Understanding Reactions: Russia’s Hermitage Museum Accused of Blasphemy

by Catherine Howley

‘The interpretation or evaluation of a work of art…does not end when it leaves the artist’s studio. In fact, since the meaning of a thing is continually reborn with every encounter with or use of the object, we must pay heed to the object’s deployment and the responses of viewers as well as institutions.’

 [Lynch: Between the Sacred and the Profane: Researching Religion and Popular Culture]

Once upon a time, when I was a student in Dublin, I became slightly obsessed with the subject of blasphemy. I spent a year studying the topic, which eventually took shape in the form of a dissertation: Blasphemous Christian Themes in Contemporary Fine Art. Until then, there had been little published on the topic and although the study was a success, I didn’t think it had a sustainable future as religion and contemporary art are rarely found to be coupled in our increasingly secularised society.

Needless to say, when I read about the reports of a blasphemy case against the English artist-duo Jake and Dino Chapman in December 2012, my interest in the subject was reawakened.

 The recent exhibition of works by the Chapman Brothers at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersberg, Russia resulted in over 130 complaints of blasphemy. The exhibition titled ‘The End Of Fun’ includes a work of a figure of Ronal Mc Donald being crucified and a model laid out to resemble a swastika. Due to the high number of complaints regarding the work, prosecutors launched an investigation into whether the exhibition ‘offended religious feelings’.

Chapman Brothers

In defence of the exhibition, Mikhail Piotrovsky, Director of the Hermitage Museum, told the Chicago Tribune that the investigation was ‘an attempt to dictate conditions to us by mob rule and we should not allow this […] Art has its own language, one needs to understand it. If you don’t get it, just step aside’.

The director added in another report that there was nothing blasphemous about the exhibition, and said ‘that what is art, and what is not, is determined by the museum and not the general public’.

Although the investigation, which closed this month, ruled that there was nothing unlawful about the exhibition, the Chapman Brothers have stated that they will not return to Russia to exhibit. Furthermore, the director of the Hermitage Museum has been left with a throbbing headache after what was supposed to be an exhibition of work to enrich the Hermitage Museum’s efforts to breach the world of contemporary art.

As director of the Hermitage Museum, Piotrovsky’s reactionary comments spurred me to think about our studies in museum management – What can we do to avoid misunderstandings in the museum space? Do we expect the public to understand the ‘language of art’ in order to engage with our exhibitions? How do we anticipate such drastic public reaction? And really, is it the museum that dictates what is art, and not the general public?

These questions are not easily answered, especially when regarding such a subjective theme as blasphemy. In the context of contemporary art, the responses of artists to questions of faith and religion manifest in diverse and sometimes surprising ways. It happens that the depiction of religious themes or icons in an irreverent or blasphemous way, whether intentional or not, frequently provokes a powerful emotive response because individuals and societies value system, beliefs and mores are challenged or offended, creating dissonance in the mind of the viewer.

It is, of course, when the offence felt is externalised, that quite often a public reaction to the work can evolve. Moreover, when a respected community leader or spokesperson declares an offensive work of art blasphemous, it rapidly enters the public domain and the intensity of the response can escalate considerably.

Nieznalska_pasjaPublic condemnation and the escalating intensity of the externalised response can be illustrated when considering the events that surrounded polish artist Dorota Nieznalska’s ‘Pasja’ (The Passion). Nieznalska’s installation piece consists of an image of the male genitals superimposed on a Greek cross and a soundless, slow motion video if a man in a gym at a moment of extreme exercise; exploiting a double meaning of the word ‘passion’ – Christ’s Passion and passion as enthusiasm. The work has been explained as the artist’s reaction to ‘the cultural violence towards the disciplined male body and the oppressive nature of the dominant paradigms of masculinity in Poland’.

‘Pasja’ went on display at a gallery in Gdansk in 2002, before it was removed due to amplified public response. Polish television channel TVN began to broadcast extensive material about the work, resulting in mass outrage. The work was subsequently reported to the Office of Public Prosecution by a group of Right-Wing MPs (the League of Polish Families) and condemned as being ‘publicly insulting’. Such was the intensity of the response, that Nieznalska was brought to court by the government and consequently became the first Polish artist to be convicted in the court of law for a work of art she made and exhibited. In 2003 she was sentenced to six months restriction of freedom, payment of court fines and community service for offending religious feelings.

Although this case would not be considered as a common occurrence in the contemporary art world, there were influences which surrounded the controversy which helped escalate the response to Nieznalska’s piece to a level of public demands for retribution, that perhaps could have been avoided.

It goes without saying that anticipating public reaction to a work of art that is potentially blasphemous, or could be interpreted as such, is somewhat problematic as a number of factors can conspire to amplify or mitigate the response, such as the presence of fundamentalists, the exhibition location and media coverage.  Conversely, it can be argued that there are factors that could possibly serve to reduce the intensity of the reaction, such as the presentation of the artwork, exhibition location and a clearly communicated message, which can guide the viewer in understanding the artist’s intentions.

christ you know it ain't easy sarahlucasThe exhibition ‘God and Goods’, held in the contemporary art gallery of Villa Malin in Italy (2008), contained amongst its collection a number of works that could be considered blasphemous in their treatment of Christian subject matter. Amongst those works was artist Sarah Lucas’ ‘Christ You Know It Ain’t Easy’.

The curators of the exhibiton, however, made every effort to explain the context of the works under the general theme of the exhibition, which was that of the human relationship to God, as in spiritually, and goods, as in materially. Lucas’ work was described in the catalogue as pertaining to the theme as it spoke ‘of our conflicts, fears and problems […] vices and dependencies’, and showed how ‘a religious icon does not always leave a margin for a different type of dialogue’. By assigning a message to the theme of the exhibition, the viewer’s interpretation is thus guided and so possibly reduces the offence a work can cause.

Another measure was taken in 2008 by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Bolzano, Italy in order to prepare visitors for their display of Martin Kippenberger’s ‘Feet First’.

kippen01

The piece had an affective impact on local politicians, the public and members of the Vatican alike, and even though attempts were made in order to remove the piece from the gallery, the directors of the Bolzano collection instead decided to relocate the work from the entrance to the third floor, partly concealing it with newspaper reports on the controversy. Further to this, staff at the museum were given information on the piece and Kippenberger’s intentions in order to provide the appropriate verbal message and dissuade any further offence that could have been caused to the public.

kippen02

It sounds overtly obvious, but images are not words, they may convey meaning but that meaning has to be brought to them by the spectator who deciphers a verbal message from the image. Quite often in the reaction to blasphemous art the verbal one is one of disgust and condemnation, and so can lead to influence the sensibilities of the public.

In order to avoid such a reaction, museums can strive to provide a voice for the work, ensuring that the interpretations of the piece diverge from the instance of controversy. By these means, Museums can help themselves to avoid misunderstandings and aid the public to understand the ‘language of art’.

You can never, as an institution, predict exactly how the public will react to a potentially controversial exhibition. However, by anticipating a reaction based on those that have gone before, perhaps museums can work on a way to present these pieces without provoking controversy. If we believe what Mikhail Piotrovsky claims; ‘that what is art, and what is not, is determined by the museum and not the general public’, surely it is our responsibility to provide that voice so that the work is not misunderstood.

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