Where free art provokes the church

The smell of oil provokes a fire department operation. Meanwhile, the fumes from large tubs of used oil in the nave have nothing to do with an accident. But with art – trademark of Cologne's Church of St. Peter. The unique art station celebrates its 25th anniversary until Sunday.

A place full of tension. For contemporary art is presented in the late Gothic sacred building. And not everyone has access to works whose religious reference, as in the case of the oil pans by the Japanese artist Noriyuki Haraguchi, is not obvious. From the beginning, there are conflicts that reflect the problematic relationship between the church and the free spirit of art. There was even a scandal when Alfred Hrdlicka's sculpture "Crucified" was shown in 1994 – a torso with arms and legs cut off. Mennekes sees in it the maltreated human being and thus the executed Christ. Others are outraged by the prominent sex part.

Only recently, the organizers canceled a planned presentation of the Austrian Siegfried Anzinger, who wanted to show a crucified pig and thus a picture about the threatened creation. The curators feared an outcry of hurt religious feelings.

Despite such conflicts, the tradition of bringing art and religion into dialogue at St. Peter's lives on. Art should confront people – including believers – with existential questions, even provoke them. "It is part of the concept of the art station to understand art as an instrument of questioning," emphasizes theologian Guido Schlimbach in his dissertation on St. Peter's. Since 1987, the art station comes to about 160 exhibitions. Among the artists are names like Markus Lupertz, Joseph Beuys, Kathe Kollwitz, Francis Bacon, Gunter Uecker and Eduardo Chillida. By the way, the Basque sculptor created the three-part altar of the cross "Gurutz Aldare" for St. Peter's – to the displeasure of the Vatican. Rome insists on a table made of a block – as a symbol of the only Savior Jesus Christ. Chillida's work has at least found a place in the side aisle.

Unique place
In no other Catholic church does contemporary culture have such a firm place as in St. Peter's, Schlimbach concludes, also with regard to the performances of contemporary music with a specially built organ. On the basis of Haraguchi's work he explains the specifics of the station. Although not a Christian, the Asian in 2008 had seen his work "finally in a place where it belongs". Schlimbach recalls how the deep black of the oil and its powerful mirroring effect vastly expands the sacred space. He compares this juxtaposition of art and church with the "borrowed gaze" in Japan's garden art. Gardens are laid out in such a way that they offer a view of the landscape behind them. Similarly, art broadens the perspective on the religious dimension, according to Schlimbach, who is planning the exhibitions with Renate Goldmann and Sofia Ungers after Mennekes' departure in 2008.

The team cooperates with the Cologne Biennial "New talents", the art academies in Cologne and Dusseldorf and the art museum of the Archdiocese of Cologne "Kolumba". According to Schlimbach, artists cannot apply for exhibitions, they are appointed. Among them is Dutchman Kris Martin. With his themes of time and transience, he aroused interest in Cologne – and responded to a request for an exhibition in September: "I'll make" something for you." Hopefully something that is compatible with religious feelings.

On Friday, the Gothic church will host a pontifical mass with Archbishop Joachim Cardinal Meisner of Cologne, and the following day, journalist and TV host Elke Heidenreich will deliver the keynote address on the 25th anniversary. Finally, on Sunday, a community festival lasting several hours will take place after the festive service.

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