Does artists shot at religion hit its intended target

In more than three years of living in the Bay Area, my fiancé had never been to the de Young museum. So on a brisk, clear day earlier this month, we drove into the city and strolled up Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive to the copper-plated building.

I’d been to the museum before, so the murals of Teotihuacan, the Chihuly glass pieces, the Childe Hassams and Willem de Koonings were nothing new. But to me, repeat visits to museums are like visiting old friends, and I was happy to see them again.

That day at the de Young there were a few new faces: an exhibit on “Wordplay in Photography,” and one on the 1975 monotypes of Richard Diebenkorn. And then, wandering into a large room crowded with people clustered around three sculptures, I discovered “In the Name of God: War, Religion and the Reliquaries of Al Farrow.”

Farrow is a San Rafael–based artist who makes sculptures of religious buildings. The catch is that they are made out of bullets, steel shot and gun parts.

The three works in the center of the room were a synagogue, a cathedral and an Islamic mausoleum, all expertly sculpted from various weaponry. The cathedral’s cross was made of a gun scope. Two magazines created the synagogue’s curved doorway. Painted bullets formed the white walls of the mausoleum.

Besides the three religious buildings, Farrow had created a series of reliquaries, containers used by Christians since the Middle Ages to hold alleged remnants of saints. One particularly striking piece was a box made of bullets that contained the index finger bone of the fictitious “Santo Guerro.” The finger was hooked around a gun.

Technically, the works were masterpieces. From a distance, you could hardly tell that they were made of gun parts. And, strange as it may sound, bullets and gun barrels are oddly perfect for creating miniature columns and cathedral spires.

But instead of marveling at the sculptures and raising an eyebrow at their archness, I was terrified.

As I circled the room, trying to look nonchalant, a gaggle of older teens, maybe 18 or 19 years old, came in and clustered around the synagogue. They burst out laughing. “This is so funny, this is so funny,” one of them kept saying. Beside the cathedral, a large group of 50-something tourists were giggling too.

The shrillness of their laughter echoed deep in my heart.

There’s no denying that Farrow’s point is valid. Religion has indeed been at the heart of human conflict since the beginning of time.

Yet seeing a synagogue, the central element of Jewish life for thousands of years, put on display for people to laugh at made me feel sick.

And seeing a synagogue riddled with bullets — my stomach turned at the thought of Nazis rampaging through Jewish towns, shooting indiscriminately, burning synagogues and the Jews inside.

Religion is an easy target these days. It’s easy for an artist like Farrow to poke fun, without really getting to the heart of why religions kill. And it’s easy to forget that those religions have been killed, too — sometimes by people who didn’t have any faith at all.

It’s easy for people to laugh at a synagogue made of bullets, yet harder for them to think about, say, where Farrow’s placement of the bullets — stacked like sandbags — fits in a historical context.

The laughter was unsettling, but the worst part about it was that it felt like a substitute for actually thinking about the exhibit. On first glance, sure, it could be funny. But is the comedic aspect of a synagogue made of bullets really the point? Is that what we’re supposed to take away — that holy war is a big joke?

I don’t want to come down too hard on the exhibit, or Farrow — who is a damn good artist, even if I felt uncomfortable in his exhibit.

But does a one-sided, one-room exhibit like “In the Name of God” — with precious little explanation, context or analysis — really do anything to further the debate about religion?

Or does it just leave non-believers feeling smug and the faithful feeling, well, wounded?

Rachel Freedenberg is a copy editor at j. She can be reached at [email protected].