This year’s Venice Biennale showed Roberto Cuoghi’s play on the Imitation of Christ, going far beyond an ironic comment on the work of art and religious icons in an age of mechanical reproduction. Instead of providing a chilling account of the loss of faith in civilisation, the artist produces a plural Christ, who is living and dead. We are unmoored from both traditional expectations of a singular Christ or fine art masterpiece and post-modern expectations of reader produced, surface meanings – dropped into Imitation to live there for a moment.
In the stripped back gallery space – part of the Biennale’s Arsenale – there is a heavy darkness laced with the scent of rot, the pungent atmosphere akin to the massa confusa (chaos) of alchemy. A flicker of the celestial realm was concealed in the chaos and it was the alchemist’s duty to draw it out, transforming the flicker into ‘gold’. Through a brutal, modern process, the artist draws out Christ and is thus an alchemist for our time.
At the front of the hall the cast, used to shape the bodies from organic material, sits on a high platform bathed in light – both an altar and the first point of an assembly line. Across the middle a structure of corridors connects five plastic domes. An organisation of deathly wombs, each dome contains two bodies, growing mould. Stepping into one is the same as stepping behind the frame of a painting. The stench and heat is acute. Cuoghi’s art provides a morbid recollection of Thomas à Kempis’ ascetic medieval text of the same name. A Kempis advocates Christ’s imitation through withdrawal and focus on the inner life resulting in transference of the self in Christ: ‘that thou mayest die to self, and live eternally in Him’. In Imitation you are alone in the incubator – Christ, decomposing, exists materially in the mould spores and transfers himself to you. The thick atmosphere is melancholic and infectious; the permeable, breathing bodies of the audience are part of the art’s life.
This is an art of seduction. The gluttonous eyes of the audience consume the work; it is a ‘primitive’ consumption which speaks to a time before facile consumer capitalism. The mouldy bodies of Christ are beautiful and delicate. They breed poisonous colours and shapes. There are sulphurous yellows and mercurial greens; black dapples on pale legs. One body has two detached heads. Another’s brown chest splits to reveal a voluptuous, glossy inside. Addicted you stumble from one incubator to the next.
Calcination was the final stage of the alchemist’s process, burning away impurities to leave only the refined ‘gold’. Calcination was also a cremation, which in a Christian context signals resurrection. Instead of flame, Cuoghi uses a modern fire: the industrial oven. The bodies are broken up in this final stage. Having been cleaned of mould in the crucible, the disassembled parts are fixed and illuminated on the back wall. The refined end-product, a fragmented and reborn Christ, carries the double signification of decadence and perfection.
Through ancient science Cuoghi devotes sensitivity to consumption and production, creating the possibility for a new meaning for both that sits outside of our present time. It is an anti-modern work as there is no unique Christ or linear progressive path – signalled by the pleasant impossibility of the alchemist’s task of creating ‘gold’. It is an anti-postmodern work because a plural Christ lives in this work – calling for acknowledgement of a realm which transcends the meaning-making of the reader. What do we have in the present age that gives us faith beyond ourselves? Only the hyper individualist accumulation of capital and anti-human technological progress. Imitation reaches beyond to a saturated, ephemeral world within a world, where a feeble, changing Christ lives in mould. From their encounter the audience takes a heightened consciousness – and steps into daylight with open eyes.
Words, Eleanor Smith-Hahn
Pics: Alf Altendorf