Negotiating the Invisible
A recent film by Nathan Coley portrays the city of Jerusalem, undisputed centre of three world religions, by taking us on a journey from the Dome of the Rock to the Wailing Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We see worshippers fervently engaged in the minutiae of their diverse and distinctive rituals, compelled by the unique and ancient sanctity of each site. Jerusalem’s Church (of the Holy Sepulchre), Mosque (of Al-Aqsa), and Temple (the Western Wall, believed to be the remnant of the second Temple) - amongst the holiest constructed shrines of Christianity, Islam and Judaism - are here found in closest proximity. Thousands of pilgrims from all over the world are daily brought together by the magnetism and significance of this singular place, yet remain divided by their faiths, each proclaiming its own as the universal truth. This unique matrix of sacred edifices in Jerusalem, and the ardent veneration they elicit, serves as a most formidable articulation of Coley’s continuing fascination with visible and material manifestations of the invisible and the elusive nature of faith.
A preoccupation with architecture – especially as a physical expression of religious and political ideas and ideologies – is a leitmotif in Nathan Coley’s work . The three world religions and the particular architectural forms they have each engendered are the catalyst for Coley’s latest work, displayed in Mount Stuart’s Visitor Centre on Bute : ‘Camouflage Church’, ‘Camouflage Synagogue’, ‘Camouflage Mosque’. But instead of grand and elaborate structures we encounter humble, handmade hardboard models of these places of worship, presented on low plinths. The models, with their “boys’ bedroom aesthetic” , have been stripped of defining symbols and characteristics (such as crescent, cross, or star of David). They are rendered as generic rather than specific buildings for each faith, thereby becoming signs for rather than portraits of mosque, church and synagogue.
Yet they are removed even further from any sense of realistic portrayal by the bold horizontal stripe-pattern which covers each model and also by different colour codings, - black , gold and purple respectively. The pattern has a curious optical effect, making the reading of the architectural model harder, almost denying its form. The specific colours used might have been chosen for their associative value – especially the gold triggers memories of the glittering golden domes of famous mosques, and the purple is reminiscent of ecclesiastical vestments, like the purple cassock of bishops. The stripe-effect seems to be a deliberate nod to Op Art and design, to Bridget Riley and Daniel Buren, as well as perhaps to the great Renaissance churches such as Orvieto or Siena, with their remarkable façades of black and white stripes. [Illustration Orvieto?].
However, Coley has appropriated the stripe pattern from an altogether non-art and non-religious source: it refers to the so-called ‘dazzle’ camouflage applied to ships during both World Wars as protection from attack. Devised by Norman Wilkinson, Inspector of Airfield Camouflage, the ‘dazzle’ scheme was inspired by the effect of sunlight on water [Illustration of World War I Q-ship ?]. Camouflage, derived from the French ‘camoufler’, meaning ‘to disguise’, is a form of concealment adapted from mimetic strategies in the natural world for use in military action. Artists as diverse as Andy Warhol, Alighierro Boetti and Hans Haacke have all used camouflage in their work, attracted no doubt by its inherent dual signifier of aesthetics and politics. For Coley it was important here not to “make invisible, but to disguise” these objects “that are trying to deny their existence”. At first, the flamboyance and graphic rigour of the works seem at odds with this intent, and it is only when we have identified the pattern as wartime camouflage that this withdrawal into deliberate effacement becomes evident.
To trace the meaning of these camouflaged places of worship it is helpful to consider the nexus of religion and power that Coley repeatedly invokes in his work. For example, we find wartime references in combination with the sacral motif in ‘Fourteen Churches of Münster’ (2000) a video in which Coley had taken his cue from an order to target the churches of Münster, issued to allied bomber pilots in the Second World War. His book project ‘Urban Sanctuary’ probes further into this relationship. His investigation (through a number of interviews) of the concept of sanctuary reveals the church’s failure to uphold its position as guarantor of refuge and immunity from state legislation in today’s secular society. It highlights social, political and ideological questions about the boundaries of state power, and asks whether any spaces still exist that are beyond the reach of law . As an extension to this enquiry, it can be argued that Coley’s ‘Camouflage’ works could be read as subtle metaphors for the increasing loss of authority that religious institutions have suffered in our (Western) secular culture, while their wartime associations also bring to mind geo-political conflicts triggered by clashing religious beliefs.