Probably everyone, as a mischievous kid or maybe while stuck on hold with one bureaucracy or another, has taken a ballpoint to a magazine and indulged in a little amateur recontextualization. Why the hell not? It's a safe and harmless way to stick it to the pretty and privileged, and to have a cheap laugh at their expense. Add stitches, fangs, a couple bolts through her neck, and a supermodel becomes a super-monster. Scribble on some bat wings, horns and a pointy Vandyke and — presto — a politician's true nature is revealed. Take that, ya creep!
Chris Sandon draws onto old photos too, but his purpose is less malicious and the results much more interesting. His drawings enrich rather than deface, adding layers of new meaning to old photos, though what those meanings are might be ambiguous.
Sandon recently came across one of those old Time-Life pop anthropology books from a few decades ago, an overview of the world's religions. The book's endpapers were a reproduction of Michelangelo's famous fingers-touching creation scene from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, in all its Renaissance (via 1970s printing technology) splendor. Inspired by ol' Mike's mastery of the human form, Sandon began to explore the anatomies of the people photographed in the book by drawing or painting muscles, bones, nerves and blood vessels over top of the pictures. While those in the pictures busied themselves with a wide variety of sectarian rituals — harvest festivals, fertility rites, sacraments and processions — their exposed flesh and skeletons, and the accompanying ideas of human mortality and our common biology, became a unifying element running through the altered photos.
Other symbols also found their way onto the photos as Sandon's explorations progressed. Maybe to counter the grim skulls he was drawing, a livelier icon appeared — a ruby-lipped, wide-open cartoon mouth that might be a cousin to the Rocky Horror Picture Show and Rolling Stones logos. A symbol of life and creative expression, it's painted over the entire heads of several people, often large groups of them. In one photo, an whole women's choir has had their heads swapped out for these giant mouths, uvulas visible in their throats as they sing. Less frequently, symbolic monkeys and sexual organs appear in the pictures as well. Eventually, Sandon converted much of the book into a series of art works, which are on display now, under appropriately subdued, church-like lighting, at the Dreamland Theater in Ypsilanti.
Individually, the pictures are fun to look at, and any rock band would be pleased to have one on its album cover. Collectively, though, they are much more compelling. Sandon dubbed his series Matters of Life & Death, which are the chief concerns, of course, of all religions — how should we live, why we must die and what lies beyond. By imposing his personal iconography onto a wide array of religious practices, he unites all religions into a single human impulse — the need to understand and make sense of this existence.
That sounds good, but it's a rather thorny concept. For one thing, implying that all religions are basically the same might not sit well with the religious themselves! Presumably, most folks in these photos are convinced that their rituals are the correct ones and everyone else in the book is bound for H-E-double-toothpicks. On the other hand, a nonbeliever might decide from these pictures that the only unifying factor is the folly of religion itself — all of us goofing around and squabbling over our various rites and rulebooks when we're really all just apes under the skin.
Then there's the seemingly inconsistent way Sandon employs his own iconography. It's tempting to side with the mouths over the skulls, with life over death. Often congregations are depicted as mouths where religious leaders are skeletons — a nice populist, anti-authoritarian take — but not always. On a mosaic from an Orthodox church, the figure of Christ delivering the Scriptures is topped with a lush lively mouth, where in another pic a less-well-known rabbi carrying the Torah is reduced to a death's head.
Elsewhere, skeletal parents offer their baby to a mouth-faced priest for baptism. Have the parents delivered their child into this world of death, while the priest delivers it to everlasting life? Strange, since another picture depicts two skeletonized priests feeding a spoonful of sacramental wine to a boy whose blue veins show through his skin. Has the child's indoctrination into this ritual doomed him to gradually become a skeleton too?
In a way, Sandon's collection of images resembles a religious text itself. It's based on an older text, it deals with universal truths, it's at heart compassionate, occasionally contradictory, open to interpretation, and if you get too caught up in the specifics you'll miss the underlying message. It's worth making the Ypsi pilgrimage to decide for yourself.
Matters of Life and Death: Religions of the World runs through the end of March at Dreamland Theater, 26 N. Washington St., Ypsilanti; 734-657-2337.Sean Bieri is Metro Times design director. Send comments to [email protected]