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Illuminations: 14 December 2007 – 24 February 2008, Tate Modern, London.

"Illuminations brings together five film and video works that explore gestures, objects and spaces that shape or express belief. The title refers both to the light generated by projected images in a darkened gallery and to metaphorical states of enlightenment attainable through faith. Belief – be it spiritual, philosophical or scientific – is a means through which individuals recognise and make sense of the world. It can be resolute or instinctive, questioning or blind, reasoned or irrational, individual or collective. In this exhibition, artists Lida Abdul, Dan Acostioaei, Sanford Biggers, caraballo-farman and Valérie Mréjen explore how belief is articulated through places, symbols, words and actions. Their work captures incidents and gestures that relate to rituals of commitment and revelation. Viewed through the media of video and film, belief is presented as an intrinsic feature of daily life, which can provoke reflection and transformation. Through a range of strategies, including documentary and observation, the artists examine the position of the individual within communal frameworks that order moral and social behaviour." Lucy Askew and Ben Borthwick

Can art last? Does faith endure? These were questions the "Illuminations" exhibition led me to ask despite the accompanying curatorial material speaking of belief in its 'spiritual, philosophical or scientific' forms. Without doubt my reaction stemmed from the fact that four of the five works on display directly addressed religious belief, and even caraballo-farman's "Contours of Staying" which is premised on endurance, foregrounds spiritual rather than scientific questions when repositioned as a work about belief. "Contours of Staying" is a film of protestors meditating outside the Chinese consulate in New York during a blizzard until finally the harsh weather conditions force them to abandon their demonstration. What struck me most about this piece was that in order to document the disintegration of the protest, the artists making it endured the intemperate weather for longer than those whose 'spiritual' beliefs had brought them into conflict with the Chinese government. Looking at "Contours of Staying" from the perspective of belief thus creates the impression that art is stronger than religion.

That said, art is every bit as redundant as religion. Art can no longer be viewed a substitute for spirituality, since while art may have functioned as surrogate form of mystical cretinism for aesthetes in the past, it cannot possibly do so now. With the rise of post-modernism in the late twentieth-century it became impossible to believe that art signified anything spiritual, or that it might offer an alternative to the grubbing commerciality of capitalism. Today art is for everyone, and the arts of hip-hop and football are valued as highly as the paintings found in art museums by politicians and 'captains of industry', as well as by fans of music and sport. Indeed popular culture now occupies a prominent place in the curating practices of many museums.

But let's return for a moment to faith and religion, and specifically to what Marx famously had to say about it in Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right: "Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions."

Implicit in this argument is the notion that religion not only won't but can't endure. Seen from this perspective, the apparent resurgence of religious faith around the world in recent years is a response to global immiseration, and rather than representing a straightforward continuation of the religious beliefs of the past, it is instead indicative of their ongoing transformation and destruction. In other words, the traditionalism of Christian and Muslim fundamentalists is a revolt against capitalist modernity and post-modernity; a revolt which despite the conservatism of those rallied under its banners, is destroying the very things it claims to preserve, since 'traditionalism' itself is a product of modernity (i.e. it is a modern invention) and thus serves to erase any real knowledge of the past. Traditionalism did not and could not exist in pre-modern societies for the simple reason that these societies had not experienced modernity. Traditionalism thus contributes to the eradication of all pre-modern systems of belief.

The works selected for inclusion in "Illuminations" self-consciously avoid addressing 'belief' in any of the guises that are readily identifiable as problematic to secular liberals. For example Christian fundamentalism is associated with Protestant sects, and that isn't touched upon here, although Dan Acotionaei's "Crossroads" is an impressive work which among other things draws its power from the ways in which the manipulation of the external trappings of Orthodox Christian belief in Romania have been manipulated to such a degree that they now signify consumerist belligerence more than anything else. Acotionaei has filmed pedestrians on a busy city street making the sign of the cross and the viewer has no way of knowing whether this is simply to signal their opposition to the deposed Bolshevik regime and belief in a corporate new world order, or a sign of faith (or a combination of both). Acotionaei's work documents the destruction of 'orthodox' Christian belief and its replacement by capitalism as a practical religion of money worship. Likewise, in Valérie Mréjen's "Dieu" eight former Orthodox Jews describe the ways in which they lost their faith. Lida Abdul's "Dome" does touch on Islam (alongside Buddhism and Hinduism), but it most immediately invokes Sufi dervishes through its repeated imagery of a boy turning in circles, and this is not one of the Islamic sects readily associated with fundamentalism.

Moving on, in "Hip Hop Ni Sasagu" Sanford Biggers succeeds in simultaneously embracing and parodying Zen Buddhism. For a variety of historical reasons, many of which are tied to the history of the British empire and the deleterious effects of British colonialism, the image of the Buddhist faith is less tarnished among secular liberals in the overdeveloped world than that of other major world religions, This is despite the active role the Buddhist clergy has played in the murderous repression of the Tamils in Sri Lanka, or the fact that the theocratic Buddhist regime that ruled Tibet (with minor interruptions) until the middle of the twentieth century was despotic. The fact that Buddhism should emerge as the central focus of an exhibition about belief in one of the most important of the overdeveloped world’s art museums is hardly surprising, because religion like art has never been ideologically neutral.

Likewise, while it is untenable to view the way in which Buddhism formed the religious core of "Illuminations" as accidental, it would none-the-less be erroneous to treat this as a self-conscious curatorial decision laid down in advance of the works being selected. It is rather an effect of the art system as a whole, and the institutional regulation of that system.  Since Buddhism serves the geo-political interests of the overwhelming majority of those buying works on the European and American art markets (and for the same reasons it is also attractive to deluded members of the bourgeoisie looking to infuse their empty lives, and even emptier heads, with a bit of 'spirituality'), artists wanting their work seen - which given the commodification of art means being able to sell it - are more likely to make pieces drawing on Buddhist themes than say 'militant Islam' (which would undoubtedly be harder to sell to the average merchant banker or hedge fund manager in London or New York). Thus the religious focus of "Illuminations" reflects a bias that already exists at the level of artistic production, and which in its turn is indicative of prejudices found throughout both the art and financial markets of the overdeveloped world.

As touched upon above, what religious belief signifies has changed radically through different historical periods, and the same also holds true for art. Marcel Duchamp insisted that art works died: "So I applied this rule to all artworks, and they after twenty years are finished. Their life is over. They survive all right, because they are part of art history, and art history is not art. I don't believe in preserving, I think as I said that a work of art dies. It's a thing of contemporary life. In other words, in your life you might see things, because it's contemporary with your life, it's being made at the same time as you are alive, and it has all the requisites of a work of art, which is to make, and your contemporaries are making works of art. They are works of art at the time you live, but once you are dead they die too."

Taking a cue from Duchamp, the radical 1960s New York collective Up Against The Wall Motherfucker summed his views up rather more spectacularly with the slogan: "Art is dead, burn the museums baby!" Religion is dead too, and those who claim to be opposing the deleterious effects of Chinese capitalism in Tibet by supporting the Dali Lama merely end up serving the agenda of Anglo-American imperialism. The latter is, of course, no better than its Chinese variant. Tibet was for centuries a centre from which Buddhist theology and texts were disseminated, and these often had a destabilising effect on neighbouring territories (which is why the Chinese bourgeoisie wishes to smash Tibetan Buddhism, and so many Europeans and Americans support the Dali Lama, whose still semi-feudal gangbangers they perceive as playing a role in retarding the development of their capitalist competitors in the Far East). It should go without saying that those of us with more progressive views wish not only to smash Buddhism (alongside Christianity and all other residues of medieval superstition), but also to destroy commodity capitalism in all its forms - including the art market. “ART IS DEAD, BURN THE MUSEUMS BABY!”

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Level 2 Gallery Project


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This text is a response to the Illuminations exhibition on the theme of belief. For further information go to Level 2.