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Art + Religion in the 21st Century

Meryl Doney

Aaron Rosen
Thames and Hudson, 256pp

It's not often one can say of a book for review, 'this is exactly what I have been waiting for.' But Aaron Rosen's Art + Religion in the 21st Century is just that. So many times in the past I have bought books on this subject only to be disappointed, as they tend to stop in the middle of the twentieth century. Rosen's focus, however, is thoroughly contemporary. And this is a beautifully produced book, packed with 225 colour images each with its own explanatory paragraph.

Despite its sumptuous presentation this is no superficial coffee table production. In his introduction Rosen sets out his aims - and they are ambitious. He says, 'I wanted to tell a story about how many artists today are engaging with religious iconography in profound and sensitive ways. My goal is to give, as far as possible, an indication of the most interesting and relevant things that the twentyfirst- century has to say about religion.'

Given the constraints of such a book, parameters have to be set. Rosen has chosen to concentrate on visual art, including painting and sculpture, alongside newer media such as performance, installation, video, street art, and comics. But he is firm on excluding, or as he puts it 'disinviting from the party', works of bad art, or kitsch. This, he admits is an unabashedly personal choice in favour of works that he believes are more aesthetically and intellectually challenging.

He begins by tackling the way in which religion and contemporary art are usually typecast as mortal enemies, citing two works that have ignited widespread controversy in America: Andres Serrano's Piss Christ and Chris Ofili's The Holy Virgin Mary. He insists that it is time to set aside these old antagonisms and look at the topic with fresh eyes. 'When we do so,' he says, 'we discover a tremendous potential for reciprocity.'

Importantly, he also declines to focus on, or even to mention, an artist's personal faith or lack of it. And this includes his own - though his bona fides as Lecturer in Sacred Traditions and the Arts at King's College, London amply qualify him to have produced the first in-depth study of artists who use their work to explore religion's impact on today's world.

Interestingly, Rosen is reluctant to use 'spirituality' as a self-evident category. Instead he takes a thematic approach, sidestepping convoluted discussions about a particular artist's worldview, or what counts as Christian or Hindu art, for example, and aiming to create conversations between the artworks across all faith traditions.

There are five themed sections, each informed by different academic disciplines. The first is theologically based, focusing on two key subjects: Creation and the figure of Jesus. Rosen's very reasonable justification for beginning with two such strongly Judeo-Christian subjects is that, historically western art has been heavily skewed towards the rich source of images found in the Hebrew Scriptures and the Bible.

Section two is more philosophical, examining how we experience wonder through art. Rosen is interested in the fundamentally religious impulse to make sense of creation and our place within it, whether by exploring ideas of the sublime, or interacting with the physical world in landscape and land art.

The third section employs insights from cultural studies to explore religious responses in the areas of personal identity, cultural interaction and conflict. Suddenly the narrow focus of western art is superseded by works from minority cultures, diaspora artists and those dealing with the legacy of colonialism. Here religious identity is so mixed that an artist like Harminder Judge can depict himself as both Hindu god and eighties rock star, while Siona Benjamin uses the language of miniature painting to affirm her Indian heritage and her Jewish identity.

Section four takes us back to more familiar territory, examining ritual practices and the construction of memorials. Religious groups have always used ritual and performance as a way to articulate shared values. Contemporary artists have drawn from a variety of sources - stations of the cross, shamanic practices, Native American rites - to answer the question, 'where does the power of ritual come from?' Rosen also looks at the capacity of memorials to enable people to be 'active performers of memory'.

Finally, he explores two phenomenological spaces: the body, and the architecture of buildings. Rosen demonstrates how artists employ their own, and other people's, bodies to explore not only gender and sexuality, but also the religious impulse and mortality itself. In looking at buildings, he discusses the similarities and differences between the gallery and the religious space, rightly taking issue with the simplistic assertion that art is the new religion and galleries the new cathedrals.

While these sections covered an enormous amount of ground, I was left wanting one more chapter. Rosen has made a convincing case for his contention that contemporary artists are still engaging with religious iconography. But his aim was also to draw out the most interesting and relevant things that the twenty-firstcentury has to say about religion. I would have liked him to draw together the most significant insights from his themes, and perhaps some ideas of how the relationship between artists and religion might develop.

However, this is a minor quibble in the context. Spending time with the artists in this book is like walking through an ambitious, perceptively curated, global art exhibition on this immensely important subject. Art and religion are both ways of approaching the quest for selfknowledge and also means of seeking answers to the most profound questions of all - who are we, and why are we here?