10 months ago


The Icon Exhibition

The Icon Exhibition “Kissed again and again” | 171 The black image under silver worn to shreds by kisses The black image under silver worn to shreds by kisses under the silver The black image worn to shreds by kisses under the silver The black image worn to shreds by kisses All around the image The white silver worn to shreds by kisses All around the image The very metal worn to shreds by kisses under the metal The black image worn to shreds by kisses The Darkness, O, the darkness Worn to shreds by kisses The Darkness in our eyes Worn to shreds by kisses All we never wished for Kissed and worn to shreds by kisses All we escaped Worn to shreds by kisses. All we wish for Kissed again and again. (Gunnar Ekelöf, Selected poems, translated by W. H. Auden and Leif Sjöberg, New York, Pantheon Books, 1972) Fig. 5: The banner from Sânbenedic, in the exhibition, visible from both sides like it would originally have been during a procession. Fig. 6: ‘You are seen as much as you see’, Pantokrator from Spring, painted 1733 by Nistor of Răşinari. Presentation of religious objects or images Of all aspects one might have focused on, precisely the relational context may be regarded the most problematic in a Norwegian context. All other aspects or dimensions contain some knowledge to Conway which might then be presented in a scholarly, distanced way: this is the theology and concept of holy images as established by the 7th Ecumenical Council in Nicaea (ad 787), this is the liturgical use of icons, this is their art historical place in terms of workshops, influences, masters, models, schools etc., this is the iconography, and so forth. Yet precisely when presenting the relational dimension, the exhibition broke down that safe distance of factual elements and tried to establish a relation between visitor and icon. (Fig. 6) This seemed incompatible with the unbiased neutrality which is generally recognized as a basic feature in the museum institution. And it easily awakens the “fear of touch” with which a European secular society so often reacts to Christianity particularly. A museum displaying cultural history is expected to present knowledge about icons rather than the icon themselves since it is also expected to present knowledge about the relational dimension and not create the relation itself. While an art museum may present the works directly, trying to established that immediate relation between viewer and picture, as it was seen with the important exhibition of religious art in the National Gallery in London in 2000, “Seeing Salvation”, a museum of cultural history, and particularly a university museum, is expected to keep its distance – at least when Christianity is the topic. In a certain sense we wanted to promote an emotional response instead of an intellectual, to focus on the experi-

172 | Henrik von Achen Fig. 7: One of the first sketches outlining the concept of the design. Fig. 8: Exhibition plan with wall articulations, July 13 th 2015. ence of the icons rather than the scholarly knowledge about them. This tension between what the icon is as a religious object, and the usual approach by the neutral museum institution to such a religious object was articulated by another Swedish poet, Tomas Transströmer, in 1983, speaking of icons resting in the ground, face up: “What a strong longing! What an idiotic hope! | And over me the steps of millions of doubters”. This “fear of touching faith”, an inherent hypersensitivity of European museums concerning all things Christian, may be the reason why it has been registered that “considering the central position that ‘religion’ has occupied in civilizations worldwide, it is strangely neglected in museums”. 2 The hypersensitivity concerns all religions which are a living part of our society, partly because museums sometimes are expected to promote as well as present religion, or because the distinction between sacred spaces and museums displaying religious objects has become blurred, both in the museums, and, indeed, in the cathedrals of Western Europe. 3 Too often, religion is a phenomenon to describe, not to present as a living reality. This is curious, since “Religious beliefs are now, more than ever, a major area of public discussion, controversy and media attention, prejudice and misunderstanding’. (...) Most museums and galleries have material that relates to religions and other beliefs, but usually without any consistent approach to it”, as it was stated by Reeve. 4 The exhibition of Transylvanian icons in Bergen maintained that precisely public museums should engage in religious cultural heritage even though “few museums have a formal policy on religious issues”. 5 They probably don’t need one except the fact that the museum institution should present rather than promote religion – which does not imply that an exhibition cannot legitimately provide experiences of religious objects which come close to, or actually become, religious experiences if visitors are so inclined. But precisely the religious cultural heritage is important to preserve because the material culture of faith often looses its meaning in an increasingly secular society, because it is important that access to such a heritage is provided for those whose heritage it is, and because it also is threatened by changes in religious practices and expressions. The problems concerning the latter situation became very clear after The Second Vatican Council, where old liturgical forms and devotional traditions were substituted by new forms, and the ensuing purging of churches was at its worst almost sheer iconoclasm. Not only religious museums, but also and not least public institutions should become concerned with developing “narratives on religion and on religious issues, for their responsibility [is] to use their collections to promote mutual understanding between people in the whole field of religious faith and practice”. 6 In attempting to do so, however, one becomes painfully aware of the inherent difficulties in maintaining simultaneously the necessary distance and closeness, as well as the difficulties in presenting more than just knowledge of (historical) religions attached to objects. 7 (Fig. 7) Problems of presentation, and implications of undue ideological investment, inadequate representation or, at the other end of the spectrum, proselytizing, become obvious. Obviously, one cannot claim that the exhibition in Bergen solved all these problems, but it did something to make the phenomenon of the icon come across as embodying a relation between man and the Divine. Nevertheless, the question arises whether faith may be adequately presented at all. If museums are institutions “founded on the secularization of religious fetishes”, 8 this will often lead to display of religious objects as pure aesthetical objects, accompanied by only factual information about their religious context, barring essential aspects of access and experience and seriously reducing the phenomena displayed. 9 In cultural history museums this is especially problematic. While the performative aspect of religion like rituals or ‘liturgies’ is what religious monuments like synagogues, churches, mosques etc. provide as ‘living museums’, making it possible to understand the meaning and use of religious objects, even in part to ‘experience’ the faith which is so often lost in conventional display of religion in museums. However, “Kissed, again and again” wanted to show how a public museum might be enabled to a more adequate presentation of faith as a constitutive component of any religious object. Ultimately it is a question of exhibiting the intangible element of tangible religious heritage. 10 The design of the exhibition Like in most other situations, the exhibitions had to accept limitations in terms of time and economy – and it had to be mounted in rooms which could be emptied and used for this purpose, without creating problems for all other rooms on that particular floor. There was three criteria for the design chosen: It should help focusing on each of the icons, give associations to their original

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