Bearded Orientals: Making the Empire Cross

This work is concerned with relationships between contemporary popular culture, and the futures we (for better or for worse) create. It is not intended as a statement but rather as a means to ask questions. In particular, I’m questioning the relationships between media, popular culture, and the development of truth, history and ideology.
When you observe these two people, Osama Bin Ladin and Jesus, their ethics could not be more different. The only comparison that can be made is historical: both pursued by two of the world’s most powerful armies – the US and the Roman armies. Jesus is clearly defined by history, but I am interested in how history will treat the image of Osama.
There is a very real possibility that by giving such significant media attention to those who commit crimes and advocate violence, we may inadvertently elevate of them to a status where in some circles, they are perceived as sacred and holy – revered in the same way we revere Jesus.
This work has quite an open text so people are likely to read the image in many different ways. Some have mentioned they see it as a juxtaposition of good and evil, whilst others are interested in its comment on how iconic figures are created.
To me this work is a cautionary tale about our fixation with crime, violence and catastrophe. Access to information is important and there are instances where this has been well balanced with the temptation to sensationalise. No war was declared against the Lockerby bombers. Instead they were extradited and tried for murder amidst media coverage that left few people with a lingering memory of their names. Similarly, Martin Bryant was moved to an inner cell in his Tasmanian prison to ensure his media attention did not turn him into a cult figure like Charles Manson. There is a wisdom in this approach that has been forgotten in the case of Bin Laden, and this lapse may have unintended, unwelcome effects in the future.
Bearded Orientals: Making the Empire Cross comes from a larger body of work named after the image, called Making the Empire Cross. Each image in the series further considers the relationship between what we read, see and hear in our media, and what we believe or perceive as ‘truth’. The series covers a range of issues from misleading statements about weapons of mass destruction, through to our cultural fascination with violence (for example some works raise the question of whether a tour to a war zone the next extreme adventure holiday trend. Strangely when researching that part of the work I did find one person offering such tours.)
Given the work’s focus, the recent media coverage of it is ironic.
The first tabloid to comment on Bearded Orientals: Making the Empire Cross and its entry into the Blake Prize ran with the headline Christianity is Mocked Again. It then proceeded to present the editor’s personal readings of the artwork as if they were fact not opinion, and impliedly suggested that this is also what the artist truly intended. This opinion soon became fact, and I began to receive emails from concerned people asking how could I do this? Don’t I have any feelings for people who have lost family in terrorist attacks? Why do I criticise a religion that has done nothing to me? My response is to direct these questions to the Daily Telegraph of Sydney for it is they not I who have suggested that Christ and Osama are spiritual equals.
So many of us feel that there is something wrong with waging war in Iraq and the culture of fear, hate and suspicion bred by the ‘War on Terror’, yet few speak out for fear they will be the first to say the emperor wears no clothes. Exhibitions of the work in Brisbane & Melbourne (Australia) and St Tropez (France) have given audiences the opportunity to think about these things and I heard many peoples’ views on what the work means to them, but on no occasion has anyone felt the work compared the spiritual value of the two figures. I can only attribute the difference in readings to the provocative opinions expressed in the Daily Telegraph, which were repeated without question by many news services that subsequently reported on the issue.
The work was entered into the Blake Prize because that prize seeks to encourage debate on spirituality. Recent geo-political events such as the ‘War on Terror’, the war in Iraq and the on-going Israeli/Palistinian conflict, give me cause for concern that spirituality is being confused with other more pragmatic concerns of human existence. If we read the religious texts carefully it is clear that God is on no-one’s side if they advocate violence and choose war over peace.
The elevation of Osama Bin Laden to hero and/or anti-hero in the Christian and Muslim world represents a troubling take on spirituality, and despite what some in the media have said about my image, his status existed before I made the work and was caused not by me but by sensationalist reporting.
The artwork has been effective in generating some debate, but given that the media can set the agenda of the debate, it is not surprising it has not probed more deeply into their role in escalation of violence in our society. Whilst I have no control over the media, I do sincerely wish to apologise for any discomfort my part in this event has caused to people who saw this image in the context of those terrible opinions.
Priscilla Bracks
August 2007.
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