No Art Censorship in Bern Museums
Last November, an 11-second clip of ants crawling over a crucifix in a four-minute video by artist David Wojnarowicz was attacked as blasphemous and removed from the Smithsonian Museum's National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC. Imagine what those same critics would say about a terrific show in Bern, Switzerland, called "Lust and Vice: The 7 Deadly Sins from Dürer to Nauman." The show is jointly organized by the Art Museum of Bern and the Zentrum Paul Klee, a multi-function glass and steel space by Renzo Piano. Located a short bus ride from the city center, it resembles three rolling hills. In the "hill" that houses Lust, Sloth, and Gluttony, a very conspicuous sign advises visitors the show "is not suitable for adolescents." The art museum, which is located in the city center, presents Pride, Envy, Anger, and Avarice.
Some of the videos, photographs, and paintings might be considered shocking or perhaps pornographic, but their cultural and artistic values justify their place in this immensely compelling show. According to co-curator Fabienne Eggelhoefer, contemporary artists are very engaged with the concept of cardinal sins, but their interpretations differ radically from the original Christian meanings. Pope Gregory I (ca. 540-604) may have been the first to speak of cardinal sins when he referred to seven attitudes of the soul, bad characteristics or vices leading to sinful relationships between men and God and among humankind. Today, TV, advertising, films reference the sins in uniquely contemporary ways. Greed and avarice are well documented, but the primary concern at least of the contemporary artists is vanity or lust. It's left to the view to decide whether the concept of deadly sins is relevant in today's world, Certainly, in all the historical world selected, artists in the past were preoccupied with what they viewed as "the roots of all evil."
The show consists of art works from the 11th century until today, organized by theme not chronology, Each section traces how the meaning of the various sins shifted over centuries. By way of example consider Pride. The historical paintings show Adam and Eve, Icarus, and the Tower of Babel, all depicting out-of-bounds pride.
Contemporary artist Yinka Shonibare is much more cynical and amusing. He uses a series of photographs called Diary of a Victorian Dandy which show himself as a black gentleman cared for by white servants. The series underscores the upper class's arrogance and racism in Victorian Society.
Photographer Andreas Gursky's take on greed in a photograph of the hectic goings on at the Kuwaiti stock exchange is juxtaposed with Abraham Bloemaert's 1625 painting of an old woman counting her coins.
Among the lascivious, sexy stuff in the section on lust are Cindy Sherman's work. Her photographs depict monstrous, partially disfigured bodies in erotic poses. As Eggelhoefer explains: "The visitor recognizes the erotic poses but at the same time he or she is revolted by the fragmented body." Artist Erwin Wurm in his 2001 work had a lot of fun with the theme of sloth depicting artists sitting around and doing nothing. Artists of the past used paintings to warn against too much eating and drinking, For the contemporary artists here there is little moralizing. Gilbert & George's 1972 Balls uses a series of distorted photographs to display the effects of their own hangovers.
What this show demonstrates is that the original Christian moral teachings have in some degree been supplanted by new interpretations. Yet with advertising targeting envy, ugly angry confrontations on TV almost dally, all the vices depicted iare still compelling subjects for contemporary artists. The show's beautifully illustrated catalog is not in English, but a little brochure in English for visitors ends this way:" Deviations from these rules (of behavior) are often treated condescendingly, but may be ostracized and boycotted too. What has definitely changed is that we no longer have to justify ourselves before God, but before the social majority."
The show is on view through February at the Art Museum Bern (www.kunstmuseumbern.ch) and the Zentrum Paul Klee (www.zpk.org).