It is easier to pass a camel through the eye of a needle, than it is for a richly sponsored, curatorially obese and flabby art show to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. The thesis of Heaven, an Exhibition That Will Break Your Heart was that religious impulse and its expression have been transposed to a secular worship of TV, film, music and sports stars, as well as models and other intrinsically uninteresting celebrities, and to related industries such as fashion, beauty and advertising. The show was predicated uncritically on this; failing, unlike Warhol, to distinguish between an idol and a god, so compromising itself fatally – camping itself up to shrieks of its own laughter as it expired of superficiality.
Actually, to be fair, it was worse than that. Contextual criticism of any show by its association with a sponsor requires careful thought, but mentioning Igedo, Heaven’s principal sponsor, seems justified. PR consultants in event management to the fashion industry, Igedo supported Bruno Banani underwear company when, in 1998, a pair of Banani Y-fronts was launched in a rocket from Kasachstan to Mir Space Station. Described as ‘the ultimate function test for designer underwear under conditions of zero gravity,’ Heaven was not dissimilarly positioned in relationship to its public, taking the vocabulary of spirituality and spinning it into meaningless orbit, so failing the function test but winning the PR one. Artists chosen as representing Heaven’s definition of new religiosity were mostly very good, and there was much to enjoy. Viewed within the thesis of the show’s subject, though, they were usually immediately diminished. Gilbert and George’s video, Bend It (1981), like most works included, was unimaginably tortured into irrelevant compliance with the theme, reducing the artists to two nincompoops. Ron Mueck’s oversized life like sculptures, Big Baby 2 and Big Baby 3 (both 1996-97), became funny entertainments only, and Tony Oursler’s Separation (1999) just further fairground backdrop. Heaven’s real enthusiasm was for kitsch celebrity, fashion and appearance, as expressed in clothing, cloth and surface, happiest showing some Thierry Mugler dresses, or a Jeff Koons Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1998). In this way the great Satan of Fashion enjoyed affirming itself, creating a trendy freak show of fine art against which to pose in art drag, not necessarily to advantage, but at least with reductive parity.
Conspicuous for its sincerity, and a welcome contrast to the sugary glamour and irony elsewhere, Shirin Neshat’s video Turbulent (1998) cut to an emotional quick. Its two monochrome projections were elegantly simple and showed an Islamic man and woman singing a version of call and response, as moving as a blackbird’s poignant song compared to the garish parrot shrieks elsewhere. Unsentimentalised pain, without self pity, suddenly seemed highly desirable as proof of authentic emotional feeling, and even the occasion for gratitude. Here, pain appeared the touchstone of all experience, including heavenly pleasure.
Heaven merrily jumbled up idols, gods, saints, religious impulse and religious institutionalism, as if no distinctions existed, and as if religion were Christian only. Then, offering this confused template to itself, drew a self pleased equivalence between fashion and religion. For the record then, a saint is a holy person who, in the context of a passionate God belief, uses their every gift for the common good, with humility and love. A temporarily fashionable, idiot rock star, or his idiot model girlfriend in a desirable dress, no matter how gifted or beautiful and revered these may be, are simply not gods or saints. Myth, folklore, legend, romantic fantasy and obsessional delusion are attracted to these, certainly, but the idolisation of the famous has not replaced authentic religious worship, even if such worship has been displaced from churches to elsewhere. Which it has. Proper religious experience is a genuine taboo in the contemporary fine arts, Heaven knowing as much about the real experience of spirituality as a nun knows about sucking a penis. This did not stop the priestly cultus of the show’s catalogue authors though, one having not even seen the show. Speaking a strange idioglossia of unintelligible private tongues, the catalogue pronounces philosophical mysticisms on religious and cultural apocalypse, more like cannabis psychosis than exposition. Ironically, this devotion, to paranoid insights of the ungraspable, nicely blurs the distinction between secular and religious thought, and actually enables a rethinking of religious possibility. In this sense we should be grateful to Heaven. Like Taste, the New Religion shown at The Cornerhouse, Manchester, last year, Heaven serves useful purpose, raising the profile of religious subject, much good being salvageable. Although a kind of religious tourism, amusing itself with kitsch iconography which every style magazine ironist knows and enjoys, Heaven’s contribution to more interesting practice becomes apparent. By bringing the vocabulary of religious terms to contemporary art, and by thinking about these in ways not inimical to those of religious thought, the show becomes a stimulus to something more, something to happily sin against.