Magazine article Art Monthly

New Maps of Heaven: Dan Smith concerning the Spiritual

Magazine article Art Monthly

New Maps of Heaven: Dan Smith concerning the Spiritual

Article excerpt

Over the past decade there have been a number of practices seeking to explore entanglements between contemporary art and a resurgence of interest in faith and belief. This seems to correspond to a heightened awareness of the forces of religion shaping global politics, particularly as Judeo-Christian and Islamic manifestations. Yet there are also interests in history, in social margins, in fantasies of subjectivity. What these practices share is not only a fascination for aspects of religiosity, often overlooked or archaic in character, but also a powerfully critical and reflexive dimension, able to excavate and translate redemptive forces.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

This operation is present in some of the most dramatic and public works of Francis Alys. Participatory strategies are mobilised that, at least in part, reflect a desire to explore and enact forms of religiosity. Notably, When Faith Moves Mountains, 2002, identifies itself--through an act of naming--as not just a large-scale intervention within a site, but as a gesture of a different, more ambivalent sort. Although Alys describes the work as 'a project of linear geological displacement', there is an unambiguous allusion to the miraculous. Taking place outside Lima, the shifting of a sand dune by four inches through the labour of hundreds of volunteers, arranged in a line and equipped with shovels, alludes to work, to community, to the creation of narrative, of myth and, more explicitly, to the masses that occupy the city and the shantytowns that spring up among these desert outskirts. There is a demonstration of social allegory and social reality, of geographical place, and what Alys calls a landscape of narrative. Yet the work also operates as a verifiable miracle, evidence of collective possibility. It is a material thaumaturgy. Faith here can be read as an investment in concrete utopian possibility, working in the present to bring about a resolved transformation in the future.

A more ceremonial dimension of religiosity is brought to light in The Modern Procession, 2002 (see AM280 and 328). The work was commissioned for MoMA's temporary move during the rebuilding of the museum, and followed the path of relocation from Manhattan to Queens across the Queensboro bridge. This was a simulation of a Catholic procession, complete with carried replicas of artworks from the collection, and the actual artist Kiki Smith. This leaning towards Catholicism is echoed in Fabiola, shown at the National Portrait Gallery in 2009. The work comprises a collection of images of a fourthcentury saint, depicted in profile, her head covered by a red veil, known as the Fabiola. She became popular in the 19th century, giving rise to a cult which was part of a huge revival of Catholicism. All of the images gathered together share a source, a portrait by Jean-Jacques Henner painted in 1885, which has long since been lost. Nevertheless, it serves as a prototype for both printed copies and painted reproductions. The collection that Alys has built up from antique shops and markets in Europe is made up of copies, but each is part of a larger network of artefacts with their own sacred power.

Within a specifically British context, the recent exhibition 'The Dark Monarch' at Tate St Ives presented a curatorial framework for making connections between magic and modernity, between forces aligned with progressive, enlightenment values and a darker world of the irrational. 'The Dark Monarch' suggested an erosion of the boundaries between knowledge and the irrational which, through their identification as historically and culturally contingent narratives of differentiation, may themselves be exposed as mythic and illusory oppositions. I would like to assert here the value of engaging with enchantment as a counter to the genuinely disturbing turn to religiosity. This might be interpreted not just as a broad set of cultural, global forces, but as effects sought within contemporary art. …

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