THEOLOGIES TODAY: NATIONAL MUSEUM
OF CONTEMPORARY ART - ATHENS, GREECE
Mariko Mori, "Kumano", video
The exhibition Theologies, organized by the National Museum
of Contemporary Art in Athens and curated by its Director, Anna Kafetsi,
is the second thematic show in the two years this new state institution
for contemporary art has been active. The Museum has planned its cycle
of thematic exhibitions under the general title Synopsis.
Synopsis II Theologies can be seen at the Athenian Museum's
first show to make a statement of ideological character about the current
international art production. As the curator notes in the catalogue, the
indication Theologies aims to trace the relations of contemporary
art to religiousness as a particular experience, doctrine, worship and
power, since, as she observes, contemporary artistic quests are
characterized by a more or less obvious switch towards religious
types of worship and mystic theories; the question
is thus posed of the extent to which this trend indicates a rekindling
of religious quest and the return of contemporary art to religious spirituality?.
Gathered under this question is a contemporary artistic 'pantheon' of
twelve artists from different national and cultural backgrounds, who bring
together the traditions of Western and Eastern religious feeling in a
new, common 'temple' of art. Some well-known names from the international
art scene -Ghada Amer, Shirin Neshat, Mariko Mori, Bill Viola- coexist
in harmony with artists who have distinguished themselves in recent years
-Sergei Shukov, Maaria Wirkkala, Egle Rakauskaite, Dimitri Alithinos-
and converse on an equal standing with some interesting propositions which
are currently recognized either locally, such as those of Jalal Toufic
and Marios Spiliopoulos, or in more specialized fields of the visual arts,
associated with biotechnology, such as the joint work of Diane Gromala
and Yacov Sharir.
The mixing of cultures is not a new thing in the exhibition policies of
recent years. In all major international events, from the Venice Biennale
to Documenta 2002 -to quote just a couple of widely known examples-multicultural
character is the standard leitmotif. And quite right, too, I should say,
as this critical approach brings together not only the different with
the established but also the past with the present.
Amidst this general quest, the exhibition Theologies proffers
one more interesting viewpoint. The terms globalization, multiculturalism,
intercultural coexistence, new dimension of life through the achievements
of technology, etc. have been heard to excess from the artistic and critical
forums, and these concepts have been extensively discussed and approached
in contemporary art circles, albeit mainly from the point of view of political
correctness or denouncement. However, this common reality which emerges
as a new continent in the cultural geography of our times has not sufficiently
and expressly been investigated from the point of view of the purely spiritual
concerns raised by the homogenization of cultural behaviours.
Of course, anyone talking today about the spiritual aspect of existence
might be seen as anything from a champion of extreme utopias to a dogmatic
regressive. The truth is that no deep investigation of the 'spiritual',
the 'divine' and the 'sacred' can be isolated from the conceptual roots
of the religious aspect inherent in all traditional cultural systems.
Indeed, in recent years this perilous conceptual path has been trodden
by some of the most interesting artists of the last few decades, mostly
those who defy classification under a single aesthetic or stylistic label.
This attribute is the link among the artists in the exhibition Theologies.
In some of the works on show the quest for the different is carried out
in a transcendental area which may lie deep inside the psychology of the
individual, in the independent mental function or beyond the limits of
language, as in Bill Viola's exquisite video-sound installation ROOM FOR
ST. JOHN OF THE CROSS (1983) or in Mariko Mori's video installation KUMANO
(1998) with its fascinating, perfect fusion of tradition and the present.
The same spirit we find in the incomparable ambiguity created with poetic
perfection by Shirin Neshat, the desirable but unattainable rapprochement
between opposites in her video installation FERVOR (2000); in the intense
internal conflicts built with exemplary austerity by Egle Rakauskaite
in the video installation TRAP. EXPULSION FROM PARADISE (1997); and in
the solid installation TWO IDEOLOGIES-ONE IMAGE (2001-02) by Vadim Zakharov,
which hides inside it the madness of searching for the 'eternal phrases',
articulated in situations outside the norm, from contemporary heresies
to the Conceptual School of Moscow.
The experience of another plane of existence, dominated not by materialism
but by mental concern, excitement and absurdity, opens up the way to the
other half of realism - the reality of the impossible, which is elevated
into something sacred, ineffable, as Marios Spiliopoulos tries to tell
us in the video installation with the 700 names he recites to describe
God. In other cases the notion of the different and any cultural variances
are neutralized and almost equated beneath the common quest for the 'divine',
as in ABACUS (2001), the thrilling installation of Sergei Shutov, or in
Dimitri Alithinos' poetically enigmatic installation ANTHROPOSOPHIES THEOSOPHIES
(2002); here the alternation between human and divine is repeated in the
videos through his experience from his participation in various religious
rites -Christian, Animistic, Buddhist, Hindu- all united around the deathbed
he has placed at the centre of the space. Similarly, in Maaria Wirkkala's
FOUND A MENTAL CONNECTON II (1998) the whole universe is peacefully arranged
under the same Creator on the hovering surface, separated from the clashing
juxtaposition of the dogmatic presentation of the divine word in the Bible
and the Koran.
The 'marriage' between western and eastern thinking is presented in an
entirely personal idiom in the cryptic embroidered sculpture of Ghada
Amer, PRIVATE ROOMS (1998), and in Jalal Toufic's impressive video installation
THIS BLOOD SPILLED IN MY VEINS (2002), while DANCING WITH THE VIRTUAL
DERVISH: VIRTUAL BODIES, an interactive installation in virtual environments
by Diane Gromala & Yacov Sharir, examines virtual reality as a means
for transcending the restrictions imposed by the various culture on our
understanding of the body.
The realistic picture of contemporary polytheism that emerges from the
exhibition Theologies comes in fact to add a crucial question
as regards globalization: under what conditions can the promise of an
ecumenical society be fulfilled, when the resistance from spiritual preoccupations
is so deeply rooted in differentiation? Could it be, after all, that the
value of ecumenicalism lies in th
e freedom to choose differently - which,
at the end of the day, is something that art cannot do without?
I think this is a poignant question in view of today's immoderate and
shortsighted realpolitik. Let us hope that the National Museum of Contemporary
Art in Athens will continue on this course with more apposite questions.
Shirin Neshat, "Fervor", video
Dimitri Alithinos, "Anthroposophies
Theosophies", video installation