Visual Arts in Germany: Exhibitions and Artist Portraits

Religion in the Media, Media as a Religion: an exhibition in the Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe

Alexander Kosolapov 
This is my Blood, 2002
82 x 150 cm 
Courtesy Guelman Gallery
VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2013 Holy scriptures, icons, music and song: religions have always made use of various media forms to put their messages across. Today electronic image media such as video or television has become the preferred instrument of religious movements: religion has conquered the mass media. An exhibition in the Center for Art and Media (ZKM) in Karlsruhe demonstrates the extent to which visual communication is now characterised by political/religious imagery.

An installation pointing towards Mecca greets visitors who enter the “Medium Religion” exhibition at the ZKM in Karlsruhe. The Iranian artist Barbad Golshiri has projected eight young women in school uniform onto a large blue curtain. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, they close their eyes and gradually blur into the blue of the background. Behind the curtain, inside the installation, a television with the image of a little boy crying loudly is enthroned on a rocking chair.

Is he bemoaning the fate of women in Iranian society, who are virtually being made to disappear as a result of levelling down and suppression? From a Western viewpoint this is the assumption that presents itself. But when you look more closely it becomes clear: the boy is a religious propaganda tool. He isn’t crying because of the women, he’s mourning the sins committed by Allah’s people on a daily basis in his rehearsed lamentations.

A little boy in a blue box as a mouthpiece of religious leaders – “mAmI”, that’s the title of Golshiri’s installation, shows on one hand how religious messages can be made into political tools through the use of media. On the other hand it becomes clear that the mass media has produced completely new forms of religious communication, “genres” in their own right that wouldn’t even exist without the use of video and television technology. “Religion as a media form complements the media as a religion”, is how Boris Groys and Peter Weibel, the two curators of the exhibition, sum up the interaction between religion and the media.

For instance Rabih Mroué, a performance artist from Beirut, is showing the authentic suicide video of a Lebanese resistance fighter. What is extraordinary about the video is that it isn’t a final version. Quite the opposite, the tape shows how the suicide bomber, like an actor, had tried to present himself as a dead man and martyr in various different versions. For him the point was clearly to identify the best possible way of portraying his concern. So the video is much more than just a medium; it becomes a document of personal belief in its own right. The medium becomes the message.

Calculated crossing of boundaries

The primal religious theme of death and dying accounts for a good proportion of the exhibited works as a whole. In their diary-style video “For a life after death”, Andree Korpys and Markus Löffler portray the final months in the life of Pope John Paul II. The film documents the production of the Catholic faith with the Pope as a media star at its centre – and precisely in doing so it uncovers the powerful effect that this production is developing in the mass media.

There is a shocking documentary on Cuban artist Susana Pilar Delahante Matienzo, who deals with the inseparable unity of life and death in her work. In an experiment on herself she was artificially inseminated with the sperm of a dead man in spring 2007. As proved by the medical documents and images that were issued, the sperm of the anonymous donor were still intact, a pregnancy resulted that lasted over one month. The artist drew the conclusion from her experiment that it is not clear-cut when life begins and where it ends.

The works of Israeli artist Oreet Ashery, who analyses the traditional Jewish Orthodox traditions of her homeland, are also conscious crossing of boundaries. Disguised as Rabbi “Marcus Fisher”, she reveals both male and female sex organs in self-portraits. In search of cultural, religious and sexual identity, according to the artist, she wants to “test out the boundaries”, and at the same time confront herself with her own taboos.

However, the exhibition creators insist, the point is not to criticise a particular religion or to adopt a particular stance in relation to religion. The works shown are exclusively by artists who highlight the faith of their own cultural environment – in some cases absolutely “elegantly blasphemous”, as curator Groys admits. From a Christian point of view for instance this could apply to the “Golgatha” installation by Michael Schuster, in which he has affixed spray adhesive cans with the advertising slogan “No More Nails” to Christian crosses.

Examples of religious propaganda, works primarily of a documentary nature and exhibits by contemporary artists – the diversity of “Medium Religion” is appealing and confusing at the same time. It isn’t always possible to recognise spontaneously whether an exhibit is documentary material or an artistic work. Yet the fact that it seems somewhat unstructured may well be a deliberate intention on the part of the exhibition creators. After all, neither is it always clear in the modern media world where the boundary of propaganda lies in religious imagery, which message is authentic and which is faked.

Maybe it is no longer possible to make this differentiation in the age of electronic mass media anyway.

Medium Religion – exhibition
from 23.11.2008 to 19.04.2009

ZKM – Museum für Neue Kunst (Museum of Modern Art)
Lorenzstraße 19, 76135 Karlsruhe
Mark Christian Pollmeier
is an evangelical theologist and works as a communication consultant in Cologne.

Translation: Jo Beckett
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
January 2009

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