Tag Archives: messiah

A Scanner Messianically

R. Justin Stewart may not be the first artist you’d expect to be behind a work called “Distorting (a messiah project, 13c).” The self-described atheist became interested in the idea of the Messiah after his Jewish wife suggested that he might investigate Judaism for topics to explore in his art. “Distorting,” on display at Brooklyn’s Invisible Dog Art Center through May 5, is an installation made of fleece, rope and plastic, and is dotted with QR codes that visitors can scan for more information. We spoke with Stewart about the installation, the Messiah and its surprising connection to the modern courtship dance. (The following is an edited transcript.)

Can you explain the concept behind the piece?

It’s a 3D bubble diagram of one segment of the history of the idea of the Messiah within Judaism. I’ve done a survey map of the history of the idea of the Messiah as I was able to figure it out over 18 months of research. I took the 13th-century segment and used that data to blow it up to fill the space, so each pod represents a person, a category that person wrote about, or an individual bit of information they said or wrote or was said about them. You can access those bits of information by scanning the QR code that’s on each pod.

What inspired the project?

I really like to read, so this project was an excuse to make reading my work. As an artist you can do that kind of thing. Before I started the project, my father-in-law recommended that I read What Do Jews Believe [by David Ariel]. When I was looking for a topic, my wife suggested Judaism because it has this long history of evolving dialogue, and ideas changing over time, and people riffing off of the writing that came before. That was part of the essence of the topic I was looking for. So I was flipping through the book and one of the chapters is the Messiah. When I flipped through that chapter, I’m like, “Jews don’t believe in the Messiah.” At least that was the Judaism I’d learned up to that point. So I started reading and that was kind of the beginning of my Jewish Messiah education.

So is this religious art?

I’d find it difficult to not put it in the religious category. As an artist I come about it more as an interesting idea that happens to be on a religious topic. I would consider this a piece that has very religious content and could be considered religious art, but I wouldn’t consider myself a religious art maker.

What are you hoping for people to get out of the project?

What really fascinates me is the idea that each one of these pods is just an individual bit of information and the pods themselves are suspended and created by relationships between architecture and each other, in the same way that ideas were created by the relationship between the person writing them and the culture they’re in, the place and time they’re in, and other ideas they’re connected to. No idea manifests in isolation. I’m fascinated by the interconnectivity of them. I think the viewer might be able to get to the idea that each one of these pods needs each other to exist, in the same way that if you removed any bit of information from the messiah topic, the Messiah would change. If you cut any of those ropes it would change the art in its totality.

What do you think the idea of the Messiah means today? Do you believe in the Messiah?

I would consider myself more of an atheist, but I see the Messiah in its broadest definition as just a beacon of hope, the idea of a rupture with reality or a change in reality to something better. That’s an idea I can get behind. I think everybody hopes for something better. So many of the ideas that came up were ideas that seemed to resonate beyond a time frame. Issues that people are dealing with in the 2nd century, they’re still dealing with today, and I think the Messiah can represent a resolution to some of those things. Some of the things the Messianic age would bring for people I find fascinating. One of my favorites was a writing that said when the Messiah came, women would pursue men in the courtship dance. When I read that I was like, “That is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever read,” only because that whole anxiety that goes with men pursuing women or vice versa has existed forever. It’s those kinds of things that I just found amazing in the research.

James Frey’s Messiah of the Subways

by Amanda Walgrove

What would the Messiah be like if he were walking the streets of New York today? James Frey takes a stab at answering this question in his new book, The Final Testament of the Holy Bible. After revealing that his 2003 memoir, A Million Little Pieces was mostly fictive, Frey was swiftly ostracized by the literary community and, famously, by Oprah Winfrey, who had previously championed him. In a brave attempt to redeem himself, Frey has written an addendum to the most famous book of all time, revealing the second coming of the Messiah—this time, in the Bronx projects.

Pulling out all the controversial stops, Frey’s Christ character, Ben Zion Avrohom, also known as Ben Jones, is a former alcoholic who impregnates a prostitute, smokes pot, and engages in homosexual relations. After surviving a horrific work accident, Ben suffers from epileptic attacks in which he converses with God and gradually develops a band of devout followers who fearfully build a shelter in the Manhattan subway tunnels. Ben Zion preaches that the 2,000-year-old Bible is antiquated and that “stories that had meaning then are meaningless now…those books are dead.”

Having been dumped by his publisher after the Oprah snafu, Frey is taking precautions this time around, publishing only 11,000 copies in the United States and self-publishing e-books online. And just in case we didn’t understand that he was making a statement in the face of religion, the book was released on April 22: Good Friday. Frey is prepared to take criticism, saying, “I’m sure the religious right will go crazy because the story of Ben…is hardly the Messiah they have in mind. But I don’t really care. I just did what I always do — tried to write the best book I could.” However, with all of the controversy brewing before the book was even released, Frey must have anticipated that any hopes of praise for good writing would be overshadowed by passionate religious dialectic.

John Murray, Frey’s publisher in the UK, is using a “word of mouth,” or more specifically, a “word of YouTube” strategy to inspire an audience of readers. In one video, Frey expresses in a monotonous discourse: “I believe the first two volumes of the Holy Bible were written by people like me, storytellers, who wanted to create some piece of work that made sense of the world they lived in…I believe these books should never be considered pure fact or literal truth, but works of art.” Frey is quick to attack organized religion through the doctrines of Ben Zion, speculated to be Frey’s alger-ego. Ben Zion defines the institution as “a beautiful con, the longest running fraud in human history.” It is true that the scribes of the Bible could not have imagined the world we live in today, rife with nuclear power, cyberspace, advanced physics, and social reformations. But the power of the Bible lies in its ability to transcend generations and encapsulate values that speak to each human.

The UK’s Channel 4 released a review saying that for those who can get past the offensiveness, “It’s a sensitive and very moving exploration of the human need for love.” One of Ben Zion’s converts says, “God is what you feel when there’s love in your heart,” which may be the closest Frey gets to adhering with the messages of the Hebrew Bible and Yahweh’s notion of steadfast love. But if Frey is looking to stimulate acts of kindness, he may be going about it the wrong way by writing a book that invites readers to “Be enraged.” And if he is looking for redemption, as does his Christ character that is martyred by the media, he may only be placing himself on a higher pedestal. The Guardian wrote a scathing review, saying that Frey is “less of a writer than a professional celebrity, which means that he can count on being rewarded for behaving badly.” Considering the millions of devout followers garnered by Twittering celebrities, no matter how outrageous they may be, that claim may hold some truth.

Regardless of whether Frey finds success with this radical book, he certainly has chutzpah for writing something that he believes to straddle the line between religious text and fiction. If anything, he will create a dialogue by asking how much power we give to the fictive word and how much to the religious. Is there a fine line? Slapping the adjective “Final” before “Testament” not only presents Frey’s book as an addition to holy texts but also as a conclusive one. Frey nullifies all further attempts at creating pseudo “testaments”—that is, if you take his word as truth. Rather than prejudging a text that can be seen as folly, treason, or literary genius, the author first invites us to judge for ourselves. Stepping into the shoes of a modern religious scribe, Frey asserts that his goal was to “create a mythology, to tell a story, to make a work of art…whether I was able to do it or not will be determined by readers, and by time, and by history.”