March 31, 2020

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Photo exhibition examines religion's contentious place in American life and politics

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/11/2014 (1951 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Today marks the eighth American Thanksgiving I've spent in Canada. For the past two years, immigration proceedings have kept me from going home at all. More and more, my experience of the country I was born in comes from news and second-hand sources, and with each passing month what I see seems more and more foreign.

Nevertheless, the holiday and a new exhibition at U of M's School of Art Gallery have conspired to put me in a familiar American frame of mind.


Religion often prioritizes belief over what we might call "factual" understanding, and religion permeates American public life and politics to an extent unparalleled in Canada. In Following the Ten Commandments, married collaborators Andrea Robbins and Max Becher cautiously examine the popular but unsupportable notion that America is a "Christian nation" founded on "Christian ideals" — never mind the Constitution's explicit separation of church and state. The mental, moral and judicial gymnastics required to sustain these conflicting narratives provide the complicated subtext for an otherwise deceptively straightforward exhibition.

Traversing 12 states in two years, the pair photographed tributes to the biblical commandments built on public land: oversized, stylized granite and fibreglass tablets dropped in front of courthouses, city halls, state capitols and public schools. Each 2.5-by-1.8-metre photo is accompanied by a neutral, informative text outlining the monument's history: some have been challenged in court while others haven't, some successfully, others not. Some were spared on "historical" grounds — never mind that many were basically ads for the 1956 Charlton Heston picture. Others were saved, sneakily, by selling the land beneath them to private parties.

The project follows in the footsteps of conceptual photographers working since the 1960s, including Becher's own parents, Bernd and Hilla Becher, who spent decades producing semi-scientific catalogues or "typologies" of common architectural forms. Unlike the elder Bechers' work, however, where uniform compositions stressed sameness and repetition, each monument is framed differently — sometimes front and centre, sometimes hidden in a corner of the image — to better communicate its individual site, scale and context. You could almost miss the fact that many of sculptures are virtually identical, likely built in the same workshops around the same time.

In their work, Robbins and Becher document places that seem "out of place " — the uncanny replica of New York City built for a Las Vegas casino, gingerbread German colonial architecture in Namibia. In similar fashion, the monuments and their contested sites represent a constitutional grey area brought into physical space. Still, Following the Ten Commandments is more than a conceptual exercise.

Instead of framed C-prints or slick lightboxes, the pair produced digital prints on polyester mesh, all-weather banners fitted with metal grommets. The outdoor-advertising format reflects the monuments' public placement, while the material imparts an odd, rippling sheen and hazy translucence. The banners appear flimsy but are in fact remarkably durable. This seems appropriate.

The exhibition poster features the Bradford County Courthouse in Starke, Fla., 21/2 hours from where I grew up and a stone's throw from the couple's adopted home in Gainesville. The Bradford monument is notable not just because an atheist group recently won the right to erect a competing monument, but because Starke is home to "Old Sparky," Florida's perennially "malfunctioning" but still-operational electric chair. This detail goes unmentioned, but the artists almost certainly would have known. The monument reads, in part, of course, "thou shalt not kill."

This American Thanksgiving, I'll be refreshing Twitter updates from Ferguson, Mo., while I watch a bootleg live stream of the Macy's Parade. I'll be quaking with rage and thanking God I had the sense to leave.

Following the Ten Commandments runs until Feb. 20.


Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer, and educator.


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