Last Wednesday, some 300 people—including a "confused but thrilled" Catholic newspaper reporter who vowed to return with her congregation—packed into London's Lisson Gallery to view Christian Jankowski's latest project "Casting Jesus" [through Oct. 1]. Shot in a ward at Rome's Complesso Santo Spirito hospital, Jankowski enlisted 13 actors (instead of Jesus and his 12 apostles) to vie for a role as Christ the Savior. The holy honor was selected by a three-judge panel put together by the Vatican-José Manuel del Rio Carrasco; Sandro Barbagallo, art critic at the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano; and journalist Massimo Giraldi, Secretary of the Commission for Film Classification of the Italian Bishop Conference. During the course of the video this trio had the inspired task of narrowing the field from 13 to six to three to the chosen one.
INSTALLATION VIEW COURTESY THE ARTIST AND LISSON GALLERY.
The idea for the work was birthed when the German conceptual artist was working on his 2003 film What I Play Tomorrow, for which he interviewed film fans lingering outside Rome's Cinecittà Studios, asking them about their dream movie roles. Two weeks later he cast the fans in a film according to their desires—one was a caveman with tiger furs, another a chef—and wove them into a single screenplay. One day while filming at the studio, the artist walked onto another set "and Jesus came walking by," Jankowski tells A.i.A. The savior, in this case, was a fake-blood-stained James Caviezel, who was headed to the set of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, while being trailed by two actors playing Vatican priests. "They were in a serious discussion about how Jesus should express himself while he was being killed by the Romans and I was very sad that I couldn't photograph this moment of Jesus there with these two priests." To him, the scene served as the perfect example of how we adhere to (and staunchly defend) religious idols.
The holy image lingered until he made it reappear in Rome eight years later for the hour-long passion play that is Casting Jesus. Presenting the contest itself as if it were a live performance, Jankowski had a feed going to another audience of 300, this one in the neighboring hospital wing; in addition to a window overlooking the room where they were filming. His cameras provide an edited feed of the shrouded, bearded contestants reciting scripture, performing miracles and enduring punishment for this Vatican facsimile of American Idol. You might call it Christ Idol.
Jankowski hired a casting agency to find his prospective Jesus characters. "If I was doing the casting I would have definitely cast very different characters in terms of diversity, getting different ethnic backgrounds, probably females," admits the artist, alluding to the uniformly Caucasian, dark-haired, hirsute figures populating Caravaggio or Leonardo paintings.
Most impressive, perhaps, was the Vatican's approval and involvement. "I wanted to get sincerity from the Vatican," says Jankowski. Returning to the issue of casting, he says, "So imagine if we came in with some freaks to represent Jesus, I think immediately the alarm would be on."
The similarities to the reality genre are most evident in the plethora of cameras and hypersensitive microphones that catch the judges opening up, whispering to each other about the contestants' deliveries, cadences, appearances. Barbagallo even compares one actor's slow gait to that of the director of the Sistine Chapel.
As in previous works, Jesus uses spirituality to interpret the human devotion to imagery. In Telemistica (1999), the artist interviewed fortune tellers about his prospects at the Venice Biennale, where it was shown. "Artists love to be heard and recognized," says Jankowski. "You can look at Jesus as one of the greatest performance artists that ever lived."
Ultimately, all three judges agree on the winner—Robin—a true method actor who won't break character until the bitter end. Barbagallo seems smitten from the outset, casting a seemingly homophobic aspersion on another contestant who kisses the moderator while "performing" a miracle on him: "I hope mine doesn't do that."
Accustomed to being filmed, but not recorded by microphones, the Monseñor actually requested to cut some sections after Jankowski screened it for him. While his request was not granted, he did get an unexpected gift in the form of 10,000 golden colored prayer cards similar to those handed out at the Vatican during mass—30,000 more are there for the taking at Lisson—which Jankowski fashioned out of a photo the judge snapped of the beatific winner after the contest.
With plans to exhibit the film next month at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, and, potentially, at the Vatican in collaboration with MACRO next spring, Jankowski jokes about the reach of his new Jesus, "He's now a mass produced icon. You can put him in your wallet."