Throughout our lives we strive for heaven in one form or another. For some, heaven is very clearly defined as an afterlife reward. For others, heaven is a place or state of happiness achieved through more tangible and immediate pleasures. At the start of a new millennium, Heaven, an exhibition that considers issues surrounding desire, consumerism, idolisation, glamour, identity and authenticity, seems entirely appropriate.
Religion, like the production of art, is fuelled by the desire for meaning and a better way of life. This exhibition neither critiques organised religion nor suggests that faith and belief have no place in late twentieth century society - far from it. Heaven explores how our objects of faith have transformed and multiplied. In Heaven, the work of art helps us investigate and create new forms of religious belief and feeling.
Heaven is an exhibition about the images that supplement a vast inventory of historical religious icons. It shows that saints, angels, devils and gods have changed their form to operate in a contemporary context. In life or death, celebrities and public figures such as Diana, Princess of Wales, Elvis Presley, Naomi Campbell, and Michael Jackson are venerated as saints. The religious image is no longer confined to a sacred space but is disseminated through pop concerts, fashion shows, shopping centres, magazines, the internet, film, and television, with all their accompanying rituals, fashions and gestures.
The exhibition includes painting, sculpture, video and photographic work as well as items of clothing such as a bustier that belonged to Madonna, and Michael Jackson's glove. Such items are venerated by fans and achieve the status of contemporary relics.
Haim Steinbach's Untitled (breast mugs, Marilyn guitar) 1990 features Marilyn Monroe's face airbrushed onto an electric guitar symbolising Elvis Presley. Ralph Burns' photographs document the annual Elvis Memorial Day pilgrimage to Graceland. Burns does not criticise those making the journey but the photographs prompt the viewer to consider how and why this phenomenon has developed. Elvis may have become an icon because of a lack of contemporary sacred figures, yet he also fulfils many of the requirements associated with this role. He was beautiful; talented; died at an early age; was deeply religious and believed that he could cure the sick who were brought to his concerts. Jessica Diamond's gold bar embossed with the words 'Elvis Alive' and Jeffrey Valiance's sweat cloths offer further readings on the cult status of Elvis. The cloths are not those that Elvis actually used but represent the 'real', revered objects.
Olga Tobreluts' series of work Sacred Figures recasts the faces of supermodels such as Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell and Linda Evangelista into a context that imitates old master paintings. These models become depictions of the Virgin Mary, a queen or an ambassador, transposed into iconography of the past that gives an insight into the icons of today.
Justen Ladda's dresses made from glass beads are the quintessence of glamour but cannot function as clothing. The form of an 'ideal' woman is present but an actual woman is no longer required. Thierry Mugler's dresses are also designed for an ideal, iconic woman. His creations, with their rich fabrics and varied textures, are for celestial beings. Glamour replaces, in secular terms, what the Holy Spirit represents in a religious sphere.
Karen Kilimnick's portraits of fashion and film stars appear as naive teenage romantic fantasies, fetishing the innocent and beautiful, whilst subtly mocking them through their deliberately amateurish execution. Wang Fu's Under the Stars 1999, features a group of children, asleep in beds - their purity and isolation elevating them to the status of angels. Their innocence, unlike that of Kilimnick's portraits, appears God-given. Both these artists highlight an ideal of the child as representing innocence and goodness.
For some, outer space offers the realisation of heaven - an escape from earthly constraints, barriers and prejudices. Yinka Shonibare's Alien Obsess ives, Mum, Dad and the Kids 1998 are dressed in 'African' fabrics that are actually manufactured in the UK. The figures appear doubly 'alien' to a Western eye, giving shape to our often confused projection of difference and otherness.
Shirin Neshat is interested in the self-image of women in Islamic society. Neshat's Turbulent 1998 examines women's role in Islam by focussing on two singers, one male and one female. The male singer performs to an all male audience, while the female singer sings in isolation,' emphasising the public/private split women face in Islamic society.
The cult of beauty and the 'body beautiful' is explored by a number of the artists. The beautiful body is linked to religious dogma which equates beauty with virtue and bodily flaws with sin. Kirsten Geisler's computer generated head of a virtual woman, Dream of Beauty 2.0 1999, questions whether the natural and the artificial are now distinguishable.The video of the artist Orlan undergoing cosmetic surgery can be interpreted as a critique of the cult of beauty, but is more closely linked to self-sacrifice and suffering in pursuit of perfection. They also present an ironic comment on the romantic notion of an artist's practice.
The personal fantasy of self-transformation is also highlighted in the work of Jeff Koons. His life-size sculpture Michael Jackson and Bubbles 1998, depicts the singer, a black adult man, as quite literally porcelain white and childlike. Inez Van Lamsweerde's photographs distil the concept of the immaculate, impossibly flawless women that the fashion press use as their stock-in-trade. Van Lamsweerde's photographs present a stereotypical ideal, hinting at a future of cloning, enhanced digital imaging and ever more sophisticated cosmetic surgery. Similarly, the photographic works of Anneke In't Veld focus on male and female bodybuilders, transvestites and transsexuals who want to achieve what they see as perfection in their own bodies. In't Veld works closely with her models to ensure that she captures their vision of themselves.
As you descend from Heaven, salvation is at hand. Visit Michael Schirner's work installed in the basement toilets and when you leave the Gallery, look out onto Albert Dock where you will see a figure of Christ on the water.