On Seeing and Believing


catalogue text

Religious images still haunt our imagination and influence artists. When they take to reusing religious motifs, in many cases this is means to reflect on our desire to believe in images, on the history of seeing them, and on their double power – iconic and political. Arguably, our secular condition is to some extent the outcome of the transformation of the religious institutions and their structural role in public life. In this sense, there is a continuity that cannot be disrupted and the return of religion as a topic within contemporary art is a part of this story. However, this return has little to do with a continuation of religion, or return of religion in its positive form.

The group of images, objects and practices that we call art in the contemporary sense of the word is a relatively recent phenomenon, compared to the very long history of producing and circulating religious images, which only later became religious art. This was followed by a period of gradual waning of religious art, and then of religious themes within art. The twentieth century saw the detachment of spiritual expressions from organised religion and their reintegration within art. Religious iconography did not disappear, but changed its role. Artists gradually reused it, but in a very different way compared to those who chose or were commissioned to create art for religious purposes or with a religious function.

Artists have always produced images, at times elevating them as “true” images of divine origin and erasing their authorship, and at times claiming their sovereign gesture as authors. The motif of the image-origin signifies the political condition of art, or the mutual constitution of the image and the public gaze. All images are the result of human making. They are fictions. The way the conditions of these fictions are negotiated, or the way the role of the maker is brought to visibility, or concealed, is a defining feature of the specific regime of the image. Authorship always involves two sides: one is never fully the origin of its creation, which always refers to, or is contaminated by, other images or texts; on the other hand, the author can never be fully erased, as every image has a maker.

The re-inscription of religious images and themes within art as a field of practice demonstrates the power of religious images to continue their lives in a present day context, and the variety of questions they can pose – from pertaining to theology, to political issues, and those related to art, and the very practice of image-making. Placed in a contemporary context the religious image is divested from its previous meaning and power, and becomes a tool to address issues that are central to the infrastructure of the present-day regime of representation: the rules that regulate the status of images and their public significance; the conditions of their production and authorship; and their connection to an origin or tradition, a context or author that guarantees their value.


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