For many people, churches have become museums – they are visited out of a curiosity for art. But most of the time the experience is a disappointment, the stale air, used incense, gray dust, and cold stone rather trigger anxiety. But religious images were never meant to be art either.

The relationship between religion and art has become precarious. In our present, this has to do with the fact that religion itself has become an irritation. The smart and soft sense-giving authority to which it had become after the Enlightenment and in the democratic environment of modernity has meanwhile been given a variant in which violence and terror, fundamentalist mania for truth, and militant rejection of the world meet. The times when an increase in mortality and a reduction in conflicts could be associated with religion are long gone. The fact that religious practices arouse fear of contact, even disgust, is only too understandable in view of this heated environment.

A pilgrimage church made into a new place
The Belgian art curator Jan Hoet, who died some time ago and became famous as the director of Documenta 9 in 1992, had realized an exhibition on the subject of “Art, Myth, Psyche” in various locations in his (and mine) place of birth, Geel, shortly before his death. One of these places was a large pilgrimage church, the Saint Dymphna Church, named after an Irish princess who was beheaded in her immediate vicinity in the 7th century, as legend has it. I have known this church since my youth. Basically, she never really spoke to me. Like so many other churches, it has become an alien place and aesthetically alien place.

There is only “art junk” in it
However, abandonment is different from loneliness. There are churches that display an almost sublime solitude combined with a still perceptible pride in their history. In their size and in their impressive splendor they are like governors of a bygone age, like guardians of a message that is difficult to make itself heard. Some of her pictures or sculptures are still able to attract our attention. But in many places, like in that Dymphna Church, there are only “artifacts” around. And we suspect that we will never feel at home in these rooms again.

Many churches do not have art
The disappointment obviously has to do with our expectations for art: Many churches simply do not have art, i.e. works that really appeal to us aesthetically. But some churches have their arts too, they paint in the backyard of the church, after painting here is the tips for easy to clean brushes. There can be no talk of aesthetic contemporaneity. And their religious function has also faded. Perhaps we even suspect that the aesthetic pallor that we encounter in many churches has to do with their religious indifference – with their indifference to a productive and therefore strenuous contemporaneity. From the point of view of aesthetic credibility for us, we come across art junk. From the point of view of religious credibility, we encounter dead material. Perhaps convincing contemporary art is needed so that that junk of art can again come to life religiously.

Completely transformed interior
In the middle of the large entrance portal was a huge sculpture by Jan Fabre, probably the most important contemporary Belgian artist. Fabre had created a huge and imposing human brain in white Carrara marble, which was pushed at the back by three completely exhausted turtles. The sticking-out tongue of one of these animals signaled the complete futility of the undertaking and the complete exhaustion it caused. The petrified brain, which has turned to marble, did not move from the surface – apparently since time immemorial.

We humans have not made decisive progress since time immemorial
It was as if I suddenly understood the (possible) meaning of original sin. We humans have not made decisive progress since time immemorial. There is something in us that resolutely resists the idea that there is anthropological progress, progress in the deeper regions of man. Much of what we do ends up being in vain. We have to live with a “lack of being”, with a fundamental defect, we have to act in the awareness of a barrier that we cannot overcome. We would do well to be modest about our finiteness and skepticism about our sensibility. The large sculpture opens a church room that once housed the promise that there would be such a thing as grace, like mercy on our fallibility. And Fabre’s work of art left the question of whether there was “something like that”.

Works create resonances
The two examples are instructive. They show that art interventions, where they are done carefully and aesthetically well-considered, precisely because of their exciting character in relation to their surroundings, can develop an extraordinary effect. What does that tension do? It creates resonances – on both sides of the line. By “tension” I don’t mean the often cheap conflict, the provoked aesthetic dispute for the sake of the dispute.