The Venice Biennale - the World Cup of art - just awarded top prize to Germany, the Leone d’Oro for Best National Participation, because of a church . The winning entry, built by the recently deceased artist Christoph Schlingensief, is an impressive pseudo-chapel lined with the artist’s own video installations, evoking the church where Schlingensief once served as an altar boy. The prize means that pseudo-chapels, where artists mourn lost religion or long for its return, have finally arrived; but they’re not new. Robert Gober’s churchy installation , complete with a headless crucifix, caused a stir back in 2005. The same year Banks Violette, under the banner of irony, built a twelve foot tall replica of a burned church inspired by Satanic murders (wish I was kidding).
Pseudo-chapels, however, aren’t all bad (especially when one considers the increasingly ridiculous alternatives ). In 2007, Rusty Reno wrote of artist David LaChapelle’s photomural of a phantasmagoric chapel interior, where worshippers were “shocked by the reality of grace that illumines a flood-destroyed church.” This year in Chelsea, the Austrian artist Hermann Nitsch presented a relatively tame pseudo-chapel which improved on a previous installation, where Nitsch played high priest by crucifying a lamb and displaying its entrails (really). Contemporary art’s ecclesial chic can even approximate sermons. Currently at Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art, there is an uneven series of video installations by Francis Alÿs; but the “when faith moves mountains” portion - involving a string of shoveling students shifting a massive dune - is a moving exegesis of Biblical text.
What are we to make of the growing ubiquity of church references in the world of art? Does this confirm Dan Siedell’s charitable suggestion that contemporary art can serve as an altar to an unknown God? Or does it buttress Sarah Thorton’s thesis that art is an “alternative religion for atheists”? Are expanding references to Christianity a frank confession that artists miss church, and are sufficiently distanced from Christianity that they find it alluring? Or are these just failed attempts to create a new faith? (“Nearly two-thousand years,” complained Nietzsche, “and no new god.”) Probably all of the above. But to celebrate David Bentley Hart’s Ramsey Prize , it’s appropriate to let him explain :
Christianity is the midwife of nihilism not because it is itself nihilistic, but because it is too powerful in its embrace of the world and all of the world’s mystery and beauty; and so to reject Christianity now is, of necessity, to reject everything except the barren anonymity of spontaneous subjectivity . . . . Where now can we go? Everything is Christ’s . . . The Christian God has taken up everything into himself; all the treasures of ancient wisdom, all the splendor of creation, every good thing has been assumed into the story of the incarnate God, and every stirring toward transcendence is soon recognized by the modern mind - weary of God - as leading back toward faith.
Hart concludes on a (somewhat) positive note. “We Christians - while not ignoring how appalling such a condition is - should yet rejoice that modernity offers no religious comforts to those who would seek them.” Fortunately, however, surrounding the pseudo-chapels - whether in Venice, Chelsea, or in view of the Museum of Modern Art courtyard - actual churches stand and wait.