“The Representation of religion in the work of David LaChapelle and Pierre et Gilles” – by Daisy Ware-Jarrett
There is no doubt that Religion has played a key part in Art’s history, especially in Europe. When we look at some of the most iconic sculptures and paintings from the last 1000 years that have emerged from Europe, most of them have religious themes. Michaelangelo’s ‘David’ (1501-1504) refers to the biblical story of David and Goliath, Leonardo Da Vinici’s ‘Last Super’ (1496-1498) to Jesus’s last meal with his disciples and Raphael’s ‘Sistine Madonna’ (1513-1514) depicts Mary holding the new born baby Jesus. But why did all the great artists feel the need to paint religious narratives? In many cases it wasn’t because the artists were religious. At the time that all these pieces of art were being produced, the Church was the centre of Europes power; politics, money and art were regulated and controlled by the Church. Churches would commission artists to produce divine imagery, maybe as a self promotional tool, or to aid the mass illiterate public at that time about religious stories. It also benefited the artists, because the Church was the only place that really had Art on display, other then the bourgeoisie’s homes, but these weren’t accessible to the public. So where does this leave Religion in Art today? In a society which is obsessed with possessions and in which the Church has little power and money.
In a video interview with ‘The Art Newspaper’ (2008), American photographer David LaChapelle explains that “You don’t mention Christ or Jesus in art circles… unless it’s done in some real ironic way”. He uses the controversial photograph ‘Piss Christ’(1) (1987) by Andres Serrano as an example of modern arts representation of religion. This idea, that religion is unapproachable as a serious subject matter in art is something that LaChapelle himself tries to overcome. A lot of LaChapelles work is based on religion, mainly because of his Catholic upbringing; this supports the ideas of Roland Barthes(a), who says the Photographers way of seeing is reflected in their work. One of his images ‘Last Super’(2) from the ‘Jesus is my homeboy’ series (2003) conveys iconic religious imagery in a contemporary way. When looking at the image you notice a direct reference to Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘The Last Super’(3) which i mentioned before. Everything from the Jesus figures clothing to his mannerisms are the same. There has been a lot on controversy surrounding this depiction of Jesus, I asked a variety of religious and non religious people (either in the church or studying religion) for their opinions on the images I will be talking about in this essay. One man particularly picked up on the representation of Jesus in ‘Last Super’. “he looks like the singer from Reef” Martyn Chapple (Church Deacon in Morpeth, UK) this is true, LaChapelle has represented Jesus in a very European way. A long haired, white Jesus figure is a common depiction that features in the work of Artists like Leonardo Da Vinci, perhaps this2
representation would stem from LaChapelles religious roots and saturation of Catholic Imagery. Nikki Carmichael (Youth and School Worker) agrees with Martyn Chapple, “the image used of Jesus I find inaccurate. He wasn’t white, surely,”. Contradicting to this Georgie Horth, Atheist, studying Philosophy says ‘Religion is a way to get through life and to deal with the problems that arise because of it, I personally like how Jesus is presented here, he takes on an almost Superheroic role’. The referal to Jesus as a superhero is interesting, is that what Jesus is considered to be today? an equal with batman? Rather then Jesus being a superhero I see it more as Hollywood representing superheroes to us so many times in a jesus-like way, sacrificing themselves to save people, and being an omnipresent hope, society regards these mythical heros to be modern day gods. This shows that it’s not just LaChapelle’s way of seeing that effects the image, it is also ours as the viewer (b). The representation of Jesus is similar in the work of Pierre et Gilles, ‘Jésus D’Amour’ (4) (1979) a inhuman glow burst from behind Jesus’ head, a sight that we are so familiar with because of the representations of religion in the past; This accompanied with the European look we talked about before does make you think it is a higly unrealistic representation of Jesus, but thats just it, it is just a representation, emphasis on the RE. LaChapelle and Pierre et Gilles have done what nearly all artist do and have done before, subliminally used their experience in the past a projected this onto their work. So this cannot really be called an unfair representation, it might be offensive to you as an individual, but to all 3 Photographers it is their way of seeing.
The depiction of Jesus is not the only controversial subject in LaChapelle and Pierre et Gilles work. The Sexualisation of Religion is too. Sex is a huge part of our society, we live in a culture saturated it, in music videos, song lyrics, advertising and un-policed 24 hour access to porn online. The Specsavers 2008 Viral advert is a great example of sex in advertising (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N0YKdr0SbH4), a funny but sexual advertisement that is accessible online via anyone who can work computers, which is from the age of 7 (2011 European Commission survey( c)). So how do we respond to the often called sexual representation of religious figures in Pierre et Gilles work? In “St Sebastian”(5)(1987) we see a man who we believe to be the Martyr Saint Sebastian (due to the title), a loin cloth tied around the lower part of his sculpted body, his hands are tied to a post and in correlation with the story of Saint Sebastian he is being killed with arrows. St Sebastian’s eyes do not express pain in this image, as they stare off into the distance he seems at peace whilst he dies, this could be how Pierre et Gilles felt a Martyr would experience death, liberated and peaceful. But this peaceful glare and use of dreamlike post-production can be seen in a sexual way. Martyn Chapple (Church Deacon) suggests it is “homosexually provocative” which he describes as “not cool”, but if we look at older depictions of Saint Sebastian there has always been some sort of sexual nature, the way Pierre et Gilles have represented Saint Sebastian is no different to how Botticelli did in 1474 (6), over 500 years prior; or to Andrea Mantegna’s depiction (7) in 1478. These representations were celebrated in an era where religion was not questioned and sacrilegious imagery wasn’t allowed, therefore you have to ask yourself if the negative denotation is a product of the society we live in? We are so exposed to images of sex, the idea of a naked man being tied to a post instantly makes us read the image in a sadomasochist way, just like before, Pierre et Gilles have taken a common depiction and re-presented it to us, it is our interpretation which should be questioned.
Todays culture, in the West especially, Religion has become less important compared to the significant role it has played in our history. One way that both photographers interoperate modern day religion is through the obsession of Celebrity. Footballers, Musicians and Film Stars have become the gods of our time, what they do,wear and act likes has the power to influence a mass population.
“It is definitely true that celebrities are our modern day gods and goddesses, and we build them up and tear them down. Madonna has been torn down. Michael Jordan has been torn down.” – David LaChapelle
LaChapelle has very clear views on celebrity, and the way he talks about Madonna in this quote is reflected in his piece, ‘Madonna: Sacred Heart’(8)(1998), LaChapelle uses props like the crown and colours like purple and gold to show Madonna’s royalty-like status in society, and her “title” as the Queen of Pop. He also plays on her role as a religious influencer, the use of a iconic sacred heart, refers to Madonnas once devout dedication to the Catholic church, also, the Sacred Heart is a devotion taken in the Catholic church, part of this devotion is “I consecrate myself and my whole family to you…To you we give our bodies, our hearts and our souls. To you we dedicate our home and our country.” in this sense LaChapelle is representing Madonna as a god, the public devote themselves too her in the same way they do to Jesus or Mary (the usual beholders of the sacred heart). The Halo reinforces this idea, as does Madonnas name, Mary is also known as Madonna in religious stories. Through all of these technique LaChapelle is making a very strong comment on the role of celebrity today. Pierre et Gilles use similar iconic subjects and imagery to convey a sense of divinity, ‘Sainte marie MacKillop, Kylie Minogue’(9) (1995) depicts the Australian Saint, Marie MacKillop via the use of Australian Pop star Kylie Minogue, a modern day Australian Saint? not really, but that is how Pierre et Gilles see Kylie’s power and recognition, the equivalent to a saints. It’s not only La Chapelle and Pierre et Gilles that have picked up on Celebrity as gods, adidas has too, their 2006 campaign(10) uses the iconic imagery of the Sistine Chapel but replaces saints and religious figures with footballers, this advert is a much more positive outlook on the situation though, using the celebrity status as gods to promote their clothing brand.
It seems to me that Religion has not lost it’s place in modern day Art, the representations may not be the same as they were a few hundred years ago, but the concept has remained the same. In the 1500’s the Church had status and power, and were able to monopolise society. Today the power lies in Hollywood, Sex and Celebrity, LaChapelle and Pierre et Gilles have taken the iconic religious imagery that represented the Churches power and applied this to this modern day situation. Neither intend to shock or upset the viewer with their representations of religion, they are simply using it as a tool to point out flaws in our society.