My recent interest in Image Studies has led me to consider iconoclasm in greater detail by reading Bruno Latour’s introductory essay to the exhibition catalogue for ‘Iconoclash: Beyond the Image Wars in Science, Religion and Art’. I first thought about iconoclasm after visiting the ‘Art Under Attack’ exhibition back in November 2013. However, it was only after I began thinking about my work in relation to image studies that these ideas became more relevant. The ‘Art Under Attack’ exhibition was specifically related to works of art, but the ‘Iconoclash’ exhibition focused on images in science and religion as well, bringing attention to pre-modern associations between the three disciplines. Links between art, religion, and science have been prevalent in my work due to my focus on anthropology, so this exhibition seemed particularly interest in the context of my practice.
Iconoclash: Beyond the Image Wars in Science, Religion and Art
The exhibition ‘Iconoclash: Beyond the Image Wars in Science, Religion and Art’, took place at ZKM Center for Art and Media, Karlsruhe, from 4th May – 1st September 2002. The show was produced by the CEO of ZKM, Peter Weibel, along with an international team of curators including Bruno Latour, Peter Galison, Dario Gamboni, Joseph Koerner, Adam Lowe, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Hans Belting, and Heather Stoddard.
The exhibition was described as “not an art show, not a science and art show, not an history of art show, [but] a bewildering display of experiments on how to suspend the iconoclastic gesture and how to renew the movement of images against any freeze-framing”. It featured a range of documents, objects and idols from the fields of religion and science, alongside artworks by Art & Language, Fiona Banner, Christian Boltanski, Daniel Buren, Marcel Duchamp, Albrecht Dürer, Lucio Fontana, Francisco de Goya, Hans Haacke, Richard Hamilton, Joseph Kosuth, Kasimir Malevich, Gordon Matta-Clark, Gustav Metzger, Tracey Moffat, Nam June Paik, Sigmar Polke, etc. The exhibition was accompanied by an edited collection of essays which also functioned as the aforementioned catalogue.
What is Iconoclash?
Bruno Latour’s contribution to the catalogue, entitled ‘What is Iconoclash or Is there a World beyond the Image Wars?’ set out the thought processes behind the selection of works in the exhibition and the exhibition concept as a whole. As an exhibition of images, Latour first determined the meaning of an image as “any sign, work of art, inscription, or picture that acts as a mediation to access something else.” (Latour, 2002, p. 16) The destruction of images, otherwise known as iconoclasm, was a central theme in the exhibition, which aimed to highlight the paradox of the image in accessing truth.
He then differentiated between the more familiar idea of iconoclasm and the subject of the exhibition, Iconoclash: “Iconoclasm is when we know what is happening in the act of breaking and what the motivations for what appears as a clear project of destruction are; iconoclash, on the other hand, is when one does not know, one hesitates, one is troubled by an action for which there is no way to know, without further enquiry, whether it is destructive or constructive. This exhibition is about iconoclash, not iconoclasm.” (Latour, 2002, p. 16)
Latour categorised each potential group of iconoclasts according to their suggested motivations, although he was keen to state that the nature of Iconoclash meant that it wasn’t clear what the intentions of the supposed iconoclasts were. He separated these iconoclasts into five categories, denoted by a letter to avoid any loaded terminology.
‘A’ people, who are against all images, “believe it is not only necessary but also possible to entirely dispose of intermediaries and to access truth, objectivity, and sanctity”. (Latour, 2002, p. 27) ‘B’ people are against the freeze-framing of images: “The damage done to icons is, to them, always a charitable injunction to redirect their attention towards other, newer, fresher, more sacred images”. (Latour, 2002, p. 28) The ‘C’s are only against the images of their opponents, “Flag-burning, painting slashing, hostage-taking are typical examples”. (Latour, 2002, pp. 28-29) Whereas ‘D’ people unwittingly destroy images “by restoring works of art, beautifying cities, rebuilding archeological sites…” (Latour, 2002, p. 30) In contrast to all of the above, ‘E’ people neither revere or despise images, but instead use them to mock both iconoclasts and iconophiles. (Latour, 2002, p. 30)
The idea of linking images of science, religion and art was iconoclastic in itself. Images of science are deemed to be not representation, but reality. Religious imagery and Contemporary Art, as alternative mediations of truth resonate with the scientific images on show. The question of how reality is mediated through images therefore exposes how these realities are constructed. (Latour, 2002, p. 21)