Casting Jesus Christian Jankowski
July 9, 2015
BY Aaron Moulton

July 9, 2015

Christian Jankowski’s film installation Casting Jesus is one of the centerpieces of the exhibition "Theories on Forgetting" at Gagosian Gallery, Beverly Hills. The exhibition, devoted to the theme of cultural memory, explores the possibility of achieving an archetypal form.

Jankowski’s film installation focuses on an audition to select an actor for the role of Jesus, a character historically positioned as the human embodiment of divinity, often recognized through echoes, composite sketches and culture’s telephone game of historical interpretation. Arbitrated by a jury of Vatican members, thirteen professional actors compete for the role of Jesus over the course of an hour-long process of game-show format reality elimination. A distinguished panel of judges comprised of Monseñor José Manuel del Rio Carrasco, Vatican Priest; Sandro Barbagallo, Art Critic at the Vatican’s L’Osservatore Romano newspaper, and Massimo Giraldi, journalist and Secretary of the Commission for Film Classification of the Italian Bishop Conference, evaluate the actors as they complete a variety of tasks including breaking bread, performing a miracle and carrying the cross, as well as offering dramatic interpretations of their favorite quotes from Jesus.

Through a gripping, honest and oftentimes awkwardly hilarious exchange between the jury and the contestants, Jankowski questions how the Catholic Church perceives the artistic representation of Jesus today and how, in turn, this image is translated into modern media. Inspiration for the project came to the artist after he chanced upon the filming of The Passion of the Christ in Cinecittà in 2003. During a break in filming, Jankowski witnessed the actor James Caviezel, dressed as Jesus and covered in artificial blood, with two priests coaching him to find the right spiritual and artistic expression for the part.

“I was inspired by this image and later, when watching The Passion of the Christ in the cinema, it fascinated me knowing James Caviezel’s acting had been informed by experts from within the Church. The director Mel Gibson’s use of priests as co-directors was intriguing and I wanted to push this concept one step further by letting the Vatican itself decide who Jesus is,” explained Jankowski.

Filmed by Jankowski in the Complesso Santo Spirito in Sassia, Rome, and watched via live video stream by a separate audience of three hundred, the actors are gradually narrowed down to one finalist by the jury. And who will be the chosen one? Mormon Jesus? Jewish Jesus? Slavic Jesus? Each contestant will appeal to everyone’s respective visual literacy, but the skill of the actors, with their push-button tears and cross-dragging suffering, will sort the wheat from the chaff.

And yet there is no leading role for the winner. They are merely and maximally the church-ordained face of divinity, grace and ultimate suffering, should they ever need to call on one for reference. As in most works from the artist, the process and the journey is what makes the work. We are provided with strong articulation from the panel as to what these values represent, and how they should be represented. We the audience are directly engaged as if present, participatory and complicit in the outcome. The two-channel film positions us perfectly between actors and experts; our input, reactions and observations feel equally relevant.

Jankowski’s playfully recursive artistic practice uses humor as a guise to confronting institutions privileged with obscurity, institutions that don’t often demonstrate self-reflection. The talking heads of news media, the art world, the market, and, in this case, the church, (and not just any but the Vatican) are given a mirror in front of which they play out the essence of their very nature like a meta-discourse. Jankowski’s craft lies not just in pulling the rug out from beneath expectation, to invite the whimsy of clever irony, but in leaving us with more questions and ways of questioning than with a conclusive determination that says this institution is right, wrong, or naïve. We as the audience are left with that beautifully awkward position of figuring it out for ourselves.

"Theories on Forgetting" is on view at Gagosian Gallery Beverly Hills through August 21, 2015.