In our time when traditional religious spots are often quite far from an art lover’s media landscape, the name of Jesuit Father Friedhelm Mennekes, the priest at St Peter's Church in Cologne, comes unusually well-known. Christian Boltanski, Francis Bacon, Barbara Kruger, Vadim Zakharov are just a few artists from the long list of those who had their exhibitions in St Peter’s.
His parish is not a museum or a gallery, but a Kunststation, the Station of Arts where the personality of an artist heads to as high as the point of Absolute. In an interview to DE I Friedhelm Mennekes speaks of his interaction with art world in a quest for the contact with human soul through uncensored interaction of Kunst und Kirche.
I used to study politics, and I found that politics does not answer a lot of questions of modern life. I happened to find these answers in religion and I wanted to convey them onto other people. Once I understood that the means of expression of these answers can be art. So some thirty years ago I started to organize exhibitions so that to develop such a viewpoint that would enable art to answer the questions that come with modern politics, philosophy, and, of course, religion. Since then, I feel at home in many Academies of Fine Arts throughout the whole world, be it Berlin, New York, or London.
From the late 19th century, it was the arts that answered many of the existential questions, and, at the same time, contributed to the progress, not just the progress of philosophy, but also of society and technology. But in the second half of the 20th century, the Church distanced itself from the Art. This was connected with the understanding of art as the servant of the Church. This is how Church has arrived to the present state where it preserved only the samples of dead art, while everything modern and alive practically separated from God.
I am more of an intermediary than a gallerist. I am very far from art as business. My goal is to create such a space where artists, regardless of their relation with religion, can have equal chances to show their works. In this sense, I carry out the duty of organizer of exhibitions in a sacral space. This is how I search for the new ways of art promotion, and the new ways of religious connection.
A person cannot say “I believe” without the Bible. But he should confess to himself, “I have doubts!” It is through doubts that understanding and faith come, that freedom of views and recognition of the views of the others come. Modern religion should learn to understand its own doubts. These permanent doubts are resolved in the dialogue with the Art.
The influence of the modern mass media environment leads to mass deception and the victory of stereotypical thinking. On the contrary, the Church and the Art in the variety of their forms of cooperation, provide a human being with the individual way of understanding the Universe. This opinion is not universally shared, and this is why churches are overfilled with stupid illustrative old art.
Art is always communication: With the art object, with yourself when you contemplate it and when you contact other people. All of these may give a start to further development of new artworks.
Once we were preparing an exhibition of a graphic artist and there was a picture of a masturbating woman. So what? Let the one who does not know anything about masturbation throw the stone at me. However, to exhibit this in a church is different. I had to say to myself, “I am not going to be a censor. This is the Art.” And after two days, the artist himself decided to remove this picture from the display.
Another artist offered a picture showing the crucifixion of a naked man. And I decided to place it in the confessional. To my surprise, he liked this decision a lot. Later I learned that he just wanted to test me, to see whether my faith includes art censorship. You see, between Art and Religion, there stands Freedom. And, this is the freedom of choice.
James Lee Byars requested for his project that I move the altar out of the church. This was too radical. But theologically, he was correct when he answered: “You do not need an altar, you are the altar yourself.”
The duty of the priest is to not let the destructive ideas into the mind of the believer. If we love our neighbor, we also love the alternatively thinking neighbor. The true art is holy and extraconfessional. I have developed very warm and friendly relationships with the artists of other faiths. This is where the religious unites with the humanitarian, and many artists for me are not parish but friends whose company gives me a great joy. And, both ways of perception, through religion and through art, are infinite.
© DE I / DESILLUSIONIST ¹-1. YOU ARE THE ALTAR YOURSELF