Friedhelm Mennekes is a Jesuit priest and the parish priest of St Peter’s, one of the oldest churches in Cologne. Peter Paul Rubens was baptised there and in gratitude painted for the church his famous Crucifixion of St Peter. Artists as diverse as Francis Bacon, Anish Kapoor, Rosemarie Trockel, Arnulf Reiner, and Cindy Sherman have all created or exhibited triptychs for display behind the altar.
As an art historian Mennekes holds honorary professorships internationally and at the Australian Catholic University.
Speaking engagements and professorship duties have brought him again to Australia and Eureka Street was fortunate enough to sit down with him and hear his thoughts on the place of spirituality in contemporary art.
ES: What is your definition of spirituality in the context of contemporary art?
FM: I would say spirituality, in the most inner sense, is to question. To think or reflect conscience, knowledge, feelings and questions.
Which particular artists do you think can make the viewer question in this way?
I’ve been working significantly for 25 years now with the arts. I received a particular education by the artists—my biggest teacher was the sculptor James Lees Byars. His work is about questions and he really deeply, deeply let me know that art doesn’t have to be understanding parallel to religion, but the other way around—religion has to be understanding parallel to art. To him, all work he is doing, or what an artist is doing, is to put up the questions, not give the answers. The one who really educated me and brought me to art was Joseph Beuys. Another is Francis Bacon, or even the very consequential female American artist Barbara Kruger. Also Rosemarie Trockel, Cindy Sherman and Jenny Holzer have really spoken to me. I’ve had the opportunity to meet all of these artists. I have done many exhibitions with all of these artists, and many others. When I was a learner, wide-eyed and hungry for art, I was always doing exhibitions, sometimes ten a year. I had an exhibition on every corner.
Can a work of art that is not overtly religious, or that doesn’t even have a religious theme, still offer the viewer a sense of religion or faith?
I think religious people have to get trained in seeing new things with their inner eye. They have to learn how creativity can transfer into religion. This is what is really so important.
The times for Christian subjects are over. The time of Christian iconography is over. After 25 years [in the arts] I would say that as a Catholic I have become more of a Calvinist. First, I would say art is not needed in a church, we don’t need any art. But second, as a Jesuit I would say we need all art. So then art is needed, but not Christian subjects in art.
So you feel it’s unnecessary for a contemporary artist to take up, for example, the theme of the crucifixion in their work?
Absolutely not necessary. Some [artworks of religious theme] work, however, but this is not the reason. For example, Barbara Kruger took a photo of four elderly women protesting at the start of the Iraq war. She took this photograph and enlarged it greatly (4 x 8 metres) so they look like they could be praying hands, and placed it right in the middle of the church floor. So you have to go to it, you can’t avoid it, you have to put your feet on it. Then, to disturb the image she put with it these four questions: Who salutes the longest? Who prays the loudest? Who dies first? Who laughs last? This, in the first instance, has nothing to do with the church, it’s just one of Barbara Kruger’s critical statements. But by having this within the church it really touches you, it pushes you. In one way, if you are celebrating a wedding it means that the wedding group is sitting on praying hands, which is very beautiful. But then if you look at the questions, it’s disturbing.
This is what artists do, they disturb the way to understand a sacred space. They disturb everything by questioning and this is so important.
The artists that you’ve worked with, do they share your philosophies on spirituality and art?
I’m not interested in spirituality [when working with the artists], I’m interested only in true art. The deeper reason may be, or is, that art fills me up with spiritual insight, feelings; it transfers spirituality into my life.
Are you still questioning in your mind?
Yes. I really must say, in a way that is maybe a strange expression, being into art, opening your mind to art, is questioning, questioning as existentialism. But by going along with art this way I started to go along with religion this way. And I must say this is, in a way, very traditional because one always with religion has to distinguish between the content and the form, so the content is like the cradle and the form is desire; like questioning, like feelings, like taking up a higher level of something.
So by your definition a good artist can get that content across with form?
Yes. See, why is art spiritual? I would say art in itself is a practical form of questioning. What do I do today? How do I do it? The artist really has to question practically, to create. So in this way its form is structural, spiritual openness. I think a mystic person has to do the same. Sure, one knows many things by the credo, like an artist knows many things by art history, but to fill yourself with spirituality, to open your mind, it is not to say the credo is wrong but the credo is only one part and maybe this is the background of my questioning. But like art, religion is always orientated towards progression.
Is it a collaborative exercise when an artist displays their work in your church?
Yes, always. We are not doing exhibitions there, but we need artists. It’s a group of us and we invite artists to do space-related interventions on the basis that it’s art, so they have the space. We have an important Rubens. He was baptised there and his father was buried there. So in the nature of Rubens, you have to deal with the space. You have to do what he did, which means you have to be tough.
This space, the church, is very famous and many artists are attracted to it. They come and take, let’s say, a kind of measurement of the space. It’s a broken, late Gothic church, so it’s very empty, very rare, radical, no chairs, nothing else, really rare. Because you know, this is a very interesting thing, art is more than theology; the experience is a deep connection between art and religion. Mostly Western art, but not only, came out of a sacred background. After the separation, artists said, ‘we have to go on our own’. But now they’re coming back to the history and they would like to reflect this, not only theoretically but also practically.
Everyone is pleased to see that the work can open up new spiritual windows.
Can art and religion ever be separate?
They must and they cannot. That’s a problem. Art must become free of all this iconographic dictatorship. You know, normally churches say very strongly that they are not related to art, they are not interested in art. There are all these doubters, all these strange people [in art]. Christian art, liturgical art, is not art—it’s kitschy stuff. It is restrictive. It wants to be symbolic and representing something, but art is not interested in that any more. So primarily, art has to be separated from religion because what these people think of as art is not art, and what they have in their mind is something totally different.
In your years of studying art, and putting on exhibitions, has there ever been a time when you felt you didn’t need it in your life?
Never. If you touch art once, you never let go. This is my experience. I could never live without art or religion. I can’t leave the one nor the other. I have to open up my faith to art and I have to open up art to religion.
Donna Noble is a Melbourne writer with an interest in theology and the arts.