Notes on an Indulgence

By Catherine Clinger


At the heart of this triadically manifested project are two distinct archives; one of words, the other, images. The latter is comprised of more than three hundred First Communion commemorative photographs collected by the artist, Christy Johnson. Presumably, most of these chemically encapsulated flesh eaters resided at one time in a family album or on a mantelpiece, then were passed down to heirs, discarded upon death, thrown away or sold, eventually finding their way to bins and boxes in markets, junk shops, antique and book stores across Europe and the Americas. The collection of words was the abridged outcome of taped interviews with thirty-three former first communicants. The facts recounted by these living witnesses seem no more genuine than those silent experiences trapped within the representations of shadowy whiteness frozen in credulity. Johnson compounded these two distinct archives into the artist’s book Feast: Christy Johnson and 33 Confessors and, together they tell a multifarious tale of seduction, revulsion and redemption. Strangers to one another, interviewee and pictured communicant unwittingly conspired to create an authentic fictional state through the fusion of a factual document with a true story.

notes-on-an-indulgence-2.jpgJohnson enlarged the digital prints from scanned images of found photographs and exhibits these, stacked in horizontal registers – a monster storyboard; previsualisation without a connective infrastructure, only the performers’ shared meta-concentration (the hidden internalised formation of a belief system) on the separation of blood from flesh that symbolises the sacrifice of the man-god. And, if there is no inward contemplation on the matter at hand, the direction of the child-bride’s gaze is oriented externally towards the surveillant authorities, the photographer and/or God.


Thus the gallery space is activated variously by icy stares, knowing looks, fearsome glares, shock and awe. Some of the giant adolescents appear dwarfed by the event while others command the space, moving forward into the gallery, staking out an identity apart from authority and ritual. These confident subjects, monumentalised, are triumphant in their newly attained status as emergent sexual beings. However, many shrink from exposure, sinking back into the wall, willing and ready to hide behind the staged drapery, false scenery of a gothic church, or the spindly legs of a Victorian table. The exhibition reveals the fact that the childhood ritual is a tainted and knotty observance. Still, these images are starkly beautiful, and one cannot help but to fall in love with some of the young girls who appear haunted, noble, pure or immeasurably happy.


The video installation The Set is another matter altogether. It is neither an archive of real events nor a document of genuine experience. Directed by the artist not to move, predictably, the two children in First Communion attire fidget, giggle, and tremble; thus becoming a recursive statement of actual initiatory communion in the guise of a contemporary virtual space. The missing groom of the child-bride is now present in the form of a gangly, awkward and fetching adolescent boy; ‘Jesus as feast’ is nowhere to be seen. The girls’ facial expressions are exaggerated and the boys’ bodily gestures are even more overstated. The large corpus image projected upon the wall is deconstructed into two close-up shots of the male and female subjects that oscillate from one corporeal detail to the next and are contained within two monitors set on the floor. This virtual partitioning of their bodies transforms each monitor into a reliquary of innocence filled with bits and pieces of the living. Truth be told; this video of real children is not a holy event, it is artifice, it is less real than the march of virgins across the gallery walls. We can see his and her reflection upon the surface of the floor, but no one is entering the scene from above.

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Christy Johnson is an artist based in London.

Catherine Clinger is a writer who lives in London and New Mexico. She is currently a Visiting Professor of Art History at the University of New Mexico.

Installation photographs: Jonathan Green, UCR California Museum of Photography (2007)