Images of Christ

Saturday, February 14, 2004

LONDON -- Under the richly decorated ceiling of St. Paul's Cathedral, as parishioners and tourists mingle, a naked blue man surfaces from water and drowns over and over again.

The man is the subject of a video installation called "The Messenger." It was created by artist Bill Viola and is part of a major exhibition of contemporary religious art to be shown at cathedrals around Britain that the Anglican Church hopes will challenge traditional views of Christ and spirituality.

"We sometimes forget that for 1,800 years the Christian story has been the most important single influence in the shaping of art forms in the Western world, whether it is literature or painting or sculpture or music," the Very Rev. John Moses, the dean of St. Paul's Cathedral, says.

"I happen to believe that if the Church is serious in working with people where they are today then it needs to rediscover a working relationship with artists of all traditions."

Works in the "Presence: Images of Christ for the Third Millennium" show include Jill Sim's "Blue Christ," a bronze statue with a crown of thorns gathered from the Serbian-Kosovan border; a monoprint of Christ coming down from the cross by artist Tracy Emin, who previously outraged critics by presenting her soiled, unmade bed as a masterpiece; and a video work by Mark Wallinger that shows a man riding the escalators in London's Angel subway station.

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams said the exhibition explored ways of representing Jesus, "this ordinary human identity which did not walk the roads of Galilee with a soft radiance and a spotless robe."

At Canterbury Cathedral, artist Willie Williams is to shine a column of light down the nave, while in Lincoln Cathedral, Nicola Hicks will display her sculpture, "Sorry, Sorry, Sarajevo."

In a fringe event this month, artist Michael Gough and actor Barry Richardson are staging "Iconography," a two-day performance in which Richardson dresses in the robes of Christ and Gough photographs his interactions with people in London's financial district.

When the two gave a similar performance last year, Gough says, responses ranged from people praying on subway trains to shouts of abuse and confessions. "There was one woman in the front bar of a strip joint in Soho who spilled out everything about her life," he says.

Curator Meryl Doney did not ask artists about their faith when they were invited to participate in the exhibition, and says she tried not to consider the thoughts of traditional churchgoers too much when selecting works for the exhibition.

That stance was backed up by BibleLands, the British-based charity sponsoring the show to celebrate its 150th anniversary, which said the artwork reflected its the modern challenges of its own Christian work to relieve poverty in the Middle East.

Penny Warden, whose blood-red painting, "Phoenix No. 19," updates the familiar image of the crucifixion, says the cathedrals were "fantastic" places to exhibit.

"There are thousands of people who will come through, many who never go into a gallery," she says. "Art was always in churches, around the altar, so it's really coming back to its rightful place."

The show, which includes 43 artists and 72 works from several mediums, will be shown in stages. After the display of Viola's work and several paintings at St. Paul's this month, it moves to five other cathedrals across Britain, showing different works at each one until the end of September. The other cathedrals are Canterbury, Lincoln, Worcester, Durham and Glasgow's Episcopal Cathedral.

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