Friday, 10 January 2014
Catalogue Essay for Heaven and Hell at Espacio Gallery
A heaven of hell, a hell of heaven
Catalogue Essay for Heaven and Hell
9 January - 2 February 2014
In the curators’ introduction to this exhibition, the question is raised as to how the age old artistic theme of heaven and hell might find any resonance “in our secular culture, where there is no otherworldly accountability for our behaviour, where we expect our needs and even our wants to be met here and now [and] where the consumerist imperative leaves little room for postponement of desires.” Leaving the overarching question of how to the artists themselves, I shall consider here two component questions, namely What has taken the place of traditional religion in contemporary society, and how might this influence our understanding of heaven and hell? and Who, in the place of “God”, is the judge?
Stephen Hawking recently gibed that science has killed philosophy, but, as postmodern sociologist of science Steve Fuller points out, science, politics and religion were originally all related branches of one and the same search for and love of knowledge and wisdom – aka philosophy.[i] The scientific method was developed in the 17th century by philosophers who were dissatisfied with settling for plausibility over factuality. These days, however, the disciplines have diverged such that they are seen to be almost wholly incompatible with one another, and, in many cases, even to cause wars. Religion battles religion; religion battles politics; and religion battles science.
Freud argues that religion, and the belief in an afterlife, is nothing more than man’s attempt to alleviate his fear of death and nothingness. But, things are no longer so black and white, since human “progress” has rendered us able to intervene into this crossing between life and death, with modern medicine able not only to prolong life artificially, but also to bring people back from the dead. Science has, in this sense, superseded religion. Doctors are often thought of as gods, following the Galenic tradition whereby nature is seen to cause disease, and the doctor is the hero who steps in to bring about a cure. But they cannot cure everything. And, especially in the case of mental health, it is not they who effect the cure anyhow. They may well help, and guide patients in times when they cannot guide themselves, but no one but the patients can bring about their own recovery. In the heaven and hell of the mind, it is each person who creates, experiences, and judges, and furthermore only he who can rescue himself. Illnesses develop because people feel they cannot live up to contemporary ideals. In a consumerist world where we expect our wants and needs to be met immediately, where celebrity status and superficial ideals hold sway, there is a proliferation of dissatisfaction; a scourge of disillusionment; an epidemic of breakdowns, eating disorders, depression and addictions.
The more science “progresses”, and the more man can defer death and take on the role of the divine, the more hellish the potential of his own life becomes.
The individual, ultimately, is the judge of his own life and deeds. In a cycle of never-ending, seemingly pointless suffering, a Sisyphian struggle, contemporary life can become hell on earth. “Would not a medieval European peasant,” the curators’ musings continue, “if she were to look at our brimming supermarkets, our hospitals and clinics, our clean cities and well fed children... would she not think that she was already in heaven?” Well, I would counter, is heaven really when we have all that we want and continually get our own way? Instinctively, many might think that it is, but, throughout tradition, stories have warned of those with power and privilege misusing it in this life, falling foul of hubris, and then being punished in hell in the next. Perhaps not too much has changed? Those who get too much of what they want today fall foul of their own increasingly insatiable hungers and are left perpetually dissatisfied and in a form of living purgatory or hell.
Finally we come to the question of who, in the place of God, arbitrates as to what is good and bad? If each person is his or her own judge, how, coming back to the case at hand, are viewers meant to evaluate the art in this exhibition? How are works as diverse as video pieces (Nicca Iovinella and Suokwon Yoon), paper sculpture (Sher Christopher) and mixed media installation and collage (Edu Luna, Consuelo Celluzzi, Christopher Ward and Carlos Molina) to be considered alongside works from the more traditional schools of painting (Jamie Chapman, Robert Fitzmaurice, Annie Zamero and Trinidad Ball), sculpture (Lucretia Allan, Beth Gadd and Elspeth Penfold) and drawing (Julia Tester)? Grayson Perry touched upon this question in his recent series of Reith Lectures for BBC Radio 4.[ii] He proposed a number of contemporary art world judges: the collector, the curator and the critic to name but a few. As Elspeth Penfold notes, however, relating to her collaborative installation piece, Cocoons, when it was previously installed in an exhibition at the Bussey Building, Peckham, it caused varyingly both discomfort and pleasure. This reinforces precisely the point already made. If there is no overall judge, or no established doctrine any more, who is to say what is right and wrong, good and bad? Each person is his or her own judge; each viewer must have his or her own individual response.
And this freedom is not necessarily a feature of heaven. If there is no correct way of doing things, and no good or bad taste, how can we ever be released from the hell of uncertainty? The very fact that in looking at these works we do not know immediately if they are worthy or not, and cannot immediately recognise motifs of heaven or symbols of hell, but, instead, are forced to think and engage in some conceptual dialogue and judge for ourselves, is a chaste reminder of just how much we do now live inside our own heads. And as John Milton presciently reminded us: “The mind is a universe and can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”[iii]
[i] “Hawking vs. Philosophy: Has science killed philosophy?” An IAI debate between Steve Fuller, Lewis Wolpert and Jonathan Derbyshire. http://iai.tv/video/hawking-vs-philosophy [accessed 24 November 2013]
[ii] Grayson Perry, Playing to the Gallery: 2013, Reith Lecture #1, “Democracy has Bad Taste,” 15 October 2013 http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00729d9/episodes/player [accessed 24 November 2013]
[iii] John Milton, Paradise Lost (1667)
The Ally II
Oil and acrylic on canvas
Elspeth Penfold and Ignacio Canete Sanchez
Injures - double lecture
Clara & Vera
Not in Safe hands
Oil on Canvas