Heresy [her–uh-see]: any opinion, theory or belief that is at variance with established or orthodox beliefs, customs or doctrine. Delve a little deeper into the etymology of the word, and you will learn that it is derived from the Greek hairesis, αἵρεσις, meaning “a taking or choosing for oneself”, “a choice”, or “thing chosen”. In her stunning solo exhibition which opens tomorrow, 11th May 2018, at Gajah Gallery, acclaimed contemporary artist Suzann Victor invites us to See Like a Heretic – offering us, through her new series of artworks, a radical lens by which we might choose to see what we have always believed to be true, a little (or a lot) differently.
The invitation or provocation to perceive the world through an alternative logic that challenges the rational order of things has been a continuing thread that runs through Victor’s artistic practice. In Still Waters, Victor reoriented the audience’s gaze towards the narrow, liminal space between the glass-encased Museum and its outer concrete walls by staging her performance-installation work within this space. In order to watch her performance, they were obliged to turn their gaze away from the Museum’s interior towards the glass walls, the narrow, water-filled space, the artist, and inadvertently, the streets outside the Museum. In Victor’s words, “An inversion occurs – the Museum and its contents became the background rather than the foreground for the spectacle of art.”
Co-founder and Artistic Director of the independent art collective, Fifth Passage (established in 1991 and disbanded in 1994), Victor created and performed this work in the wake of the controversy surrounding Josef Ng’s infamous 1994 performance, Brother Cane, that ultimately led to a ten-year de facto ban on performance art in Singapore (you can read all about it here). Despite her shock and distress and the difficulties of practising as an artist in Singapore in the aftermath of this incident, Victor has not only survived but triumphed. Over the past two decades, she has won accolades both locally and internationally for her performance art, installations and large-scale, site-specific public art, which often harness the principles of physics, technology and engineering. The resulting works are beautiful, thought-provoking and moving experiences like this one, Wings of a Rich Manoeuvre, a commission for Singapore’s National Museum.
In See Like a Heretic, Victor continues her exploration of the qualities of light and illumination, exploiting the creative possibilities they offer for provoking change in our ways of seeing – this time through the use of Christian Catholic iconography and stained glass. Working with the artisans and craftspeople at Gajah Gallery’s Yogyakarta outpost Yogya Art Lab (YAL) over a period of two years, hundreds of kilos of stained-glass sheets were pulverized into grains of varying sizes and then reconstituted, embedded and layered over the statues to form a new “skin”.
Victor sourced the readymade statues and figurines of Catholic icons from a religious shop in Yogyakarta. In their original state, these statues were painted and decorated in dramatic colours, calculated to invoke the desired attitudes of reverence and worship in the eyes of devotees. Perhaps they looked a little like these ones, from a Catholic shop in Queen Street that I often pass on my way to the gym!
Victor subjects the painted surfaces of the statues to harsh scrubbing and scouring with a sandblaster, erasing all traces of “make-up” and reducing them to a purer and more pristine form. Without their previous embellishments and enveloped, instead, in a luminous granular surface of coloured glass, the figures lose detail and definition, turning into more abstract representations of familiar icons. Their once open eyes are now closed, redirecting their gaze inward and evoking, in the viewer, a deeper sense of contemplation and introspection. As researcher and scholar Michelle Antoinette says in her catalogue essay for the exhibition, “… if these iconic forms are strangely familiar as Christian ritual objects, their abstracted surface now compels us to consider them as objects of art and artifice.” In this way, the artist “… compels us to deconstruct these iconic visual forms, saturated with religious significance, not only to uncover their hidden ideologies but also, to be able to see them again in their purer object status.”
Victor’s use of stained glass powerfully and effectively advances her strategy and purpose and adds another layer of meaning to this series of works. In the history of church architectural design and religious worship, stained-glass windows played a prominent and significant role. They functioned as a means of channeling atmospheric beams of coloured light into the theatrical “stage” that is the church, but also as a pictorial narrative by which early Christian worshippers, many of whom were illiterate, could “read” the stories of Christ and the Saints and learn the central tenets of the Christian faith.
Like ocular features … [they] function as apertures through which the Divine is channelled as a glow of coloured light beaming into the hearts and minds of worshippers via the portal of the human eye – window to the soul.
Through the materiality of crushed stained glass, Victor taps into the powerful visual legacy of the Christian Church and pays tribute to the significance of light in the evocation of faith and belief. (As proof positive of the inherent theatricality and dramatic potential of the Church and its hold on the popular imagination, one need only consider this year’s Met Gala, which takes its theme from the Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute’s exhibition Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination).
If stained-glass windows prescribe a very specific and particular way of seeing and believing, Victor’s acts of breaking, crushing, transforming and repurposing the glass serves as an invitation to break with fixed and well-established orthodoxies, conventions and traditions and to choose to a different point of view.
Victor also revisits, in this series, her crushed-glass heart, first seen in 1997 in Tintoretto’s Risen Christ Arresting Lazy Susan, presented at the 2nd Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art in Brisbane. In that work, the crushed-glass heart was one of several sculptures of parts of the female anatomy – nipples, womb, ovaries, clitoris and tongue. (The installation also included words inscribing parts of the female anatomy in human hair, dyed a vibrant red.)
When I first saw the heart sculptures, I assumed that they, too, referenced Catholic religious iconography through the Devotion of the Sacred Heart where the mystical-physical heart of Jesus Christ, a symbol of His love for humanity, serves as an object of devotion. Images of the Sacred Heart are often depicted as a wounded heart, encircled by a crown of thorns and radiating light. Victor’s new series of heart sculptures, crowned with their complex network of arterial extensions and shimmering and glowing as the grains of coloured glass reflect light, certainly evoked this imagery for me.
Victor, however, views these heart sculptures as bearing a closer resemblance to the real human heart than the clinical, scientific, anatomical drawings that we find in medical atlases. In their strange, almost otherworldly beauty, Victor’s crushed-glass heart sculptures serve as yet another provocation to see differently, to question and challenge a different orthodoxy – this time, that of logic, rationality and scientific reason.
In the most monumental work in the series, See Like a Heretic, Victor situates a stained-glass sculpture depicting the Archangel Michael as he subdues the Devil within a dome constructed of almost 1,504 fractal plastic lenses. The dome is an architectural device for viewing that Victor has used recently in other installations such as Veil – See Like a Heretic, commissioned for the Sunshower exhibition in Japan, A Thousand Skies and Rising Sun, both commissioned by the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum. The lenses alter the viewer’s vision and perception in different ways, depending on his viewing position, the position of the subject-matter, as well as the relative distance of each from the lens. We may experience blurring, distortion, fragmentation, proliferation and repetition of the images within and outside the dome, depending on the perspective from which we view them. Victor has masterfully employed this architectural device to unsettle and jolt us out of our comfortable ways of perceiving and understanding the world. Indeed, in this installation, we have almost no choice but to see like a heretic.
Mere words and photographs cannot begin to do justice to the sheer beauty and the visual and emotional impact of these artworks. It would be a pity to miss the chance to have a personal encounter with Suzann Victor’s See Like a Heretic: On Vision and Belief, which opens to the public on 11 May and runs till 10 June 2018.