The Andy Warhol Museum has undertaken a daring mission with its series The Word of God: The museum aims to foster religious understanding through contemporary art. And precisely because aesthetic experiences can transcend language and cultural barriers, art seems the perfect medium for educating and promoting acceptance. The goal seems especially relevant during this time of war, divisive political rhetoric and civil unrest.
The series' first installment, Sandow Birk's American Qur'an, ostensibly seeks to promote understanding of a book around which many misconceptions swirl. Yet the artist's approach seems more polemic than edifying.
An ongoing project, American Qur'an is currently composed of 85 framed pages. Each contains text from a Koranic "Sura," or chapter. Drawing inspiration from Persian miniatures and medieval Christianity's illuminated manuscripts, Birk overlays detailed gouache and ink illustrations -- mostly depicting everyday American life -- with squares containing an 1861 Koran translation. The script Birk uses is a hybrid of Islamic calligraphy and cholo writing -- graffiti characteristic of East Los Angeles gangs. It's a potentially controversial fusion: Does using script frequently associated with turf wars translate the text into the American vernacular, or simply make it more contentious by implying a global battle for territory?
Described as a laid-back surfer, Los Angeles-based Birk is known for his adaptations of classic texts. In 2004-05, he illustrated Dante's three-volume Divine Comedy. While working on a film version of that classic, Birk's production crew insisted on omitting a Muhammad puppet after violent protests erupted over Danish cartoons depicting the Muslim prophet. This prompted Birk to begin a private exploration of the Koran.
The operative word here is "private." In an August 2009 New York Times interview, Birk noted that the images accompanying the Koranic exhibit are not intended as illustrations, but "highly personal meditations." But remember the Warhol's goal of interfaith understanding: If these interpretations are "highly personal," what can a wider audience, seeking insight, learn?
Certainly, one person's assessment can illuminate a broader, shared experience. But many of Birk's images do so in a very particular way. For instance, while many of his Suras depict everyday scenes like office workers in their cubes or people shopping, Birk's personal interpretations can be censorious, even damning. Take "Sura 44, Smoke" (2006). One of the series' earlier works, it depicts the morning of 9/11, specifically the moments between Flight 11 striking Tower 1 and Flight 175 hitting Tower 2. The text includes the lines, "Expect a day when the sky will bring forth smoke which will overwhelm the people -- this is a painful punishment."
In the Times interview, Birk acknowledges that this particular work may be misinterpreted, and that he thought about the imagery 20 times before beginning it. Still, no explanation of how it should be interpreted is offered, either in the interview or at The Warhol. But how else are viewers to understand Birk's juxtaposition of imagery and text, given that this particular act of terrorism was, according to Al-Qaida, retribution for America's profligate and bullying ways? Moreover, by using this culturally embedded image of horror, Birk narrows the scope of "Sura 44" -- which deals with the broader issue of disbelief and unholy behavior -- to a single implication. Does the image ultimately expand the chapter's significance for a contemporary audience, or limit its meaning and court controversy?
In fact, with every Koranic reference to punishment, Birk includes a corresponding image of America's violent past and avaricious present. Atrocities in Hiroshima and Nagasaki appear in "Sura 26 a-d." The cult of political personality is featured in "Sura 61," while Walmart's greed and the materialism it inspires are referenced in "Sura 60."
At the gallery entrance sits a neat stack of prayer mats. It seems an earnest inclusion, indicating sincerity in the "Word of God" mission. However, because the Sura images incorporate depictions of humans and animals -- denounced as idolatry by Islam -- it may be unlikely that Muslims will pray in the presence of these Suras. Still, if Muslims do pray here, and if non-Muslims come hoping to better understand the Koran, does the recurring message that Americans are sinners worthy of punishment really promote interfaith harmony ... or is it instead declaring as inevitable (and warranted) catastrophes and extreme reactions?
Or perhaps the artist is coyly employing the text for a different end. After all, Birk's 2007 woodblock series "The Depravities of War" protests, à la Goya, America's Middle East invasion. Could it be that here he is using the Koran not as way to promote understanding, but as a tool for sociopolitical commentary? While this activity certainly has its value and place, operating under the guise of interfaith understanding would make it just as guilty of exploitation as the nation it criticizes.
THE WORD OF GOD: SANDOW BIRK'S AMERICAN QU'RAN continues through May 1. The Andy Warhol Museum, 117 Sandusky St., North Side. 412-237-8300 or www.warhol.org
From 1-4 p.m. Sat., April 16, the Warhol hosts the symposium "Dis[Locating] Culture: Contemporary Islamic Art in America," with keynote speaker Reza Aslan, of the Daily Beast, and a panel discussion featuring Sandow Birk. $25-35.