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The groundbreaking artists challenging religion through art

A meteor-hit pope, crucifixes submerged in urine and Israeli soldiers reenacting the Last Supper: these artists steer away from what the Bible told us

Religious iconography and art has always been a controversial mixture. Often considered a sign of disrespect, or used as a way to create scandal, artists have used such works to both question and give their opinion on the mystery of religion. From the use of bodily fluids by Andres Serrano, to the pop culture filled world of David LaChapelle, these are some artists who utilised faith in the most creative — and at times — most questionable ways. With the forthcoming release of Art & Religion in the 21st Century – which features an in-depth study of the relationship between art and religion over the years, we chart ten artists who have challenged religion, from the hidden culture of the female Muslim women in China, to the trippy, Manga-inspired world that mixes technology with Buddhism.


American performance artist Hannah Wilke captured her transformation in striptease style, in the photographic series “Super T-Art”. The series of photos aimed to parody the female body as a commodity, with her progressive transformation from herself to the erotic persona of Venus to what she alludes to as the ultimate “pin up”: Jesus Christ, the superstar. The images brought together sexuality and spirituality, and suggested that the allure of Jesus was that he is portrayed as sex symbol through his various appearances in art. Makes you look at Piero della Francesca’s “The Baptism of Christ” a little differently, right?


Humour and religion has often been resulted in risqué work, and Maurizio Cattelan definitely delivered on that with “La Nona Ora”. The life-size installation of Pope John Paul II struck down by a meteor created mixed reaction after its 1999 debut, specifically for how realistic and lifelike the figure of John Paul II was. The original installation was completed with a shattered skylight and red carpet, creating many interpretations of what “La Nona Ora” meant. Did the meteor represent an act of God, or merely that the Pope is human like the rest of us and can be struck down like us all?


David LaChapelle is known for his colourful, often twisted, take on pop culture, showcasing the biggest stars from The Kardashians to Jesus Christ himself. His exhibition American Jesus: Hold Me, Carry Me Boldly, displayed the iconicism that our society hold towards celebrities as though they are religious figures, with numerous images of Jesus and Michael Jackson. The poppy, religious themed imagery features a contemporary artist who was both crucified in the media and idolised by the masses, creating an interesting analysis between pop culture figures and religious ones alike.


In one of his most famous images, Israeli photographer Adi Nes recreates Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper, but replaces the central figures with Israeli soldiers. The photo depicts 14 young soldiers sitting around a crooked table as they smoke, drink coffee and converse with one another. Nes spoke of the photo, stating: “The moment you serve as a soldier, you choose to give yourself over to the society, to the army, to someone else. You have to take the possibility you're going to die. Here, I tried to incorporate the idea that this supper may be the last for any of them, not just Jesus. All of them are Jesus, all of them are Judas.” The image appeared on the front page of the New York Times in 2008 and helped establish Nes as one of Israel’s most acclaimed, albeit controversial, photographers.


Known for his lifelike sculptures, Ron Mueck played with race, religion and identity with “Youth”. The hyperreal sculpture shows a young black boy staring at a stab wound under his chest, mirroring the paintings of Jesus Christ showing the wound in his side to his disciple Thomas and allowing the viewer to really create their own interpretations on the meaning behind it.


Take a photograph of a crucifix submerged in urine, and you get one of the most famous and widely debated images in photography. Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” caused an uproar after its 1987 debut, with everyone from conservative U.S senators to French Catholic Fundamentalists condemning the photo as a display of disrespect. A Christian himself, Serrano explained that the image aimed to represent how society has cheapened the image of Christ and the hypocrisy of followers who twist his words to fit their own purpose.


Gender, religion and ethnicity are the key components behind Giulia Marchi’s “Call her Fatimah” project — a series of images exploring the lives of the female Muslim population in China. Through the series, Marchi documents the daily lives of young women navigating through their religious identity in contemporary China. Each individual girl serves as a challenge to the onlookers’ perception of what it means to be a religious woman beyond western culture – providing a look into the “hidden world” of young Chinese Muslims.


While many acclaimed artists have displayed works representing both religion and art, students are also using their power and social media to create thought-provoking work. In 2012, Muslim-Canadian Sooraya Graham – a fine arts student at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops – found herself at the centre of controversy after her photo of a woman wearing full Islamic dress and holding a bra in her hands caused chaos at her college campus. While the photo caused debate, Graham claims the image aimed to humanise the veiled Muslim woman, and acknowledges the everyday duties for women like herself.


Mariko Mori is known for her mix of cyber-geishas, technology, religion and manga-esque characters, creating a dreamlike world that explores the overlapping relationship of fantasy and reality. For “3-D Video Nirvana”, the Japanese-born artist explores the blissful perception of the Buddhist spiritual practice by including herself in the photo dressed in a peach-coloured kimono and floating above an acidic orange-pink landscape. Trippy.


Contemporary art and religion might be frenemies, but Bill Viola’s “Martyrs” created a powerful and modern installation which married the two perfectly. “Martyrs” was displayed at St Paul’s Cathedral, and included four videos on separate screens projecting different images based on the elements earth, wind, rain and fire. While reactions to “Martyrs” were mixed, its ability to mesh contemporary art in a historic religious space created a dynamic which looks to their relationship in the future – asking the viewer to question if maybe art and religion can work well together after all.