Once again the judges of the Blake Prize for Religious Art have been innovative and courted controversy. In announcing the 2009 winner last Thursday evening, they steered away from traditional art and, for the first time, awarded the prize to a new media work, a piece of video art.
Entitled Rapture (silent anthem), the ten minute video is by Sydney artist Angelica Mesiti. It depicts in slow motion, and without sound, the ecstatic faces of youth enraptured by music and the experience of a big concert (click image to view fill video). It was shot at the Big Day Out earlier this year in Sydney, with the camera placed beneath the stage looking back into the crowd.
In the judges' comments about the video, they 'praised it for its beauty, emotional intensity and technical virtuousity. An enigmatic work that operates on many levels, Rapture depicts the joy of being alive while also hinting at the darker aspects of religious emotion.'
At the opening of this year's Blake exhibition, I was thrilled to hear that this luminous, thoughtful, and highly accomplished work had won. But I have to confess to some biases. First, I am a member of the Blake Society, which makes me an enthusiastic supporter of the Blake Prize.
Second, for many years I made documentaries for television. While my works were never in the realm of high art, they gave me a love of video as a medium, and an awareness of its possibilities for artistic expression. For some years I have been hoping that a video artwork would win the Blake, and now it's happened.
And third, one of the documentaries I made a few years ago for the Compass strand, called Chasing the Blake, took me behind the scenes of the Blake Prize. (The documentary and a transcript are available on the Compass website.) It followed four artists through preparation and execution of their works, entry into the prize, judging, and the tension of the big night announcing the winner.
Also it looked at the history of the Blake Prize, and the passion, controversy and questions that have always swirled around it. Just what is religion, and what is religious art anyway? Is art that challenges religious orthodoxies, that is 'blasphemous', appropriate for the prize?
Once again this year, in the lead-up to the announcement of the prize, some church leaders weighed in on these questions. Catholic Cardinal George Pell and Anglican Bishop Rob Forsythe were quoted as criticising some of this year's finalist works as 'gross', 'anti-religious', 'lacking in depth', and reflecting 'our confusion about what is religious or spiritual'.
For those administering the prize, these questions came to a head, and were resolved way back in the early 1960s. There was an outcry over the winner of the prize in 1961, Stanislaus Rapotec's abstract work entitled Meditating on Good Friday.
After the fracas, some members of the Blake Society wanted to make a criterion of the prize that entries had to contain traditional religious iconography. This led to heated debate over the next few years and, thankfully, by 1963 it was decided it would be left to the artist to determine whether their work was religious.
This has allowed the Blake Prize to be very broad, embracing works that are traditional, comforting and devotional, as well as art that is prickly, cheeky, and iconoclastic.
Chair of the Blake Society, Rod Pattenden, argued in the Compass documentary that good art is often disturbing: 'Artists have a role in a culture perhaps to alarm us, to frighten us, to make us aware of things which we've become too comfortable with, and put aside into safe boxes.'
Also, spiritual and religious experience is not confined within the walls of churches, mosques, synagogues and temples. This year's winner of the Blake Prize attests to this.
The artist explained the inspiration for her work in last Friday's Australian: 'I was just interested in these notions of worship and ecstasy and transcendence and where they're actually found in a contemporary setting. I guess the work is just suggesting that extreme experiences, where one is lost in the moment, can happen outside of sanctioned religious spaces. It can happen anywhere, like a rock concert.'
Amen to that, and long may the Blake Prize allow exploration, questioning and expression of the religious impulse wherever it occurs.
Peter Kirkwood worked for 23 years in the Religion and Ethics Unit of ABC TV. He has a Master's degree from the Sydney College of Divinity.