects I encountered were themselves telling. At the entrance to the exhibition was Kris Martin's For Whom, 2012. A massive bronze church bell hangs over the visitor. It swings once an hour. But its clapper has been removed so that it does not toll. There is no call to worship. The next item I encountered was an information sign cautioning visitors that their 'aesthetic and moral sensitivities' may be offended--always an intriguing prospect. And quickly, there was one of Francis Bacon's brutally carnal crucifixion paintings. From the start, the exhibition's central paradoxes were unapologetic and knowing: this was a resolutely 'secular' exhibition about contemporary art and its relationship to the culture of Christianity. The void at its centre--of art understood to deal with 'God', but putatively, without God--was insisted on, zealously. And there was the most obvious paradox of all in the gallery context God's invisibility. How appropriate that the title 'The Problem of God' was taken from an eponymous work in the exhibition by Pavel Buchler, consisting of an old theological book, a treatise called Visible and Invisible, with a glass lens paperweight inserted over the words in such a way that 'invisible' is the only visible part of the book's content.

The high quality of the works, familiar and unknown, new and older, and the curatorial coherence cannot be doubted. This was a show that handled deftly a thematic area that under other circumstances could have devolved into a tedious jumble sale of kitsch, iconoclasm and 'sacrilegious' yBa provocation. The substantial catalogue will be of lasting importance for anyone interested in the field of theology and the arts. (The main text is in German but an English translation is included). But for this reviewer at least, its problems and blind spots are more revealing than its own keenly defended premise.

There is fear and another kind of faith in this exhibition. The tense history of the relationship between church and state (especially in Germany) is perhaps at their root. The fear is of any remote suspicion about the art museum's 'independence', which means, here, its enlightened secularism. The faith is in the autonomy of art, the critical faculty of the artist / curator and the pristinely rational integrity of the museum space. Yet one is also reminded of Theodor Adorno's discussion of the museum as mausoleum, as the 'family sepulchre of works of art', where 'tradition is no longer animated by a comprehensive, substantial force but has to be conjured up by means of citation'.

'The Problem of God' assembles recent art that cites the imagery, traditions, symbols, materials and narratives of the Christian tradition, playfully, poignantly, provocatively, critically --but at a remove. Religious belief is an object of observation, never the subjective position from which God might be --perhaps even more fruitfully--'problematised'.

As both an art historian and a Christian, intellectually my own deepest 'problem' with this otherwise very thoughtful exhibition was the implication that a perspective of deeply held personal or corporate faith precludes an understanding of God or of the relationship between art and the spiritual life beyond the facile, servile or irrational. For all the quality of the individual works assembled here, when taken, together, as a proposition about God in human life, too many of them restricted belief to a place beyond question and the questioning mind to the secular subject. The interpretative materials of the exhibition, from the press release to the audio guide and the catalogue underscored this. The implication throughout was that the selected work was, by virtue of its very secularity, 'critical'. As a public statement by the curator, Isabelle Malz put it, these works 'resist simple readings', instead deploying 'complex narratives and images in an attempt to come to terms in subtle ways with Christian motifs, themes, or issues.' She goes on: 'These artists reflect on these symbols critically while transferring them into new thematic and aesthetic contexts'. Such claims are perfectly legitimate. More problematic is the implied assumption that an art practice that comes from a position of belief would be, by contrast, univalent, uncritical, and encourage 'simple readings'.

Atheists and agnostics do not have the monopoly on doubt, nor on its potential for insight and fruitfulness. Viewing 'God' as a cultural phenomenon through a lens so resolutely secular that its field of vision is paradoxically narrowed is like fearfully looking at an eclipse though a pinhole. And after all, surely a faith of experience involves a more nuanced, challenging, dynamic and radical concept of what 'God' might, possibly, mean than any number of critical interventions, however 'subtle'.

The problematic of the 'criticality' espoused here was amplified by a further aspect of the curatorial selection. Over and again, works that engaged with actual, lived Christian experience highlighted the marginalised, the fanatical, the arcane, the dispossessed and the downright weird. Christian believers as they appear here are marginalised groups and individuals who inhabit caves, babble in tongues, perform compulsive or inappropriate behaviours, indulge their own Messiah complexes, wrap themselves in inchoate slogans ('I am crazy 4 Jesus') and surrender to mass hysteria. There is plenty of compassion and sensitivity, sharp humour and generous affection. But there is little if any room for a Christian agency of intellect, effective social justice, debate and just plain old normality. With all the oddballs, fanatics, long-distance pilgrims, nuns and martyrs the anthropological dimension of the exhibition was at the very least exoticising to a degree that would get an actual anthropologist into trouble.

'The Problem of God' is to be welcomed as the wayward child of the highly unstable three-way relationship between church, state and culture. Its dubious parentage is perhaps why I--a Christian, university teacher and art historian --have rarely seen an exhibition about which I feel such ambivalence.

Deborah Lewer is Senior Lecturer in History of Art at the University of Glasgow
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Author:Lewer, Deborah
Publication:Art and Christianity
Geographic Code:4EUGE
Date:Mar 22, 2016
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