Roving Eye: Religion in Contemporary Art


At a recent dinner hosted by the gallery Luhring Augustine, I spent the evening talking about God with Ragnar Kjartansson. In God, the Icelandic artist’s 2007 film installation, Kjartansson appears onscreen suavely attired in a tuxedo, crooning repetitively “sorrow conquers happiness,” accompanied by an orchestra. The moment Kjartansson’s cyclical song finally builds to a crescendo, the film cuts to the beginning of the loop. Sad, soulful and meditative, the performance induces moments of euphoria as words dissolve into a heavenly chant.

Kjartansson and I focused our discussion on his fascination with religion. Despite being raised Lutheran, he was drawn to Catholicism as a teenager and even became an altar boy. While endurance is a component of much contemporary performance art, Kjartansson’s use of extended duration is informed by the recitations of prayers in church rituals and pageantry as means for achieving transcendence.

Repetition was the core element in his recent live performance, Bliss, commissioned for Performa 11, in which an operatic cast (Kjartansson included) dressed in period costume sang the final aria of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, over and over again, for 12 hours. The source material for Bliss is the moment in the opera when Count Almaviva’s philandering is unmasked and he begs for forgiveness from his faithful wife before the entire household. The Countess forgives him because, Kjartansson says, “she is better than him”–both because of her stronger gender and her state of grace. In Bliss, the ensemble rejoices, and the aria begins again. The prolonged repetition of Mozart’s divine music brought both the audience and the performers to a state of blissful reverie. Bliss, which earned Kjartansson Performa’s first Malcolm McLaren Award, was a humanistic cycle of transgression, repentance and forgiveness.

Lately, I have had many conversations with artists about religion, a topic which is typically either sensitive or outré. The subject came up again while working with Mark Handforth on his exhibition for MOCA in North Miami [Nov. 29­-Feb. 14]. Handforth’s father was an Anglican minister; for Handforth, art and religion have always been connected, and being an artist was his own calling. As he said to me, “making art is essential, not frivolous, much as religion is essential.”

Handforth’s philosophical approach is shaped by the basis of the Judeo-Christian tradition in abstraction-the “Word of God.” For Handforth, art-making is about making abstract ideas manifest, which is wonderful and absurd at the same time. As a child he spent considerable time inside England’s cathedrals, where his mind wandered from prayer to architecture, amazed at how basic material could create such awe-inspiring spaces. To this day, he converts common materials into objects of wonder. Visitors to his MOCA exhibition stand transfixed before the blazing lights of Eclipse (2003), an installation comprised of 100 white florescent fixtures flaring out along a 100-foot wall. Electric Tree (2011), a monumental Banyan tree illuminated from below with fluorescent lights, exerts its gravitational pull in an empty field-a natural cathedral, its branches a glorious shelter for congregation. With an economy of means and gesture, Handforth’s work counteracts the alienation in this secular and fragmented time.

Bonnie Clearwater, Director and Chief Curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, is December’s Roving Eye. Each month, A.i.A. invites a guest columnist to write a weekly letter about their adventures with art.

Top, Ragnar Kjartansson, God, 2007, DVD, 30 minutes. Courtesy Luhring Augustine, New York and Galleri i8, Reykjavik.

Above, Mark Handforth, Electric Tree, 1998–2011, Fluorescent light fixtures. Courtesy Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York. Installation location: Griffing Park, 12220 Griffing Blvd. North Miami, FL,  33161.