NeoHooDoo: Art for a Forgotten Faith
P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center
October 19, 2008 through January 26, 2009
Turning the corner from Stairwell E in P.S. 1, I found myself staring down a long, stark white room and through a barrel vaulted doorway at a free-standing, sword-pierced cross (Michael Tracy's Cruz de la Paz Sagrada (Cross of the Sacred Peace) ). Like something out of Ken Russell's trippy religious satire The Devils of Loudon, this bare, confusingly church-like space encompassed everything that this exhibit set out to do – to showcase the featured artists' use of spirituality in ways that play with, but ultimately break, the restraints of traditional religious practices.
The concept of "HooDoo," which is a 19th-century term referring "to forms of religion and their practice in the New World to explore the idea of spiritual practice outside easily definable faiths or creeds," was reborn as "NeoHooDoo," the inspiration for this exhibit, in Ishmael Reed's 1960s poems. This term celebrates abstract spirituality and cultural confluence as they are acted out in contemporary art, and is perfectly embodied in each one of the 40-some pieces showing in this exhibit during its stopover in New York between first showing at The Menil Collection in Houston, TX, and next at the Miami Art Museum.
Whether using the human body, everyday objects, photographs, video, or a wide range of other materials as spiritual tools, each one of the 29 artists involved in this exhibit – hailing from North, Central, and South America and spanning several generations – stretch into a realm of expression that in no way conforms to religious convention. For instance, consider Felix Gonzalez-Torres' "Untitled" (Go-Go Dancing Platform) (1991). Consisting of a square wooden platform framed with illuminated light bulbs, this performative installation piece features a solitary women with an iPod dancing on this small, luminous island of a stage. As she sways and twists her body upon this altar, her movements are reminiscent of a ritualistic dance to a god (or gods) and makes one wonder: in what context does this become a religious act? Even though she is wearing a few tight, metallic silver garments and using an iPod, if she were in any other setting, wearing religious garments or perhaps surrounded by sacred candles instead of showy light bulbs, would her actions take on new meaning?
This idea of the body as a vessel for spiritual expression also manifests in Rebecca Belmore's Fringe (2008). A wide, life-sized photograph on lightbox, this piece features a women lying on her side with a sown-up gash running the length of her back. Each individual thread used to mend this wound hangs from its stitch, leaving a trail of white thread strung with red beads simulating dripping blood. Beside her, on the sterile white cloth covering the table on which she lies, are little bundles of "blood" that collect on the clean white surface and seem to seep out of the photograph. The sterility of the surroundings (white walls, white tablecloth, etc.) makes this piece almost as difficult to look at for its luminosity as for the painfully mended slash on this woman's back.
Another stand out is Amalia Mesa-Bains', The Curandera's Botanica (2008). In this installation piece, Mesa-Bains finds her own spirituality in the contrast between modern medicine and spiritual healing. In this complex scene, Mesa-Bains juxtaposes objects from the religious, scientific, and natural worlds: holy water and candles; chemistry beakers and viles; dried grass and seeds. In this, her challenge is not to dominate forms of traditional religion, but to the religion of "objective" modern science. She uses a story of successful spiritual healing, acted out through these objects, to pose an affront to accepted forms of healing and opens up a channel to articulate her own faith in alternative medicine.
While each of the pieces in this exhibit touch upon the central inspiration for this collection in varying degrees, I have to say that the most interesting aspect of this whole project is the big picture of it all. The immensely diverse nature of this exhibit, drawing together artists from all over the Americas and representing several different generations of artistic thinkers, is exactly what NeoHoodoo is all about—freeing oneself from the shackles of dominant religious belief and finding one's own way. And ultimately, it doesn't matter what materials each artist uses, its just about using those materials in the quest for that other route.
So, go. Go so you can see the rich colorful bird feathers woven together on Sanford Bigger's Ghetto Bird Tunic (full length) (2006). Go for the socio-moral force of Dario Robleto's military-issued blanket infested with small pox (which is actually the dust from smashed copies of the records, "Cortez the Killer" by Neil Young, and "Tainted Love" by Soft Cell) entitled, "Deep Down I Don't Believe in Hymns" (2006). But finally, go so you can see these alternative approaches to one of the most shared aspects of human existence—spirituality, plan and simple.
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Anne Schruth is a graduate of New York University and currently works as a freelance journalist in New York