DG: Christ’s crucifixion is an image that continues to dominate our culture’s view of sacrifice, sin and heroism. How do you see the figure presented your new work?
Your question expresses the problems I’ve been trying to tackle in my Gnosis series.
I had started with a project called Christ Consciousness, using Ephyra, my good friend and the woman you see here in the image. I had a white man playing Christ.
My starting point was orthodoxy, with a view to changing it from within, keeping what I then considered the Sufi-like wisdom of religion, aside from its surrounding dogma. To begin with, I used the visuals of what the West had commandeered as ‘Jesus’ to try and decant the spirituality, to invert or subvert the image of what Jesus could be or could come to symbolize. Could I decode the symbol of Jesus by using the established symbolic language?
So, I photographed a white man with a counterpart woman, as the beginning of the subversion. I cast the woman as doubting Thomas, to be the symbol of descent from within. Really, I had this notion that I just needed to try and re-write the icon, however I didn’t know how to do that, at least not in any concrete way.
That was until I started hearing tremors in the land about an introduction to a book by the late and very great Mark Fisher that he never finished called Acid Communism. He took the position that culture and politics is lacking the ability to think in terms of change. He spoke passionately about the need to think in psychedelic terms, in terms of 60’s counter culture, its constantly evolving music, the way revolutionary thinking morphed, the way everything was evolving in fact! He urged that counter culture ‘embed a notion that reality is plastic and changeable’.
Another key factor in how I saw orthodox figures was something closer to home.
My partner is Iranian and lives here, in the UK, in political exile. I noticed the disparate way we both thought in terms of social change. Where I was fatalistic or cataclysmic, he was still hopeful! He comes from a culture that had three revolutions in just one hundred years and, in turn, three completely new ways of living and seeing. He knows, empirically, that culture can and will change. In the U.K we seem so removed from imagining a dramatic change in our society that, the idea of revolution, the possibility of such a change seems impossible.
Before his introduction to Acid Communism, Fisher famously echoed ideas from Slavoj Zizek and Fredric Jameson saying ‘it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than it is the end of capitalism’ but he was wrong, what he should have said was it was easier for a Westerner to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. This Eurocentric view goes a long way to account for our lack of empathy we have, for ourselves as much as anyone else.
So, what my work is really about here is a slow subversion, from within. I’m steering away from a revolutionary clout, a total destruction, and I’m moving away from the idea of ripping everything up and starting again. That’s the irony: I’m from the UK, I still have to think of change in baby steps.
It’s interesting that you used the word heroism. Because that again is a word associated with a branch of conservative thinking that I’m hoping to create a dialectic with.
In the lead up to the boom of Neo-Liberalism/Individualism (Reaganism in the US and Thatcherism in the UK) in the late 80’s and 90’s, we saw a huge rise of works like those by Joseph Campbell (a Reaganite whose ideas famously inspired Star Wars) and a resurgence of Jung’s ideas around the hero which echo now in writers such as Jordan Peterson. I would even go so far to suggest that this may be a fallout from the individualism proposed at the time and a loss of hope (during this time Thatcher’s slogan was, ‘There is no alternative’) so the archetype of the strong heroic man, the ubermensch was strengthened, out of a last-ditch desperation to reinforce it.
What I want, is an interest in collectivity and society rather than the focus on the individual.
Personally, I’ve become a crude Marxist and I see inevitable change, as such I work with a view to showing how things will (albeit slowly) change.
DG: Yes, your continuing series of black, female and diverse alterations of the iconic, white, male Christ, for the book you’re working on for next year, push us towards a collective view, seeing others as ourselves.
The figure of Magdalene, suggested here at the feet of Christ, whose Gnostic gospel was removed from the Bible, is a vital reminder of our denials. In fact, your doubled female mourner might compound Our Lady and The Whore. Without the feminine, the sexual and the ‘flawed’, humankind as a whole cannot flourish. What’s been the greatest pleasure for you, in creating these works?
Exactly! That’s the essence of it, really. By pushing orthodoxy or conservatism, I wanted to make clear the obvious, that we are all icons, all God! And we all play roles illustrated in the bible.
A great pleasure of this series so far is perhaps the way the works were made. I’m used to shooting narratives but in remaking icons, the set is staged, the models do not move.
A lot of what I’m doing appears like a painting, and of course there is actual paint on them too. The movement itself has eroded from the stories much like the moments themselves in transit in the bible. They are paused, staged and re-made over and over again. When colouring them I often think to myself, these may as well be paintings, but I like the idea of pushing photography until it falls apart, in the way I am trying to push the orthodoxy in the images, leaving the blinding light behind both the camera and the Gnostic ideas.
Art and thoughts by Ellen Rogers, in conversation with The Demented Goddess team. Twitter@EllenJRogers
Support Ellen’s hand-tinted photography at https://www.patreon.com/ellenrogers