Artists: Min Wong / Stephen Armistead / David Greenhalgh

Author - Kate O’Boyle

Believing in something can feel really good at the time. Systems of belief, be they religious, political or ideological serve latent desires for meaning, purpose and comfort. Three artists at FELTspace this July look at belief through its various manifestations. They consider how wanting something more, a longing that seems so inherently human, often leads people to participate in complex and problematic power relations.

Min Wong’s Tammy and Jim (2017) considers 1970’s and 1980’s spiritual movements in relation to contemporary self-care practices. Objects that sit somewhere between exercise equipment and religious architecture occupy the gallery as if it were a divine gymnasium. The Adidas three-striped logo runs through a hand-sewn punching bag and up a tall cylindrical metal cage, while a spiked bronze seated swing hangs with quiet menace. Circular mirrors lay on the floor, shining up at the viewer like discarded workout mats. The mirrored surfaces, so common to contemporary workout facilities, force bodies, now absent, into spiritual and physical self-examination. Like a deserted playground, the space is overlooked by two deistic figures, collaged photographic portraits of Tammy Bakker and Jim Jones. Both were self-styled spiritual gurus who amassed thousands of followers in the later part of the twentieth-century. Jones is perhaps best known for the Jonestown Kool-Aid mass suicide, while Bakker epitomised American TV evangelists of the 1970’s; big hair, big shoulder-pads and a big love for Jesus. Wong reveals each face through magnified shards of gold glitter, set on mirrored grounds. The extent of these characters deliberate self-styling becomes apparent as the glitter loses some of its shine through its magnification, the faces become warped and unsettling in what amounts to an excessive and sickly spectacle.

As a Bikram yoga follower, Wong is ironically aware of the similarities between the counterculture spiritual movements of the last century and the current self-care trend. Both emphasise the need for self-improvement, maintain group-based motivational practices and privilege health and healing. While Jones’ following ended in mass suicide and murder, Bakker’s empire collapsed under silenced allegations of sexual assault against her husband. Not surprisingly, Bikram Choudhury has also seen his personal worth and power fade as a result of similar circumstances to that of Bakker. Wong’s materiality reminds the viewer of the way spectacle is often used to astound followers, often working the faithful into a sickly daze. Consider the miraculous as it is utilised by traditional religions such as Catholicism, from majestic churches to ecstatic saints, the Church knows that power lies in dazzling the faithful. It is tempting to become cynical in light of these continued abuses of power, but Wong admiringly resists. There is somewhere here, amongst the deserted space, an acknowledgement by Wong that at the core of these movements is a genuine, though often failed, attempt to find meaning.

From spiritual belief to political faith, Stephen Armistead’s Descendant and False Door (2017) considers secular modes of worship through a language of collapse and failure. Three oversized white balloons float through the back gallery, audio tracks attached. First speeches made by three South Australian Senators play on loop, each competing for attention and resulting in chatter that hums. Along the back wall plastic-wrapped, uninflated white balloons hang pre-packaged and ready for inflation, each tagged with the name of a senator or member of parliament and the date of their first speech.  The promise of these pristine balloons are in stark contrast to the flaccid one that hovers at knee height. The inflated balloons have slowly made their decent to the floor of the gallery over the duration of the exhibition. They began with promise, but now are tired, wrinkly and sad. Amongst the noise of the combined speeches, earnest intonations and inflections can be deciphered, yet feel rehearsed and disingenuous when heard en masse. In the right-hand corner of the gallery lays a perpendicular model of the back gallery’s door made of compressed flour. Packed around a wooden armature, the flour crumbles over the duration of the show. Like the deflating balloons, the disintegrating structure creates a space that is unstable and in a state of decay. Flour is central to Old Testament understandings of truth-truth from faith and from the Church.[1] Here the construct of truth, seemingly solid, deteriorates over time. Political ideology, be it individual or collective, often begin like Armistead’s objects-solid, buoyant and hopeful. Overtime, through comprise, abuses of power, unfulfilled promises and hypocrisy, once genuine attempts to enact change become tired. Much like Wong’s shiny surfaces, Armistead’s declining objects critique the outcome of political aspirations without dismissing their sincere beginnings.

Religious and political ideologies often seek to propagate an ideal future which involve concurrent appeals to hope and fear. David Greenhalgh considers political and social futures through the utilisation of utopian and dystopian etymologies as part of FELTdark. Greenhalgh’s Essai, uses found sound, music and footage from 1960s and 1970s science fiction films and television to contemplate futures that critique political systems and their reliance on flawed a human nature. Essay (On Fate) opens on a man’s face as he overlooks a colourful rushing portal reminiscent of 1970’s sci-fi depictions of intergalactic travel. He looks contemplative, almost concerned. The German narrator, translated in subtitles, deconstructs the science fiction genre, identifying and describing the basis for each sequence in an archetypal utopian/dystopian narrative. Speculative technology is exploited by scientists to research and understand human nature, while our narrator reminds his viewers to keep their distance. The essay concludes with the finding that, meritocracy ultimately results in mediocrity. The utopian ideal ended with dystopic outcomes. Essay (On Opposition) critiques ideological uniformity through a narrative that sees a future world where museum displays house would-be futures. Two men who obstinately maintain political uniformity ultimately kill one another, a warning of political systems that do not encourage diversity. While men speculate on a future that could have been, footage of melting ice, a polluted dock and a small-scale agriculture immediately bring to mind failed economic outcomes and their impact on contemporary environmental concerns. Although the footage is from the 1970’s, its eerily reminds the viewer that the future once imagined is becoming realised. The intellectual and social upheavals of the last century that produced this material are instantly held up against that of contemporary politics. The collage-format speaks of reoccurrence, prediction and-fate, making the repetition of our failures all the more unsettling. Greenhalgh’s essays allow the viewer to look upon themselves as a realised dystopian future.

So often religious and political movements utilise utopian and dystopian narratives to dream of better futures, while warning against potential threats. It is not surprising that someone like Jim Jones exploited these absolutes. Jones was a Marxist who utilised, and in some senses achieved, the utopic ideals of an egalitarian society. Jones’ movement, however, ended with a dystopian and defeatist attitude that saw the suicide and murder of over 900 people. These believers were coerced into believing that because their utopic ideals were unattainable, the ultimate protest was required. Although, like Jones, many political and religious movements use utopic/dystopic language to access power, at the heart of the attraction to such ideals is a desire for something more. Political and religious faith indicate a continued and unrelenting search for meaning, a genuine, through often misplaced, need to seek comfort and a fraction of control.

[1] Examples include: 1 Kings 17:12-15, Hosea 8:7, Ezek. 16: 13.