Aside from fuelling the already fiery debates surrounding religion, last month's Charlie Hebdo shootings ignited the polemics of satire as ammunition against religious fundamentalists and marginalized communities most associated with--at least according to Fox News and its ilk--religious extremists.
Satirizing religious and political affairs must be done, not only to deepen social consciousness and inspire action, but to reach out to those not easily swayed by abstruse theory and rhetoric. But is it possible to satirize religion and push boundaries without triggering murder?
In immediate response to the shootings, American writer and photographer Teju Cole suggested in his essay, Unmournable Bodies, that "it is possible to defend the right to obscene and racist speech without promoting or sponsoring the content of that speech. It is possible to approve of sacrilege without endorsing racism. And it is possible to consider Islamophobia immoral without wishing it illegal."
In her latest photographic collection,Gods of Suburbia, Vancouver-based, internationally award-winning photographer and cultural critic Dina Goldstein captures the essence of satire through discussion and criticism about religion, its place and perseverance in our technology-manic society. She knocks off Western and Eastern Gods, deities and icons from their altars and re-imagines them as ordinary people struggling with unemployment, homelessness, identity crisis and alienation. We see Lakshmi attempting to "lean in" with the cumbersome demands of domestic responsibilities and public life. For his last supper, Jesus feasts with hipsters in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside observing the conflict between homelessness and gentrification; and a riff-raff Wiccan couple, models for many pop-up fringe spiritual communities, are construed as being so awkward and estranged, they are, according to Goldstein, "living on the outside of the mainstream, along the periphery of Suburbia." By re-imagining Gods and deities as fallible creatures unworthy of worship, Gods of Suburbia dares to ask: is religion a commodity akin to a sparkly iPhone that can upgraded, traded in, or disposed for the latest model? How can the practice of religion, so private and personal, be so public? How has religion been able to thrive in our science-driven, secular society?
By constructing a cosmetic reality, one that mirrors our own, Goldstein doesn't evade discussion, but rather creates it. In doing so, Gods and deities, believed to be too sacred for criticism, are personified and whose religious practices contradict their dogma.
This plastic aesthetic within Gods of Suburbia reflects our manufactured, consumer world, where religious idols are not only out of place, but are actively being displaced. In fact, there is a sadness in the photos, because without their shrines and shiny halos, the icons are comparable to plastic flowers and bejewelled sunglasses sold in dollar stores--the meccas of consumer overproduction and excess. Buddha exemplifies the commodification of religion, by way of exorbitant prayer beads and eat-pray-love five star retreats. "I've placed Buddha in a high-end supermarket to illustrate how far we live and exist from the ideals of Buddhism, which we in the West pay homage to with Yoga and meditation," Goldstein explains. "The irony is that we continue our immersion in the three poisons when we shop at such overpriced designer supermarkets. [...] They indulge our narcissism and desire--separating the haves even further from the have-nots, who can't shop at such places and are left with GMO and lower-scale food."
This consumerism reveals on the one hand, religion's vulnerability to commodification, and, on the other, its ability to navigate our consumer cosmos, adapting to rapid changing consumer wants and constructed needs. In doing so, this reveals our active role in the commodification and the demonization of religious beliefs.
The striking difference between the Charlie Hebdo illustrations and Gods of Suburbia is, despite Goldstein's critique on religion, she remains respectful to the Gods and deities by rooting satire and contemporary narratives within the axiom of their history and spirituality, therefore enhancing, rather than distorting the essence of religious icons. Muhammad the Prophet is exalted as Goldstein recognizes Islam's contribution to the sciences long before their European counterparts, juxtaposing "the obvious disconnect between the East, specifically Islamic principles and the West's secular ideals, which is currently at the forefront of international concern." Ganesha, the Lord of Obstacles is depicted as a tormented outsider struggling to integrate in a hostile world, an experience Goldstein felt "as an immigrant to Canada [.] I was bullied for being different and for not speaking English--you can see in the photo that what differentiates people is not only what they eat, and how they dress, but also what they believe in." There is a universality within the alternate world of Gods of Suburbia that many of us can relate to. The Charlie Hebdo illustrations on the other hand, depicts marginalized communities, such as France's 4 million Muslims under the lens of racist stereotypes so detached not only from their religious and spiritual roots, but also alienated from the strained colonial history between France and its former colonies. The illustrations did not contain Islamophobia, but in fact, incited Islamophobia, and consequently, its backlash.
If done right, satire can enlighten; if done carelessly, satire can lead to violence as our world has witnessed over again. To not understand this dynamic is irresponsible on the part of the artist. Satire must be clever, and like many cultural forms, must encourage the awareness and potential intellect of all members of society, religious or not. At its best, satire not only critiques social values and norms, but provokes change if necessary, positioning individuals to be active participants in social transformation, rather than passive consumers who allow others to worry about their civil liberties and freedom.
The filtered, plastic universe of Gods of Suburbia points the finger at all of us and our inconsistency to uphold spiritual peace within our manic, individualistic consumer world. In the end, Goldstein's work not only exemplifies satire, but she has created an alternative space where Gods can live among us, but only in so far that we can see our faulty selves in this made-up reality.