Andrew Nicholls & Sion Prior: Hymn

In recent months, the way we discuss and digest words of faith in the public sphere have been largely called into question. Whether it be a decorated sportsman receding behind the guise of faith to defend words of hate, or even our nation’s political leaders, turning a cheek to the damaging effects such words can have on the well-being of our society and the communities within it – the discourse, or lack thereof, seems unresolved.

But in the case of artists Andrew Nicholls and Sion Prior, answers could well be available to us via artistic inquiry. Their latest exhibition, set to open on 5 July, examines the ways in which a fervent Christian upbringing can be owed aesthetic and spiritual gratitude, despite their collective rejection of it, and it, of them.

Andrew Nicholls and Sion Prior, Lake of Fire (detail), 2019. Production still from digital video, 6 minutes. Courtesy the artists and Cool Change Contemporary

Having grown up Catholic and Protestant respectively, and later coming out as queer, the two straddle the aesthetic binaries that each lineation of faith has maintained throughout the course of history. For Nicholls, the iconography consistent with the Catholic faith informs a kitsch flamboyance, while Prior’s Protestant upbringing sees his work reject these very styles and forms, leaving the viewer to grapple with the ways faith can couple battling notions, while remaining resolutely united by ideology.

When we consider Christian iconography and its role within art, iterations of characters from scripture have been depicted in a multitude of forms. However, two such portrayals have maintained a consistency like no other, and they are Jesus and Hell. Think of Jesus. You only need to close your eyes for a split second to become bombarded with images of a white man with long hazelnut locks. Now imagine Hell. Well, you’re often left with the dissonance that comes with weeping and gnashing your teeth in the fiery pits of an underworld. So imagine travelling through life, subscribing to a faith which paints a portrait depicting you, there, in hell, weeping and gnashing your teeth, following ‘the sin’ of sexuality which sits on the same pane as thieves, rapists, and even murderers. What does that look like?

Comprising seven works, the show isolates themes like these, and calls into question the ways that faith can ostracise its believers, for whom, had they been accepted, might still be faithful. In doing so, Nicholls and Prior bring us to our knees with Lake of Fire (2019), a video installation which depicts the artists from the shoulders up, in a candlelit space, which really could be Hell. To engage with the low-hanging work, viewers are encouraged to kneel on the Edwardian kneeler which sits before it. Throughout the bible, the recurring theme which most — if not, all — descriptions of Hell seem to have in common, is the ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ Within the work, the artists underscore the oddities that come with the ambiguous nature of these descriptions. Who is doing the gnashing, and why? ‘Is it the damned souls, the demons, or both?’

Another biblical theme which doesn’t seem to be called into question enough, is transubstantiation. Or at least according to the artists, and to Nicholls in particular. For him, the cannibalistic nature of consuming the flesh and blood of Christ, believing that it represents a literal transformation of sorts, is what marked the end of his faith. In Take and Eat (2019), the artists are pictured holding a white man with long brown hair above them, while physically taking bites from his flesh. The work highlights the obscurity and perceived perversity that comes with eating and drinking human flesh and blood, while interspersing common themes of homoeroticism seen throughout Christian scripture. It becomes difficult to look at an image like this, and succumb to the normalisation of eating human beings and taking ‘God’ as your lover.

To tie the show together, the artists nod to the legacies held by Catholic ceiling frescos. In How Great Through Art (2019), the artists bring the sexualisation of religious icons to the forefront of the show. At an astounding 2.5 by 1.4 metres, the large-scale illustration depicts a conventionally attractive 57-year-old white man, thought to be God. The work toys with the ways that we idolise, praise and worship beauty, and that in fact, it could all come down to Christianity.

Giving broader context to the exhibition as a whole, the beautiful white man, posed sensually above the clouds — close enough to touch, but in the end, just out of reach — ultimately acts as a metaphor for the overarching Western-world inhibitions our societies face when it comes to posturing looks over substance, and a blindly exclusive faith, over humanity itself.

John Buckley writes on art, fashion and popular culture.

Cool Change Contemporary
6 to 27 July, 2019
Western Australia