Bestial Violence Bestial Suffering — Jane Alexander, Surveys (From the Cape of Good Hope) at St. John the Divine


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Here’s Holland Cotter getting it right about religion in the Jane Alexander exhibit currently on view at St. John the Divine. Alexander has transformed the neo-gothic cathedral into “an occupied zone this spring, with a transient population of unearthly beings camped out in its chapels and aisles. They aren’t saints or angels, though some, in their odd way, do look angelic. They’re more closely related to the marginal creatures carved on high corbels and capitals in medieval churches: half-hidden, half-human, half-bestial things, refugees from the subconscious, defectors from dreams, staking claim to turf in the spiritual realm.” 

The figures have distinct identities and functions: Bom Boys, Infantry, Attendants, Beasts, Birds, Custodians, Defendants, Ghosts, Harbingers, Harvesters, Money Boys, Officials, Corporal. They inhabit rural environs pocked by human industry, technologies, and other systems of control. Loveless and alive without grace, their location in the cathedral under the gaze of Christ and the saints does nothing to alter their condition.

Without exception, the eyes are unbearably sad, weighed down, staring, and animal. These fiberglass figures are pure beak and snout, incapable of speech or any form of genuine communication. Their heads pivot and turn, the slender arms are either going to fall to the side or gesture and point. You don’t want to be anywhere near them, they carry such stigma.

These are peculiar, fallen beings to put in a cathedral. Alexander’s militarized and suffering figures reflect the violent ravages and remnants from apartheid South Africa, where the artist is from. But for me, the religious setting is going to pose a special set of questions. I didn’t “like” the exhibit. Fearful and anxious, human-all-too-human, these creaturely hybrids belong to some other alien world.  How different in kind are these beasts from the humanoid divines who ordinarily monopolize the caverns of the cathedral space?

So unbearably feral this existence, I was ready and relieved to leave them back in the dark and gothic cathedral place for the bright spring day outside.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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