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Godless societies are on the rise but arguments over religion still rage in Léon Ferrari’s provocative collages. The most glaring idiosyncrasies of Christianity are nowhere more evident than around that heavily contested zone – the female body.
At the entrance to his latest exhibition in Buenos Aires’ Malba, an image of Michelangelo’s Christ, plucked from the Sistine chapel, is superimposed upon a Martin Schreiber nude of the pop icon, Madonna. Displaced from its original context, the marmoreally-contoured, imposing religious figure appears to rise, like a black-and-white surrealist still, from the pop icon’s reclining figure.
The blazing drama of late Italian religious paintings is insistently subjected to Ferrari’s potent re-imaginings. His provocative collages combine a distortionary, surrealist angle with a photomontage technique. Insistently foregrounding unlikely encounters between revered religious iconography, biblical quotations and oriental erotica, Ferrari’s ‘re-readings’ debunk any canonical interpretation, cutting religious and political hegemonies down to parodic size.
The exhibition opens with the mid-90s Braille series: this is Ferrari in a more sober, reticent vein. Scintillating dots overlay biblical images of scenes from the Last Judgment and the Expulsion from Eden, highlighting the seeds of cultural indoctrination. Unlike his bold, provocative collages that offer surface critiques of sexual morality, the transparent film of the braille series works by subtly drawing the viewers’ attention to dominant cultural narratives. Biblical translations are placed as side appendages, pointing to the sources of a 2,000 year history of deceit and repression.
From the laconically elegant typeface of his 1960s ‘Cuadros escritos’, Ferrari has insistently sought to foreground the materiality of language, exploring its associative potential. With the braille series, the viewer is silently engaged with the tactile surface bossing: the act of ‘touching’ the historic reproduction implicitly subverts the visual hegemony entrenched in Western iconography. In theory, bringing the viewer into physical contact with the work emancipates them from their role of passive spectatorship. In practice, visitors accustomed to viewing an objet d’art with revered critical distance, approach the work cautiously.
But Ferrari’s work is, nonetheless, compelling purely on the grounds of its wry directness, its wit and pizazz. In the vignettes of the Genesis landscape, ‘I created evil’, a blissfully insouciant Adam and Eve are lectured by a tufted-bearded priest and chased by a stick-wielding angel, casting the nude definitely out of Eden. Each religious figure is relentlessly perforated with Ferrari’s censoring crystals, placing such irrefutable dogmas in skeptical visual parentheses. In ‘The bread of life’, a coy-seeming Christ, his fingertips smeared with blood, heads a table on which plates display his beheaded disciples. Alongside the biblical text reads: “I am the bread of life: He that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth in me shall never thirst.”
The iridescent braille film over Andrea Mategna’s ‘The Lamentation over the Dead Christ’ points to the failure of Christianity to revere both body and soul, offering its own illusion of the spirit rising out of the recumbent body.
The series moves eastward with a series of erotic Japanese prints of couples in elaborate pornographic poses. The playful irreverence of the works depends on the combination of idea, image and biblical caption, of the like of ‘Flee fornication’ and ‘Who eateth my flesh’. While Man Ray’s black-and-white print ‘Eve’ is placed in dialogue with Jorge Luis Borges’ love poem.
In ‘Thou shalt not covert thy neighbour’s wife’, Gustave Courbet’s starkly realist, libertine ‘The Origin of the World’ is divested of its Musée d’Orsay gilded baroque frame and subjected to Ferrari’s braille censor.
Curator Florence Battiti presents a coherent, intelligent retrospective: the contemptuous works are allowed to seamlessly flow together, evoking the ubiquitous narrative of religious doctrine. The ever-so slight variations on the same theme do run the risk of sliding into gratuitous repetition, but Ferrari’s work is at its most probing when it subjects Christianity’s disdain for the flesh to absurdly comic proportions – quite literally in Utagawa Toyokuni’s gruesomely enlarged ‘love thyself’ prints.
In the second half of the exhibition, images from the mass media are starkly juxtaposed with religious iconography. A gaudy, technicolour pope presides over a Goya-like multi-layered etchings of hell; a cartoonish God looms over the Vatican; while angels bemusedly contemplate a phallic Roman sculpture.
The provocative temporal and cultural transplantation of these vignettes spin out of Ferrari’s central conviction that the “Bible is an anthology of cruelty”. The images point endlessly to the repressive, violent strains encoded in religious practice; and to the political manipulation of cultural signs. Nothing is self-contained in Ferrari’s world; his most successful pieces work on a theatrical principle of dramatic irony.
The apocalyptic scenes of Hiroshima are viewed through the curtains of Piero della Francesca’s ‘La Madonna Del Parto’; the angels of birth are now depicted as minions heralding the launch of weapons of mass destruction. As in Brueghel’s painting in which the major event is eclipsed by the diurnal round, a couple in Jan van Eyck’s ‘Virgin of Chancellor Rolin’ are absorbed in their ostentatious domestic setting, while in the distance a prospect of war and destruction rages on.
The explicit, intransigent works are testament to Ferrari’s relentlessly inventive, irreverent style. Curated in dialogue with Malba’s concurrent exhibition, Bye Bye American Pie, it offers a provocative, searing critique of the mechanics of political and religious imperialism.