Religious phenomena, idolatry and the production of idols have seldom been interrogated by contemporary art. Twenty-first century visual culture has adopted doctrinal religion as a mode of rhetoric, harbouring constituent elements such as faith, impulse, violence and revolt. Yet today idolatry’s connection to devotion has been severed. Idolatry has become commonplace: the religious idol has transformed into the secular object. ‘Day Release’, an exhibition turned permanent installation at The Northern Charter in Newcastle, suggests the now impotent idol’s potential as a form of interrogation in the realm of contemporary art.
The exhibition features two works: ‘Day Release’ (2014), an A5, sixteen page booklet presented in the format of a Christian propaganda leaflet, and ’18 Crazy Angels’ (2014), eighteen acrylic light-boxes installed in the existing light fittings of The Northern Charter’s ceiling. Given the titular nod to mental instability, it is easy to assume that the exhibition is figured as a commentary on religion; a judgement or criticism of contemporary methods of propagating Christianity. However the word-image dichotomy and physical bodily experience generated by these works indicates a much more nuanced consideration of idolatry as a viable framework of reference for contemporary art.
The visitor is allocated a copy of ‘Day Release’ (2014) upon entry to Northern Charter’s fifth floor exhibition space. Aping the style of Christian publicity pamphlets, the kaleidoscopic design of ‘Day Release’ (2014) is filled with mono-realist imagery. Animals, flowers, trees and landscapes provide the background for a set of five texts. The texts toy with the reader’s comprehension of artificial signs as veils of authentic experience and vice versa. ‘Chapter three: Looking Up’ is a particularly sinister theatre of wordplay hinged upon the story of a doctor who had come to ‘look up’ as the result of childhood trauma. The subversion of religious terminology (in this case that of ascension) frequents the booklet. No explicit reference is made to any Christian doctrine. The ‘Cheerios Manifesto’ backs the booklet, and seems a fitting end to a constructed framework of signifiers that weave religious captivation into the fabric of profane creation.
Physical veneration and anxious awe, readily associated with idol worship, were both generated in the exhibition by the ’18 Crazy Angels’ (2014), presented in the aforementioned light-boxes that also served to illuminate the exhibition space. The ‘Angels’ are numbered and each have a corresponding description in the booklet. Though the descriptions are cryptic, many of the light-box images are alarmingly conspicuous. Number 2 lights up an image of Scottish comedian Limmy, and 18 spotlights the viewer through a copy of a pub food menu. Others present images of individual works by the three artists: Matthew Crawley, Harry Meadley and David Steans. The result is a pageant of faux idol worship. Visitors stand and gaze at the ’18 Crazy Angels’ (2014) in a theatre of fabricated awe. The collective experience is one of manipulation and visual mimicry – though you look up, you have little belief or faith in that which fixates you. Visitors share an experience of art appreciation that has its roots in religious doctrine, but has been transformed into a contemporary and nepotistic form of visual consumption.
Day Release is a brave and fascinating exhibition, which examines how idolatry can retain meaning as a historical framework of understanding and continue to influence contemporary image making.