South London Gallery, 18th July - 29th August 2002
Belief is a hot topic right now. Anxieties about religious and political extremism abound, fueling the idea that conflict is always the fruit of people’s unbridled faith in the certainty of their beliefs. Better to compromise ones beliefs, and tolerate the opinions of others rather than killing them; Or that’s what we’d like to think, except when the opinions of others are so intolerable that we end up dropping bombs on them anyway. ‘About Belief’, assembled by students of the curatorship course at Goldsmiths College, wades enthusiastically into the debate, but never quite gets to the heart of the matter. We may be fascinated by the ridiculous, violent and irrational convictions of others, but we indulge them because our own belief in rational explanations is at an all-time low.
That’s why the work in ‘About Belief’ breaks down into two opposing poles; those that show up the self-deluding nature of belief at a social level, and those that reaffirm a belief in knowledge and truth, but only as a whimsical assertion of individual certainty in a chaotic and absurd world. This aspect of is most obvious in Arturas Raila’s Primitive Sky, a dodgy video montage reconstructing the UFO sighting he witnessed twenty years previously, and in Marko Maetamm’s goofy cartoons describing conversations with God and the Devil, on such subjects as the technical feasibility of feeding the Five Thousand. Whether you believe these eccentrics is beside the point. Individual belief, at its most solipsistic, is as unshakable as it is irrelevant to others.
Things get more interesting when individual convictions interact with the world around them. Jonathan Monk’s Japanese wall-text Meeting no. 41, declares that the artist will be at Mount Fuji on 14th July 2010. The gap between Monk’s pre-scripted appointment with history and the vast social and historical forces that put that certainty far beyond his control is funny, but a bit too smart. In contrast, Joost Conijn’s inspired video Airplane chronicles his attempt to build an air-worthy single- aircraft, using only budget materials. With engaging conviction, Conijn tows his flimsy single-seater to the Morroccan desert, where against all odds, the thing finally makes it to a cruising altitude of around six feet. Airplane is both monumental and absurd, a ritualistic celebration of the science of air flight, and the belief in rationality on which an individual will risk his life.
That science can get confused with belief is ambiguously explored in Sarah Tripp’s documentary, Testatika, about a Christian sect whose believe they have invented a perpetual motion machine. Tripp’s film concludes that the sect’s machine probably doesn’t work, but accepts that they might want believe it does, as an act of blind faith. Mark Dean’s Scorpio Rising 2, which juxtaposes ‘The Gospel According to St. Matthew’ with ‘Hells Angels on Wheels’, conflates Christianity with counterculture, seeing both as expressions of ritual and an assertion of group identity, but reduces both to sociological exercises, losing the meaning of either in the process.
‘About Belief’ gets stuck because it doesn’t unravel the difference between ‘belief’ and ‘knowledge’; whether it’s the fanaticism of the suicide bomber or of the football fan, belief has become a post-modern excuse for avoiding the necessity of knowing, and the difficulty of finding out, instead relapsing into the personal, or the culturally relative. The best work in the show, Serb artist Milica Tomic’s I am Milica Tomic, pushes the problem to breaking point. As she revolves in front of the camera, changing her name and nationality with each switch of language, violent bruises, cuts and gaping wounds appear on her body; untroubled by this mutilation, Tomic continues her litany of never knowing who she is. Nationality and language may be arbitrary, but through them the reality of societies and individuals take shape. Tomic’s body passively suffers the wounds of believing too much, and desiring to know too little.
all material copyright JJ Charlesworth 2009 and original publishers where indicated