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David Mach: Precious Light
Published on Monday, 08 August 2011

5 stars (Critic's Choice)

City Art Centre (venue website)
7, 12-28 Aug, 10:00am-5:00pm
Reviewed by Madeleine Mason

 Parental Guidance. Parents or guardians should consider the content of this show if children are attending.

Months ago, when I first heard that this season’s City Art Centre exhibition would be a celebration of the King James Bible, I admit that my first thought was: “How dull.” The Christian religion has undeniably brought about some of the greatest, most poignant art the world has ever seen – but with the Bible having provided the inspiration behind centuries of works, surely we don’t need any more? Or so I thought… but it turns out we do need exhibitions like David Mach’s Precious Light, a collection of vibrant collages and imposing sculptures illustrating events from both the Old and New Testaments, to heave the hefty volume into the twenty-first century and prove its continuing relevance.

I’m not religious, but I still find Mach’s work astounding. Upon entering the gallery, visitors are confronted by Golgotha, a stark and looming sculptural tableau of the Crucifixion of Christ flanked by the two thieves executed alongside him.  The protagonists, splayed on weighty steel crosses, are pierced with thousands of twisted, needle-like lengths of metal coat-hanger – voodoo dolls at the mercy of their masters.

The second floor landing presents the similarly arresting image, Die Harder. Christ is alone on the cross, his wire-woven body once again perforated with barbs and his face contorted in anguish; mouth wide open in a scream. Brutal representations of agonising pain, these figures are reminiscent of the German Expressionist style: powerfully human and surging with emotion.

To me, however, it is the collages that steal the show. Painstakingly intricate yet often large in scale, these beautifully detailed creations treat the Bible not as a dusty old storybook but as a high-definition blockbuster movie.  Every scene bursts out at you with all the vitality, action, drama and passion that colours our everyday existence.

This cinematic quality is most pertinently exemplified, I think, by The Destruction of Jericho – in which the viewer becomes a fifth passenger in a typical family car as its occupants stare, wide-eyed with awe and exclamation, at a scene of violent obliteration beyond the windows. Instead of cowering with fear as the city around them explodes and burns, the two children on the back seat simply gawp, mouths open, as a man outside smears his bloodied hand across the glass.  The little girl has lost all interest in the teddy bear in her lap, and her brother fails to notice the Coca-Cola splashing across his chest from the can in his hand. The epitome of pop culture and consumerism, Mach’s image both represents modern-day life and situates the Bible within it: the collage acts, in the artist’s own words, not only as a celebration of the King James Bible but as “a presentation of the very nature of the world we now live in.”

Somehow, therefore, each must still be relevant to the other, and this is what Mach seeks to establish through his modernisations of traditional Bible stories.  Spot, for example, the iPhone falling from the sky in The Plague of Frogs.  Of course, such an approach could well be seen by Christian viewers as fictionalising the events and individuals of the Bible, as well as creating a sense of superficiality. Flicking through the visitor’s book, I noticed one particular comment – and it was far from an isolated view – which dubbed the collages “sensational” and lacking in depth.

But these gallery-goers, I would politely suggest, have missed the point. It is precisely this sensationalism that allows Mach to break down the sometimes-inaccessible messages of the Bible, removing their overtly spiritual connotations and re-imagining them in terms of visual or emotional archetypes. Mach himself puts it in even simpler terms: “what people know.”  It’s my belief that the artist has executed his ideas with the utmost respect to Christianity – with the humble intention of revealing the inherent meanings of the Bible stories, in a contemporary guise, to as many people as he can.

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