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Non-Destructive Laughter and the Nature of the Sacred
"Christianity has made the sacred 'substantial', but the nature of the sacred [...] is perhaps the most ungraspable thing that has been produced between men: the sacred is only a privileged moment of communal unity, a moment of the convulsive communication of what is ordinarily stifled." 1 (Georges Bataille, 1939)
Gun Holmström's work renders the chasm between "art" and "life" redundant. In Holmström's oeuvre, the aesthetic and the ethical, the visual and the vital are one. And while Holmström often starts out with very personal experiences her own insights, curiosities and even frustrations the essential element is the humane nature of social communication; the individual as a social and communal being remains at the core. Yet her approach is more that of an onlooker and observer than a (sociologist-anthropologist) researcher, to which she has often been likened. As she puts forth her observations, Holmström shuns ready answers and opinions, in stead challenging us viewers to think for ourselves.
The installation Sunday, which premiers in the Showroom Gallery in London, juxtaposes two video works. As viewers enter the gallery, what they first see is Sermon, a prosaic, plainspoken documentary projected onto a large screen. Displayed on three monitors in the back of the gallery, Sunday IIII provides a visually abstracted comment to the religious thematic. To the persuasive sound of church bells, viewers are offered a passage from concrete to abstract, from unique to universal. I, however, will start out in the opposite direction.
The visual structure of Sunday IIII inspires in me a kind of a formalist reading. The tripartite structure alludes to the traditional triptych form in religious art. In the narrative first part of the triptych, a bustling intersection takes the form of a cross, thus evoking the theme of crucifixion. The blood-red hue and pulsating rhythm add a corporeal impression; an image of medical endoscopy flashes across my mind.
In the second part of the triptych a very different vision opens up. As the sunny yellow-orange colour seems to refer to vitality and new life, the angelic figures these "divine" beings are in fact ordinary people getting up from church pews after a sermon are transformed into an image of the resurrection. During the editing process, this second part of Sunday became increasingly abstract. Its symmetrical, kaleidoscope-like stylization gives it an ornamental form reminiscent of Buddhist mandalas. The theme of rebirth links Christian iconography to Buddha's vision where the world appears in perfect beauty, like a jewel.
The third section of the Sunday triptych is black and white and harsh. Having seen the work at an earlier stage, I am aware that it depicts a ferry crossing a body of water. Looking at this earlier version, the ferry, slowly gliding across icy water in a barren landscape, made me think of a vessel carrying the dead. The ferry carried my associations from Christianity to folk belief, all the way to the Finnish national epic Kalevala and the mythical river Tuonela (known perhaps more widely from Sibelius' symphonic poem and Akseli Gallen-Kallela's paintings both of which played a central role in Finnish national romanticism a century or so ago). In the final version, however, the tempo is quicker, adding a more aggressive edge to the "industrial" and machine-like structure.
The reader may find surprising the specificity of my reading (invoking crucifixion, death and resurrection as key motifs), but the visual elements of Sunday were originally rather more explicit. The artist's desire to further abstract the material was possibly brought on by the fact that she did not want her work to be stifled by too literal a narrative. In the end, this is hardly important; as much as every viewer has a personal relationship to religion (believing), the relationship between a work of art and its viewer is always sanctified by the subjectivity of the experience.
In 1939, Georges Bataille described a notion "elaborated by sociologists", according to which it is possible to describe the play of the sacred by comparing it to electrical currents and charges.2 Holmström who once studied sociology but quickly grew tired of it as a scientific discipline follows a similar path in her visualization of the sacred anno 2002. She seems to ask what could stand for archetypal Christian iconography in a time when it is possible at least in theory to reconstruct the body of Christ from DNA extracted from the Shroud of Turin. In all its digital aesthetics the Sunday triptych is about the quivering body of the martyr, the universally human theme of victimisation and (self-)sacrifice, the collective mysticism of death and its sublime (even pleasurable) representation.
There lurks also a transverse presence of disorganization in sublime religious order. This is evoked in Sermon, the "realistic" part of Holmström's installation. If Sunday IIII is an image of the sublime and abstract, Sermon reflects the presence of the grotesque. It turns the Church inside out, as it were, revealing the bowels of its neatly organized body. The work as a whole thus evolves into an image of sublimation, revealing the dynamics where everyday, tragicomic and bodily presences become mythical and lofty, where "nature" takes on the appearance of "culture".
In Sermon Holmström's camera picks out details like the eye of a sleepwalker floor tiles, door, threshold... This laconic diminutive is disarming but it also underscores the mythological nature of the grand institution in question, its culturally constructed foundations. One's attention is drawn especially to the physical appearance of the vicar, which is wickedly counter-sublime: is the vicar given the role of a carnival host of sorts so that the audience may project onto him their emotions and associations, even not-so-sublime ones?
In any case, donning the cloth is shown (by way of the presence of a "stage servant") as a theatrical, hierarchical and even homosocial act, the image of sublime masquerade. (Could there be classes without a church, asks Georges Bataille.) The thin audience of the sermon and the modest proceeds from the collection are the harsh reality of the contemporary ecclesiastic institution; with our current euro, Finnish marks seem a direct allusion to vanity and transience...
In Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, the author describes his experience walking through the Church of Saint-Sulpice:
"Now, why this faltering, produced under the effect of the silliest of spectacles: ceremonial, religious, conjugal, and petit bourgeois...? He had received in a single gust all the divisions of which he is the object, as if, suddenly, it was the very being of exclusion with which he had been bludgeoned: dense and hard. For to the simple exclusions which this episode represented for him was added a final alienation: that of his language: he could not assume his distress in the very code of distress, i.e., express it: he felt more than excluded: detached: forever assigned the place of the witness, whose discourse can only be, of course, subject to codes of detachment: either narrative, or explicative, or challenging, or ironic: never lyrical, never homogenous with the pathos outside of which he must seek his place." 3
What Barthes discloses here, of course, is his own status as an outsider. Holmström's work reflects a similar confusion projected onto the third person (artist as documentarist): a frustrated yearning for knowledge where the feeling of alienation is joined with the desire to understand and express, even render lyrical. Holmström gropes for a visual language as an antidote to alienation, granting even the vicar a voice, and, what is more, a voice that reveals in addition to an endearingly inarticulate stupor his feelings of inadequacy. The gentleness of the artist's gaze makes the entire ceremony very humane. As the sharper edges of social criticism soften into matter-of-fact observation, a democratic space suddenly appears within Holmström's church.
Georges Bataille writes: "Myth is perhaps a fable, but this fable is placed in opposition to fiction if one looks at the people who dance it, who act it, for whom it is living truth."4 And thus Holmström, as she takes a peek behind the scenes of the Church, returns into the midst of a living truth.. Religion may (as Marx would have it) be mere "opium for the people" but the delirious visions it offers remain ever fascinating; the beauty of religious ¹fable¹ lies in idealist visions of social harmony.
I have to agree with Roland Barthes' insight (he refers here to another "double-spectacle", the opera) that it is precisely the both-and reaction that is often the most fruitful:
"... it really was a silly thing to watch, an unconscious parody of its own genre, but not only did this element of kitsch fail to upset me, it positively entertained me: I enjoyed the double truth of both the spectacle and its parody: laughter (or a smile) which is not destructive - perhaps that is one form of the culture of the future."5
To Georges Bataille, laughter and the sacred were analogical concepts in a logical relationship to one another. This, in fact, is what all of Holmström's art is about: the "sacred" spectacles of the everyday, laughter or a smile that is everything but destructive. Holmström's Sunday is not so gloomy after all.
Translation: Erik Miller
1. Georges Bataille, "The Sacred", in Visions of Excess, ed. & transl. Allan Stoekl, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis 1999, 242.