The Cult of Death

By Eleanor Heartney, Art Critic and Author

At first glance, Al Farrow’s Reliquary series consist of beautifully crafted sacred artifacts and scale models of various houses of worship. Only when the viewer comes closer does it become clear that these beautiful objects are composed entirely of military hardware: gun barrels that become minarets, artillery shells set end by end or lined up lengthwise to create patterned walls and domes, handguns that serve as a menorah’s candle holders or a reliquary’s buttresses.  These weapons are real and many have potent histories. Purchased at second hand at gun shows, they may indeed have been used to kill or maim.

Farrow is not alone in using armaments as art materials.  Such objects are also the medium of Mozambican artist Cristovao Canhavato, whose Throne of Weapons was created from decommissioned weapons collected under the auspices of an NGO program designed to turn arms into tools. In a similar spirit, Mexican artist Pedro Reyes has transformed weapons seized by government officials as part of the drug war into shovels and musical instruments.  For both, art becomes a means to redeem these objects by literally complying with the injunction in the Book of Isaiah for the faithful to beat their swords into plowshares, transforming instruments of death into tools for life.

Farrow refuses the false optimism proposed by these projects. Instead he adopt weapons as a medium to illuminate the dark side of various forms of organized religion. With their division of people into saved and damned, brothers or infidels, chosen or not, his mosques, cathedrals and synagogues are a reminder of how often faith has served as a justification for war. But Farrow goes beyond that, hinting at an essential connection between religion and death.

Historically religion has evolved to provide answers to questions about human mortality – Why do we die? Is there life after death? Are our deeds on earth punished or rewarded in the next world? Such questions provide a basis for human ethics and morality. But when applied to the arc of history, questions of good and evil, guilt and innocence, and salvation and damnation can become malignant. Each of the three monotheistic religions is implicated to a greater or lesser degree in an eschatological vision of reality that celebrates bloodshed, annihilation and the violent cleansing of human imperfection from the world.  And even non-western religions like Buddhism and Hinduism amend their visions of cyclical time to include various teachings about a violent end to human history.

If religion too often seems to devolve into a species of warfare, from another perspective it might be argued that in the modern world, war has become a bastardized form of religion. In secular circles, reports of massacres, civil wars, beheadings and terrorism abroad and crime, mass shootings and gun culture at home make it hard to escape the conclusion that human societies worldwide are dominated today by a cult of death. Chris Hedges, who is also contributing to this catalogue, has suggested that “War is a force that gives us meaning”. The secular worship of guns and munitions provides a fractured mirror of the sacred rituals of religion.  Farrow’s seductively crafted monuments provide a visual metaphor for the marriage of death and dogma.

Throughout his long career, Farrow has frequently explored loaded subjects, among them the decimation of native cultures, affluent society’s demonization of poverty, and modern economies’ dependence on the weapons industry.  This body of work was inspired by medieval reliquaries that Farrow encountered on a trip to Florence, Italy. He was struck, in particular, by a reliquary purporting to hold the finger of a saint, which conjured for him the image of a trigger finger. This was the genesis of a series of shrines to Santo Guerro, his invented saint of war. In the manner of genuine medieval reliquaries, he housed bits of real human bone, including a finger, skull and jawbone in architectural structures that mimic the forms of shrines, churches and cathedrals. As the series grew, Farrow became uncomfortable with his exclusive dependence on Catholic references. He began to expand the series to make reference to other religions as well, creating forms inspired by mosques, synagogues, mausoleums, Protestant churches and menorahs.

These sculptures respect the memorial traditions of each faith. Each structure holds an artifact specific to the religion – for instance, his spare Protestant Chapels contain real antique bibles open to the pages of the Book of Revelation. Underscoring that text’s celebration of death, he includes a facsimile of Albrecht Durer’s engraving of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Synagogues containing a torah cover and a copy of the Ten Commandments are constructed from elements which include uzis, the type of gun used by the Israeli army. One synagogue contains tefillin bag, a ritual object worn by observant Jews. Issued by the Israeli army, it is dyed army green and inscribed with the Star of David. Mosques make reference to death in other ways, containing small coffins or, in the case of Bombed Mosque, where Farrow wanted to reference the enmity between Shia and Sunnis, a Shia style structure presented partially destroyed and topped with a black trigger ending in the crescent moon associated with the Sunnis.

The beauty of Farrow’s Reliquary sculptures makes them doubly unsettling, as they attest not only to our obsession with war and violence, but also to the seductions of the promise of annihilation. Medieval scholar Caroline Walker Bynum notes that historical reliquaries operate on two levels, as they both memorialize the dead and contain the promise of future resurrection. In this they mediate between heaven and earth.  Modernity, Farrow suggests, has done away with this duality. In its stead, tragically, is a leveling sameness dominated by the all-pervasive cult of death.