Image 1. See Like A Heretic, 2018. Crushed stained glass, fresnet lens, nuts, bolts, frame. 509 x 509 x 336 cm. 

That hushed hallowed feeling one gets looking up at the nave or chancel of a church and seeing a biblical scene played out on stained glass? Singaporean artist Suzann Victor’s solo exhibition entitled See Like A Heretic: On Vision and Belief, on now at Gajah Gallery Singapore until June 10, 2018, might engender that same level of near-spiritual awe. 

Showcasing about 20 new works — predominantly sculptures made with crushed stained glass, Victor rides the line between seeing and perceiving, belief and faith, drawing upon her longstanding preoccupation with light and spiritualism. The process of crushing hundreds of kilos of stained glass sheets and then adhering the mica-granules through a painstaking hand-pressed layering and embedding technique to a resin mold or ready-made religious icon was developed by Victor more than 20 years ago and improved upon during a two year stint at Gajah Yogyakarta and Singapore.  

There’s something very contemporary about refashioning a ‘skin’ for an ancient religious icon, at once new-spangled and spectacular, in a way curiously reflective of what many gamers do in creating new ‘skins’ for their avatars. This collapse of linear temporality, conflating the ancient with the contemporary, is precisely what Victor seeks to forefront — a quest (itself a word with spiritual connotations) of a new way of seeing and perceiving the role of religion today, with all the permutations of violence that crushing tons of stained glass connotes as a synecdoche for the savage and bloody history of the church as a religious and political institution. 

Nowhere is this more evident than in the eponymous piece (see image 1), where the central figure of St. Michael the Archangel standing victorious in warlike pose and defeating Lucifer is encased within a dome-like structure (again connoting Catholic architecture). The dome, composed of over 1000 pieces of fresnet glass, pans the reflections of not just St. Michael, but other sculptures, particularly wings (more below), within the exhibition in fractal fashion. 

St. Michael defeating the Devil obviously sources directly from Jude 1:9 in the Bible (“Yet, the archangel Michael when he argued with the Devil in a dispute over the body of Moses…”), but it is also such standard Catholic iconography you can even buy figurines from Amazon. More importantly, religious iconography deployed and refashioned as an artistic centrepiece invokes a panegyric referencing of all previous art masterpieces that likewise depicted St. Michael vanquishing Satan such as Raphael’s 16th century painting Victory of St. Michael, Guido Reni’s painting Archangel Michael defeating Satan in Santa Maria della Conzezioni, Rome (1635), again reproduced in mosaic in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. 

These depictions reflect the raison d’ĂȘtre of St. Michael as a warrior of God, charged with protecting the heavenly hosts. He appears again in Revelations (the end of the world) to defeat Satan once and for all and sound the last trumpet. Thus, both as religious iconography and as aesthetic legacy, a singular allegory prevails. Victor, by adding a covering dome of fresnet glass whose concavity and convexity imply surveillance mirrors or the panopticon (as art historian Michelle Antoinette metaphorised in the Exhibition Catalogue), her all-seeing eye here references an ironic duality:  the omnipotence of God and the Church as a controlling influence on social mores and conduct are belied by the very nature of myriad fractal reflections. Each reflection is different, individual, unduplicable, suggestive of the truth about how we see individually, regardless of the encompassing control mechanism.  

Image 2. The Cross, 2018. Crushed stained glass. 140 x 45 x 185 cm. 

The materiality of stained glass also bears mention. Stained glass is synonymous with the narrative dominion of the Church in schooling the congregation on scenes, stories and the moral pedagogy of the Bible, what Victor called a “visual sermon”.  Stained glass depictions in cathedrals seduce with beauty and artistry, all while concealing its Foucauldian power in disseminating a cyclopean vision (‘we must strive to be Christ-like’) and a harmonised social order. Victor’s act of crushing stained glass, producing a re-imagery that’s seductive in beauty, therefore contains a subversive gentle vehemence about the institutional and historical policing of the church.

What Victor says about the properties of glass and why she uses it for many of the works in her oeuvre is significant (Interview with James Page, Exhibition Catalogue). “In the Middle Ages of glass making, the ancient methods of cooling liquid glass to achieve its transparency also entrapped bubbles of air…” This created an imperfection in the reflection of light, allowing for distortion and “misbehav[ing]”. Through the works in this exhibition, Victor “revivifies the idea of the aberrant.” Pulverisation allows for “a chaos of mineral-like particles with randomised light-propelling qualities…” This idea of a ‘chaos’ of light is a compelling way to see. A profusion of epiphanies, if you will.

Image 3. The Cross. (Detail)

These different navigational symbolism — the religious iconography, seeing like a ‘heretic’, the notion of violence — run a through-line of dialogue with all the other pieces. Thus, when Victor repurposes the figure of Christ on the Cross, providing a blood-red skin of glass, the iconography bleeds of violence, as Victor herself in the interview within the Exhibition Catalogue states, “the crucifix as an implement of torture…would come to be the dominant aesthetics, running in the background.” A sardonic note creeps in when the work is titled The Cross, but the cross itself (the instrument of torture) is missing while the broken body of Christ is on show in all its wounded glorious iconicity (see Image 3 for sculpture detail) (the ribs so pronounced they almost look like ‘innards’). 

Image 4. Heart to Heart I, 2017. Crushed stained glass, 37 x 37 x 23 cm. 

Victor isn’t merely content though to leave the truth about seeing as a statement about individual, fractalised discretion, distorted through private filters and experience; her other sculptures argue that the way we perceive is, and can only be, animated through the heart. Various sculptures of the heart as an organ (see images 4, 5) show Victor’s own progression with this work. 

Image 5. Heart of Hearts, 2018. Crushed stained glass. 58 x 41 x 37 cm. 

The first crushed stained glass heart Victor made was actually more than two decades ago. In Tintoretto’s Risen Christ Arresting Lazy Susan (Image 6), a site-specific installation presented at the 2nd Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art at Brisbane, Victor was interested in examining the patriarchal nature of Christian ideology, and the work thus presenced the importance of female anatomy. In this exhibition, we can see that Victor’s heart-sculptures show a steady progression in increasing gradations and density of colour, texture and sophisticated method. They are also encrusted and calcified, calling to mind ammonite fossils. They grow tendrils and heads like warring anemones or sea-creatures (see Images 4 and 5 above). Victor makes clear: warring hearts, hardened hearts, hearts sprouting unruly animus, underlining the fact that the way we use our hearts to see has become fossilised and hardened. The journey of hearts through seeing to belief is fraught; spikes of dissension exist. 

Sacred Heart, 2016. Crushed Stained Glass. 16 x 14 x 15 cm. Courtesy of Gajah Gallery

Image 6. Tintoretto’s Risen Christ According to Lazy Susan, 1996. Courtesy of Queensland Art Gallery.

Taking us further into ‘seeing’, Victor harnesses the iconography of wings as a symbol of hope (Image 7). To see like a heretic is to choose to see deeper and darker (into the shadows) but never forsaking the lens of emotion and humanity. In a number of other life-size sculptures using religious iconography in the exhibition,  Victor humanises these figurines.  For example, in Gold Mary Jesus (Image 8), the embedding and clustering of crushed glass yet manages an effect of contoured softness, of the maternal and the mortalisation of deified flesh. Even the symbol of the manger is a cradle of wings (Image 9)

Image 7. Exhibition View of Wings. The shadows too become resonant.

Image 8. Gold Mary Jesus, 2017. Crushed stained glass. 60 x 50 x 143 cm.

Victor mentions in her interview that because these religious objects were readymades, the process actually began with a de-skinning of previous paints and pigments, and the gesture is symbolic of a release from ‘non-negotiable readings.’  Notably, the process of layering and embedding closes the eyes of these figures that were once open, turning their contemplation inward, also a symbolic movement towards inner realms, a spirituality not so easily governable by ecclesiastical dogma.

Image 9. Wing Manger, 2018. Crushed stained glass. 47 x 86 x 25 cm. 

Completing the exhibition are a series of abstract paintings with evocative titles, such as The Unreality of Blue When Walking on Water, The Cross in 18 Moves (Image 10 below), and Wine of Transcendence.  This move towards abstraction and painting does two things: it once again collapses into 2-d the stained glass pictures which Victor has vivified into 3-d sculptures, and secondly, it coheres and adds another dimension to seeing like a ‘heretic.’ 

The word ‘heretic’ not only takes on all the perturbations of its use in religious literature as a form of deviance from accepted norms, it also inveighs its darker meaning as something twisted and dangerous, containing within it seeds of apostasy and rebellion. A heretic, as branded by the church, is someone impious and blasphemous, often followed up with severe punishments such as excommunication or death. ‘Heretic’ here functions as a religious construct, it draws upon a certain fictional currency when wielded as an instrument of accusation because as Karen Sullivan argued in her book about truth and heresy in French medieval literature, no one claims himself or herself to be a heretic; one is called a heretic by others.[1] 

Image 10. The Cross in 18 Moves, 2018. Oil on canvas. 30 x 30 x 18 panels.

An exhibition that urges one to see like a heretic is thus a gentle nudge to assimilate a different way of seeing, one that is tolerant and even embracing of divergences and fractalisation. It’s an exhortation to co-opt, to subordinate that which was used as a tool of repression and control; to turn one’s gaze inwards in search of inner truths. Victor proposes a humanising vector through her artistic re-contemplation of the properties of glass and re-skinning of religious icons.  

It’s interesting to note Victor’s own engagement with Catholicism through marriage. Precisely because Catholic iconography (the deification of Mary, for example) and the violent history of the Catholic church are invoked, I find myself drawn to the Catholic question. Growing up as I did attending a Catholicised public school (Main Convent Ipoh), Victor, to me, is inherently questioning the continuing role, pertinence, even legitimacy of the church — embodied as it were by the Vatican and the figure of the Pope — and calling into relief its cognitive dissonance with a much younger congregation that is impatient with doctrinal imprecations. The works here provoke a personal interrogation: what meaning does ‘sacrificial lamb’ or ‘Christ on the cross’ or ‘walking on water’ have for me, if these narratives are to be more than a way of seeing, but an actual walk towards belief?

[1]  Karen Sullivan, Truth and the Heretic: Crises of Knowledge in Medieval French Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005). 

* Images mine unless credited otherwise.