Friday 23 September 2011

‘Jesus Christ was the first celebrity’

An interview with artist Christian Jankowski about his work, 'Casting Jesus'

Christian Jankowski’s film, ‘Casting Jesus’, currently at the Lisson Gallery in London, features an audition to select an actor for the role of Jesus, judged by a jury of Vatican members. The piece was partly inspired by Mel Gibson’s The Passion, and explores the relationship between the Catholic Church and more popular representations of Jesus.

The winning Jesus of Slavic origin and German descent represents a clear, blue-eyed Christ. How do you interpret this representation of Christ in terms of art history from a Western perspective?

Iconography is a product of the mass media, something you cannot escape. It is something that is constantly being worked on, a thing that is reflected in my role as a performance artist. The actors who presented themselves grew a beard. I would be interested to see how the Vatican jury reacted to a Chinese Christ. I decided to just step back and let the casting agency choose [the candidates]. The selection by the casting agency is quite narrow, preventing the risk that the Vatican jury might feel uncomfortable in their role. My aim was to facilitate a dialogue between actors, the casting agency and the Vatican Head of Culture.

How would Casting Jesus be received in Ethiopia?

No idea. The project would be worked upon as an icon. People would want something completely new. The location would revitalise the icon and share again the process of deciding the winning Christ, discussing the values of the jury publicly. Maybe it would be different if they casted Jesus, from the street, someone with dirty fingernails. The aim of the project was to place the role of a contemporary Jesus, using different actors into the superimposed theology of the church to contemplate different meanings. This is demonstrated when the actors present their monologues to the jury in the first chapter. The role of the audience is to judge the actors. Did they do a good job or are they like TV priests or a bad Christian movie? In this context you hear the words of a scripture in a different way, you may ask why the actors chose certain quotes.

Do you think the artwork indicates a positive portrayal of Christianity?

I hope so. Contemporary art is a part of contemplation that confronts you with human ideas, being part of a collective, caring, being touched by something as a group. Yes, I think so. At first the Vatican was a little afraid but I think that if they really look at ‘Casting Jesus’ they will discover they can use it for their own purposes.

In what way?

The film will open up a dialogue. I just think that you hear the critique of the Vatican or church and they are so dogmatic, they have lost touch with popular culture and the way that they represent themselves. If you look at the art collection in the Vatican Museum over the last hundred years or the contemporary art that is displayed within Vatican offices, you can see from their knowledge of contemporary art that they have lost touch. The Head of Culture is opening more dialogue with contemporary artists at the next Venice Biennale, that is a very good signal.

Is dialogue the most important value within contemporary art?

Yes, something that you do not get when you watch TV. The Vatican should be considering what the next generation should be looking at, something which has an emotional quality that carries the pain of mankind where one part of you can laugh, a touching thing to be put into the centre of attention. It is not like a supermodel needing to just look good on TV, dialogue is an emotional part of every religion not just Catholicism.

Which emotion, pain or humour ultimately prevails in this film?

Laughter. Both. Equally. The way to get over pain is humour. It is like an old couple, if they can keep it together with humour they stay together for their whole lives. Suffering, being miserable, to be able to laugh at an upcoming death for example is a way of abstraction, a way of empowering yourself. Humour is similar to religion, to seek something higher to reflect something from above, not that laughter resolves everything, not laughing in a cynical way but in a way to restore life.

The interview panel do not use a theological language to instruct participants to enact sacraments such as the breaking of bread, is this as a result of your artistic direction?

No, the panellists knew it was an art project and not a sermon. The aim was to find an icon that represented Jesus Christ, something that looks at the surface and not the representation, looking at the actors. The instructions to the Vatican were quite open although the Monseigneur did explain in a limited way the Last Supper during the bread scene.

Is the video artwork about Christ being human or is ‘Casting Jesus’ representative of the deification of celebrities in secular culture?

Both, it is not propaganda. It depends on the reflections of the viewer or participant. It is like the TV show, The X Factor, it is the same casting format. It is not true communication. You are part of the jury when you are judging Jesus. The art provokes the viewer to reflect upon their inner view of the image of Jesus from the historical perspective of art history or visits to churches and to be aware of the multiple narratives at work.

Is ‘Casting Jesus’ an experiment?

If you work with a structure that you find interesting, something will happen. If something has not been done before it is useful for art. It is a process of experimentation otherwise you just illustrate something that is part of something already there. The best art takes the risk to go somewhere, even as a painter I wanted to reach another ground. It is a process that requires friction. Maybe expectations are to high, I cannot create a new God and I cannot create a new TV format. In masterpieces you can see the invention, just how much you can invent newness. The percentage of newness is less than ten percent.

The methodology in ‘Casting Jesus’ uses a form of social collaboration requiring the participation of the viewer in contemporary art. Does this process create a sense of mystery and experimentation in the film?

Yes, the most mystery is to be found in others. I find it in collaboration, with individuals or social groups. In collaborating, I wanted to explore multiple cultures. It was not a method for organised groups to try and get in contact with the gods. Mystery is created and constructed in the social grouping of people. It is always in other people. Surely that is the greatest mystery?

Does the artwork uphold the human qualities of Christ or enshrine further the importance of celebrity culture in society resulting in a circular ideology?

Jesus Christ was the first celebrity. This may sound blasphemous. I think Jesus was one of the greatest performance artists, like Joseph Beuys. Their aim was to create the greatest art. They all wanted to create a better world.

Where do we see in the film Christ being human?

He is human throughout. The metaphor of carrying the Cross is the casting process.

How does the commentary of the judging panel create a parallel with the judgement of Christ?

There are three energies in the film, the Vatican, the Jesus actors and Giuseppe, the commentator who asks the jury for the judgements, whether the beard was right or wrong. The commentator puts it all into another perspective creating a stereotypical Jesus. I didn’t see the judgement of the jury in parallel to Jesus being judged by the Jewish people, I see it in terms of Hitchcock’s casting and not the Jewish race. The actors that get the role in Hitchcock’s films get dressed up. It’s not them. They obscure themselves.

And Pilate?

You might have got more out of this piece.

Is the Holy Spirit present in the film in any significant way?

It is not that I believe in the Holy Spirit, however I think the film can activate it by hearing the words of Jesus and listening to them in a different frame. It is not my theological viewpoint. I have never lied to anyone that I am not really religious. However it does not make this piece any less valuable for Christianity. In religious propaganda TV shows, the Bible is used in a different way to spread the message and I think it is difficult to believe people who are highly opinionated and judgemental. There could be a more subtle way to do the job than on TV.


‘Casting Jesus’ is at the Lisson Gallery, London, till 1 October 2011. A selection of images are available on the gallery’s website, along with further information.


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