When Seattle artist Kurt Geissel learned that the Taliban had destroyed Afghanistan’s historic and beautiful Bamiyan Buddhas in spring of 2001 he got angry. Then he got creative. He carved a realistic miniature likeness of one of the Buddhas into the pages of a Koran and called it "Koran with a Buddha Shape Carved Into It." According to Geissel initial reaction to the work was mostly positive. The carving was done in detail that would elicit praise no matter the material. Geissel was also encouraged that his close group of artist friends viewed the work as both startling and inspiring.
"I wanted to do a piece to show the Taliban – and everyone else –that you can’t kill the spirit of the Buddha," said Geissel in a recent interview. "I wanted to show that your faith should reside in the spirit of your belief not in artifacts." Geissel set his Koran carving in a stained mahogany frame under an arch of vertical glass sectionals that lend it an antique, "museum" atmosphere. Across the bottom of the open pages Geissel wrote in ink " Vita breve, Ars longa, vita brevis" and "God is sorry."
Geissel is adamant that he did not create the piece to just to invite controversy. Indeed the 43 year old, Seattle native and self-taught artist is no art provocateur. Since the mid 1980s Geissel has been a fixture on the Seattle art scene, and his work has received cautious respect within Seattle’s experimental art community. "I’m not a performance artist," said Geissel. "I never make things just to make a point. To an artist religious icons are man-made materials. I have a right to shape them according to my vision and imagination. At the same time, when people attack art, as an artist I have the duty to call people out on their beliefs."
Last December Geissel was invited by Kirsten Anderson, owner the Seattle art gallery Roq la Rue, to mount "Koran with a Buddha Shape Carved Into It" in her exhibition titled "Gods and Monsters", in which work interpreting religious icons in provocative ways are on display through the end of January. The exhibition includes a painting depicting the Virgin of Guadalupe as a "com-hither" nude (Lisa Petrucci’s "Naughty Guadalupe") and a pencil drawing of Frankenstein wearing a crown of thorns (Chuck Demorat’s "Frankenkriest"). Geissel welcomed the "Gods and Monsters" show as a perfect fit for his own work.
Prior to mounting "Koran with a Buddha Shape Carved Into It", Anderson and Geissel did discuss potential risk in showing such a piece. The quality of the work, however, outweighed any reservations either of them might have entertained. For his part, Geissel was impressed with Anderson’s seemingly genuine commitment to edgy, risk-taking artists.
On public display, Geissel’s Koran made it through the few days prior to "Gods and Monsters" December 7th opening night without incident. In fact the piece garnered mostly praise. Geissel was especially happy to receive positive comments from Seattle’s internationally respected art curator Larry Reid. The Friday opening of "Gods and Monsters" was by all accounts a success with Geissel’s carving getting its share of positive notice.
The following Monday Geissel received a phone call from Anderson asking him to come remove his piece from the Roq la Rue Gallery.
What had happened? Had Anderson received threats? No. Anderson simply told Geissel she just didn’t feel safe displaying his piece. Geissel was devastated. "It felt like the rejection you feel when you get dumped by a girlfriend. It was awful." Despondent, Geissel noted the oddity of finding himself removing his tribute to the Bamiyan Buddhas from a gallery filled with iconoclastic work.
This week, a month after Geissel’s picked up his work from Roq la Rue Gallery, Emily Hall, art critic for The Stranger, a Seattle arts and entertainment weekly, wrote an article titled "Fear Factor" offering her view of why Geissel’s piece was removed. Hall writes:
"Researching a recent article about how art that has shocked the rest of the country hasn't raised an eyebrow in Seattle, Seattle Post-Intelligencer art critic Regina Hackett visited Roq la Rue and was particularly taken with Geissel's piece. ("For all the excesses committed in God's name," she told me, "a little sorrow is welcome.") She decided not to include it in her article, largely because she thought it irresponsible to feature such a work--and she told Roq la Rue owner Kirsten Anderson so. ‘"I was afraid to publicize it, because Kirsten sits there alone in the gallery,"’ Hackett said. ‘"It's a particular kind of flag to a tiny group of people."’ Anderson, after talking to a lot of people and thinking it over, asked Geissel to remove the work--which he did, albeit unhappily."
Regina Hackett’s article praising Seattle’s high tolerance for provocative art was published in the Post Intelligencer in mid December – after Geissel’s work was removed from Roq la Rue. In her article Hackett praises Roq la Rue’s "Gods and Monsters" exhibit as emblematic of Seattle’s tolerance towards religiously provocative art. She does not mention Geissel, whose work would have tested that tolerance. Hackett goes on to charge the Seattle Art Museum with of lack of courage and general reluctance to stand by artists in the face of public outcry. Again, Hackett does not mention her own tacit role in Roq la Rue’s decision to pull support from one of its artists.
Meanwhile Anderson and Roq la Rue continue to do a brisk business selling works of art that, for all their creative play and iconoclastic liberty, many Christian believers might find offensive.
In her article Emily Hall points out the obvious discrepancy, citing the "art world going to the wall to defend Andres Serrano's photograph of a cross floating in his own urine, which offended devout Catholics." Hall continues:
"So why is it somehow all right to offend Catholics and not Muslims? It's a question of relative fear, of the (perceived or real) difference between facing an angry Catholic activist and an angry Muslim one."
Hall ends her paragraph with a chilling quote from gallery owner Anderson: ‘"Christians can take it,"’ Anderson said.
It is too early to tell whether or not Seattle’s art community or the ACLU will rally to support artist Geissel’s right to show his work. A month after his work was pulled, only Hall has come forward to comment on Geissel’s treatment by Roq la Rue Gallery.
For his part, Geissel has chosen not to dwell on the irony of a second Bamiyan banishment. Neither is he playing the victim. "I don’t have any ill-will towards anybody," he said. "I would feel bad if someone took my art in the wrong way. Yes, I was angry that my piece was removed, but I also want everyone to rise above this."
Read Regina Hackett’s article here. http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/visualart/100711_shockvalue.shtml
Read Emily Hall’s follow up article here. http://www.thestranger.com/2003-01-01/art_news.html
Doug Anderson is a Seattle writer who publishes the literary tabloid, klang at http://klang.bizland.com/