Matthew Herzog / January 28th 2017
Personal Jesus by Depeche Mode is ringing in my ears as I think of Ethan Frier’s piece, Holy Ghost, at the Great Far Beyond project space. While remembering what it was like to interact with the work, its Catholic kneelers before a vat of oil lit by a ner tamid and listening to an Islamic call to prayer, it seems fitting to subvert the experience with the lyric, ‘Reach out and touch faith…’. The song was inspired by Priscilla Presley’s literary bow to Elvis. She writes how love is often unbalanced, that one can be another's Jesus. My inclusion of the song highlights my immediate suspicion in the sight of religious reference more than an actual comment on the work… Maybe. We’ll see how this goes.
To give description to the piece, Frier takes common knowledge prayer rituals from three major religions, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, and one not so major yet oddly and culturally pervasive/expensive ‘religion?’ ‘belief structure?’, called Scientology. From this religious piss pot, he curates a conversational project whereby each religious element harmonizes into one sensory and communal experience. In a need to say this clearer, two people face each other, kneeling on padded benches with an oil vat between and a ner tamid above. (Ner tamid is a lamp symbolizing everlasting light in the Jewish tradition.) As the two participants listen to an Islamic call to prayer in the dim and intimate space, each is handed a flat wooden circle to which they lay a hand on either side. They’re palms touch a copper ring embedded in the center of the wood. Since Frier says it best, here is a section of his Exhibition Statement explaining the ring’s purpose: ‘A piece of software reads the skin resistance of each person (one of the components of a lie detector test and an indicator of emotion and mood) and generates patterns in the oil based on each person’s state.’ As you sit, the surface of the oil pulses in a jumping often geometric performance. If I think about this in relation to Depeche Mode, Frier’s closed current directs our attention to one another as equal participants, it redirects our idea of savior hood into a communal experience. But again, it appears I’m just attempting to legitimize singing the song.
With all the characters in play, a sense of contemplation and instinctual head-bowing is inspired. On the night of the opening, Great Far Beyond - the cheapest place to grab a beer in the already cheap micro economy of First Friday in the Vox Building - forgoes beer, typical gallery lighting, and puts focus on the communal and the sacred. It’s a spectacle but retains intimacy. There’s no context clues, no crosses on the wall, no overly dramatic ‘this is what this is’ statement. I must admit, it was nice to feel less like a Garbage Head and more like a Religious Studies Professor. In the midst of First Friday pace, gallery hopping from David Guinn’s neon lights in Marginal Utility to the steel caged gourds of Rob Rhee in Grizzly Grizzly, one feels an immediate contrast when entering Frier’s exhibit. It’s as if, by the presence of ritual, we’re forced to slow ourselves, take off our jackets and let our sins rest on the floor by the entrance. ‘...let our sins rest on the floor…’ is mostly associative and probably void of Ethan’s point with the piece. But let me be the gay who masks his desire to say, ‘I don’t want your oil near my Zara Jacket, alright? I want nice things.’
Ethan’s piece reminds me of the Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome film where fighting in a metal dome wasn’t a sport but a death match. I heard Tina Turner’s quote, ‘Two men enter, one man leaves’, as I stood by the gallery spotlight surrounded by spectators. In Frier’s case instead of killing one another, two people enter and one conversation begins. God, I love Tina Turner even despite her cringe worthy shift from singing to acting. I want a pair of Tina’s metal cruller earrings. You may think my association turns a kind piece on its head but considering previous shows in the 319 building, including a literal fight night called title by Christopher Capriotti, boundaries are not uncommon to cross and violence hasn’t been a subject untouched.
Check out an interview with Christopher Capriotti here, from Little Death Press.
For as specific as the association is, the Thunderdome highlights a not so subliminal violent and divisive undercurrent when referencing religious or spiritual rituals. The Islamic call to worship, or Adhan, heard in a country where the Muslim faith faces unfortunate and idiotic cynicism risks being misinterpreted. It literally calls its affiliates to worship yet ignorance - becoming more a choral of hatred in America than the misconception of Adhan - can often override that meaning. In a post-Trump/Truth world, where religion and religious affiliations are tools for division and assumed hierarchy, here is Frier taking rituals, typically used to direct attention to God, and pivoting them to direct our attention toward each other. One could hypothesize this is appropriation as reverse psychology. One could hypothesize this is third party artistic privilege. One could also say this is one person using theologically narrow myopia to simply foster connection.
Did you know assuming the Adhan is music can be considered an insult? The beautiful recitation, known as qira’at ‘...does not map well onto the Arabic term musiqa; musiqa is one kind of audio art in the Islamic legal tradition; qira’at is another.’
Needless to say, the piece, however simplified, has inherent risk when we consider how it functions, where it is located, and who is seeing it. The exhibit is two floors up nestled in a building occupied by people with wavering but nevertheless open belief structures or at least open to the belief structures of others. The building is self-critical without being implosive. It is a hub for exigent topics but more often than not it’s used as a tailored meeting place for Philadelphia’s artists, curators, and everything circumambient to that culture. But the surrounding environment outside Vox contains examples of unrepentant hate on the rise. One of my favorite weird and abandoned stores in South Philadelphia - with a storefront window occupied by a dressed mannequin, wood paneling backdrop, and a few 80’s fashion portrait shots - was vandalized. Over the glass was a spray painted Nazi symbol with ‘Sieg Heil 2016’ written below. Where I was once taken by the beauty of a store’s post-boom economic downfall - akin to Detroit’s abandoned complex porn - I’m now taken by this post-apocalyptic if-Trump-is-as-bad-as-I-fear hateful America. Fariha Nizam is another example. On the Q43 bus in Queens she had her hijab almost pulled off by a couple calling it a ‘disgusting piece of cloth’. We have continuous articles with detailed reports from The New Yorker, Huffington Post, Independent. Take these three liberal news sources however you wish.
So for Frier, - whose last name is a bit on the nose - utilizing segments of each religion in an effort to foster relations is like using a gun that only recoils on its owner. It’s a decision that plays on inherited instinct to inspire one-on-one conversation. This also feels acutely like an American sense of privilege. Take established and highly nuanced cultural structures, carve them up, mix and match, and one could construct a personalized religion. If we were to take his model and play around, we could become innately familiar with thousands of methods of practice. We could create a confusing mash of conflicting ideologies. Or, we could end up looking like we’re going to the one-stop cultural appropriation festival known as Coachella.
Coachella is interesting to reference for a few reasons. One of which is from an article on the parent company owned by Philip Anschutz who made anti-LGBTQIA financial contributions.
Maybe this is putting a mountain on a mole hill. It’s difficult not to mention while writing on America’s fluctuating politics, I’m across the street from the United States Custom House occupied by the federal offices for the U.S. FDA, Department of State, Department of Homeland Security, National Park Service and U.S. Customs and Border Protection agencies. Fucking fitting in an associative logic.
As I think about it, if you wanted to experience the origin of these amalgamated Rituals, you could attend any of the 18 Google recognized Mosques in Philly, or talk to any of the 200,000 Muslims living here or attend a service at the United Muslim Masjid founded by the recording artist Kenny Gamble aka Luqman Abdul-Haqq who has one of the most sucessful urban renewal projects Philadelphia has ever seen. You could take a step into any of the over 90 Temples in the greater philadelphia region, or talk to any of the 1.11% that affiliate with the Jewish Religion or take a step into Temple BZBI or simply read their tweets like, ‘There is such a need for instant need and self-gratification… how do we reclaim being a mensch?’ #SICHA #jewishmother. You could sneeze and it’ll likely land on any of the 219 Parishes, or on any of the 519 Diocesan Priests of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, 2,633 Sisters, 1,446,508 of the total Philadelphia Catholic population. Fuck, walk not a few blocks from the Vox Building and you’ll find a fucking Scientology office on Race street. Please, please, please, watch the Scientology Video on their website .
This is what they promote:
This is what we get:
That fluorescent blue is on point. Check out the statistics below for more information.
All in all, context and compilation are key components to Holy Ghost. Physical placement is integral to its impact. The participants affect its conference. The piece’s adjustments of ritual law influence its legitimacy. It might be nice to see the whole of Great Far Beyond transplanted into other parts of the city and allow strangers to participate. Set the room onto Rittenhouse Square, inside PNC bank, somewhere in Germantown, Queen Village, West Philly. I bet we’d have a wide variance of responses.
And Hell, Frier works at the Franklin Institute. Maybe this is an elaborate conspiracy to beta test the Institute’s next ‘scientific’ investigation/drinking game for their Science After Hours programming. Either way, Frier’s communal piece can be a physical representation of what we’re all feeling; a desire to understand one another, to sit down and find the reality of another, however awkward that may feel.