Ted Dodd reflects on an art exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, Australia…
We were approached in the lobby by a diminutive woman with a clip board. “Would we like to take a tour of the gallery?” We had chosen the Museum of Contemporary Art for our first full day in Sydney because we appreciate modern art but mostly because the temperatures had risen, before noon, to above forty. The museum was likely to be air conditioned. We agreed to the tour, and soon seven or eight eclectic souls were aboard, including this fabulous older woman dressed head to toe in red and orange (literally to toe as she was sporting one dazzling red sock and one florescent orange one.)
We began the tour with an introduction to the exhibit “Taboo.” Using Socratic questioning, our slightly nervous docent ferreted out characteristics of taboo – forbidden, unspoken, long-held, entrenched attitudes in societies. Curated by an indigenous artist, Brook Andrew, the pieces in the show address the impact of issues like racism, sexism and violence. A white South African, Anton Kannemeyer, used Tintin-like cartoons, some with graphically violent subject matter, to reflect on the on-going history of apartheid.
An Indonesian, Jompet, created a kinetic mechanized sculpture of bodyless, flag carrying, drumming demonstrators and uniformed gun carrying militia entitled War of Java: Do You Remember.
An aboriginal artist, , poured blood over documents of colonial oppression (correspondence which arbitrated indigenous peoples franchise based on the degree of their aboriginal heritage – blood) and placed them alongside vials of blood collected from relatives and friends.
Jimmie Durham, photographed a creepy scenario of a priest towering over a frightened boy and accompanied this image with a neon sign reading “The Flesh of Jesus.”
One might argue that some of the work lacks subtlety, and that points being made carry a quality of the obvious. But then, abuse, oppression, colonialism, religious imperialism, racism do not call for courteous cucumber sandwiches and tea. Bold confrontation, direct assertion and articulate communication are mandated. In the face of the shameful past and its present continuing impact, the artist’s role is to shake apathy, indifference and compliance.
Throughout this exhibit, artists reflect the damage perpetrated by representatives of faith: sexual abuse, cooperation with oppressive authorities, repression of native spirituality, removal of the lost generation of children. Institutional religion, and the church in particular, deserve these expressions of scorn for distorting the gospel message of compassion and justice. In twisted expressions of dogma, coercion and violation, the church has committed vile acts of invasion. The suspicion of faith represented in this art remains very justifiable.
In one tiny room, Bindi Cole has re-created her prison cell. The artist has filmed herself reading her diaries and this is projected on the back wall which is painted flat white.
The bedspread and pillow on her small cot are adorned with sequined scriptural verse largely focusing on atonement theology. Our tour guide explains: convicted of drug dealing, Cole was visited every day by members of a religious sect. The visitors converted Cole and our tour guide points out with notable derision, that the artist is a born-again Christian.
According to the guide, Cole’s taboo is her shame about being in prison. I’m not so sure that is all that the artist is saying. Maybe the artist was also saying that it has become taboo to respect faith. It raised a question for me. Is religion now taboo? In many instants, we have journeyed to a place where it is impossible to recognize that belief can do good and that faith can lead to acts of compassion and that those acts can, subsequently, lead to transformation, new life and even embodied forms of resurrection. In the face of this reality, those of us in the church need to find ways to both acknowledge and apologize for our history, and still live out the promise and hope in the present and into the future.