A friend in Spain called my attention to an interesting sculpture which has raised quite a bit of polemics.
The sculpture, by Spanish artist Eugenio Merino (Madrid, 1975), represents a Muslim worshipper, a Catholic priest and a Rabbi. The three of them are immortalized in the act of praying, each one in his own fashion: the Muslim bending, the Catholic kneeling and the Jew standing. The piece comes with the controversial title “Stairway to Heaven”. To a closer look, we see that the books of the three religions are inverted: the Jew prays with a Koran, the Christian with a Torah, and the Muslim with a Bible. How should we read this piece?
The artist defends his work: “It is not a work of art meant to offend. My idea is the coexistence of the three religions, joint in a common effort to reach God, in a literally way. I think the message is positive.”
Of different opinion, the Israeli Embassy in Spain, which has publicly protested. “The piece contains elements which are offensive for the Jews, the Israelis, and, of course, for others“. It condemned the work of Merino as “pure provocation for the sake of provocation“.
Can the sculpture be considered anti-Semitic, suggesting once again the old stereotype of the Jews ruling the world, standing on top of the column, closer to God? Or should that be taken as a compliment?
Or maybe the sculpture is anti-Islamic, since the Muslim is crushed at the end of the pile. Or should that be taken as a compliment, meaning that Islam is at the base of all monotheistic religions?
And what about poor old Catholicism, squeezed in the middle, the eyes shut?
Maybe the column is not meant to suggest a hierarchy, so nobody should get offended.
We can easily see that every interpretation is exactly what it is: an interpretation. Ask different people, they will give you different interpretation. Isn’t that what art is all about? Polysemy.
The sculpture was exhibited in the recent Spanish contemporary art fair, ARCO 2010, where it drew a crowd of curious visitors, deign of the Louvre. Susanna Corchia, who works for the gallery which represents the work of Merino (Galeria ADN, Barcelona), comments: “The column effect is visually needed to respect the different ways of praying. In order to create a Stairway to Heaven, this was the only way to resolve it figuratively. The intention was to show how the three monotheistic religions share the same roots and the same movement towards God. To me, this is a piece about the brotherhood of men, about dialogue. Unfortunately, we have lost the capacity to read symbols, because we are too busy looking for the scoop“.
The sculpture of Merino was presented with other thematic pieces, all by the same artist: “This is not a Philip Stark“, a piece which mocks Philip Stark’s design piece “Table Gun Lamp“, turning into a more heavily connoted Uzi-with-menorah; “In God we trust“, a bronze cast of hands joint in prayer holding a 20$ bill; “The call of God“, a blinking neon wall cross, normally associated with pharmacology, whose lower section was elongated to resemble a Christian cross (suggesting religion as a panacea for all our pain?). The last work of the section is “All we need is love“, a window displaying a copy of the Koran, a Bible and a Torah book, whose hardcovers have been equally carved out with the word “Love”.
Can these works be dismissed as pure provocation? I think they are vibrant, visually powerful and very iconic. If something, the polemics they raised and continue to raise demonstrate their capacity to impact, to stimulate a debate. This is what good art should do, when it is not relegated to mere decoration. Yet, they also prove how difficult is to talk about religion, a subject which, despite the liberal attitude of contemporary Western societies, seems to be still untouchable. At least in art.
The sculpture “Stairway to Heaven” was sold for 45.000 euros to a Belgian art collector, herself Jewish.
I wonder how it is going to look in her living room.
©All pictures courtesy of ADN gallery, Barcelona
Thanks to Susanna Corchia