THEOLOGIES TODAY: NATIONAL MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART - ATHENS, GREECE

 

Mariko Mori, "Kumano", video installation


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 traditions…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.


Efi Strousa
Athens, Greece
2002

 

Shirin Neshat, "Fervor", video installation

 

Dimitri Alithinos, "Anthroposophies Theosophies", video installation