No subject too sacred – or too political

Visual protests: Artists take on religion, politics and the war in a new exhibit

by Don M. Burrows

A copper baptismal overflows with communion wafers. They spill onto an altar the artist added to the piece when the wafers became too numerous.

Each host has a date from the past three years stamped upon it, and last week their number swelled to 2,000 – and counting.

The numbers hint to the profundity of the subject matter. “In God’s Name: America’s Holy War,” by local artist Margaret Hilger, is one of several pieces on exhibit in a second annual showing titled “A Leap of Faith.”

The Susan Hensel Gallery asked 22 artists from across the country to respond to questions of how religion and politics interact, whether they should and how each affects the other.

The result, Hensel says, is a mixture of often polemical, almost always political, commentaries on the war and other contemporary issues.

“With the Bush White House, the corporatizing of the American government and the attempted corporatizing of organized religion, it certainly made sense to ask artists across the country what they thought about it,” Hensel said. “Most of it is fierce – absolutely fierce.”

The primary subject, perhaps unsurprisingly, is the ongoing war in Iraq. Hilger’s piece, which first showed in Berkeley, Calif., two years ago, is routinely updated to match the number of war dead to the number of wafers representing the broken body of Christ. When the piece first showed, the copper bowl was only one-third full, but Hilger later added an altar because there were too many hosts.

“There was something very eerie about how the administration was speaking about the war,” Hilger said. “It just felt like they were acknowledging that there was a good chance you might lose your life in this war, but it was what God wanted.”

Each wafer is stamped with the date of an American death, but not the soldier’s name.

“I wanted it to be personal but I didn’t want it to be that personal,” she said.

University student Heather Kube will also have an anti-war piece in the exhibit. Hensel said Kube’s video “Hush” features “an alarming political speech, but she whispers it into the camera. It’s just mesmerizing.”

Minnesota artist Chris Wilson takes on the war in a piece featuring a crucifix mounted on an ammunition box. Wilson found the crucifix missing its arms, so she cast bronze arms that extend outward from the cross in a gesture of confusion. On the ammunition box is a plaque mounted with the piece’s title: “I tried to help but all I got was 2,000 years of religious wars.”

“If I were in Christ’s place, and if I were wanting to project an attitude, I would shrug my shoulders,” Wilson said. “Because right now, I think 2,000 years later, we haven’t come too far.”

Not all the pieces at the gallery will deal explicitly with the war. Susan Davies’ work “The Forgotten Feminine” instead takes aim at another pitfall she sees in organized religion. The altarpiece is topped with a bramble nest she says “almost looks like a crown of thorns.” A feminine figure falls from the top, against the backdrop of the Nicene Creed, the organized church’s first official statement of orthodoxy. Davies has circled all the masculine references to God in the creed and scrawled “she fell” several times beneath the fallen figure.

“They just knocked her out of that nest, the whole feminine side, when they organized the church,” Davies said. “A lot of feminine qualities of God have been left out of the modern organized Christian church, and I think that that’s doing a lot of damage to our society.”

Wilson summed up the concerns many artists in the show have about the role religion has played in the political climate of the past few years, most especially with regard to the war.

“(George W.) Bush stood up and self-righteously said God was on his side, which is just a little hard for me to swallow and for a lot of people to swallow,” she said.

She sees artists’ reaction to these events playing a key political role in this age of visual stimulation.

“Visual artists are more able to convey the graphic image, which is kind of a gut reaction,” she said. “People are so used to visuals these days. If you want to touch people, you have to make it a visual image.”