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Earlier this week at the Union Theological Seminary, I sensed that someone in power must have a wicked sense of humor. For this year’s artist in residence, America’s oldest independent Christian seminary picked a witch, Michael Dudeck, who fittingly infused his residency’s culminating lecture with a shamanistic sensibility, casting new and strange light on ideas about objects, desire, and the divine.
The event took place in the neo-Gothic chapel at Union Theological Seminary near Manhattan’s Columbia University. The tall, dimly lit space allowed nearby gas lights from outside to eerily color the glass panes bright orange. It was not your grandma’s Gothic, and the ambience brought on flashbacks of Edgar Allen Poe’s chambers in the “Masque of the Red Death.” The unorthodox atmosphere was a harbinger of how Dudeck would set about to “queer” and destabilize the ideas in his talk. In a mix of the academic and the ritualistic, two candles burned and flickered under the presentation screen.
Dudeck spoke with the cadence of incantation. The rhythmic pace of his words quickened and slowed with expressive undulation. This spell-casting tone is rarely heard outside covens. Just as a preacher’s drawn-out drawls can add a special emphasis to words, like freedom, that we’ve heard thousands of times, this tone of speaking words like magic bestowed a picante flavor that made this presentation unique and surprisingly easy to absorb.
The man at the center of this evening challenged everyone to re-think how they define objects. Now, at first it’s tempting to quote the dictionary but “a material thing that can be seen and touched” leaves nuances unspoken. And “Punc Arkæogy” is the term for Dudeck’s effort to move beyond such literal definitions, to dig deeper into what we expect and desire from objects in our lives, and to create works of art that get viewers to think about what is materialized and left unmaterialized.
Modernity is not normally defined by how one interacts with objects. But a quote (posted above) from revered Egyptologist Jan Assman pushed those of us in the audience to consider early anthropological moment when rulers first made decisions about which objects in their realm were important and magical and which would be banned and destroyed.
Who benefits when you find your bliss before objects of a religion sanctioned by a king, as opposed to the idols of a banned fringe cult? Who benefits when you get bliss from a work of art at a free opening downtown instead from swiping your card to buy something shiny and new on Fifth Avenue? Do you dig the objects like a punk or a pawn?
Dudeck clarified his theories by examining a specific object — a map — during a section of his performance entitled “Queer Cartography.” An old map of Palestine was put on the stage and subjected to some tough love in monologues by seven seminarians that collaborated with Dudeck.
Of British origins, the map’s first function was to advance the ambitions of British colonialism. It found a second life when it entered seminary and was displayed prominently. Thousands of theologians passing by it over the decades and beheld this map as representing the cradle of Christianity. But a focus on “the Holy Lands” obscures how the Bible was shaped by forces off the map, like Rome’s government that crucified Jesus, Egypt’s pharaoh who Moses subverted, or strands of Greece’s philosophy that influence many of the ideas in John’s Gospel.
The map took on a third life as a projection screen during the performance. It was literally a screen as different images, including images of roman coins and a frieze representing the sacking of Jerusalem, were juxtaposed over the map. The overlays made it vivid how much of what matters has been left invisible in this depiction. The map’s supposed neutrality strategically leaves many stories untold, and allows it to become a psychological projection screen for more than one form of historical denial.
Every object had a shadow. The shadow was a literal and visual presence throughout this performance in a neo-Gothic church. But the shadow was a multilayered metaphor in Dudeck’s performance. The shadow was a religious presence as Christian theologians acknowledged witch energy (which still subliminally influences Catholicism). The shadow was a sexualized and gendered presence as a predominately straight and conventionally gender attired audience felt the energy of queer desire and genderfuck performance. Dudeck vitalized the meaning of one of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s most esoteric quotes:
Everything that we see is a shadow cast by that which we do not see.
Michael Dudeck’s “Punc Arkæogy: Queering Cartographies” took place on April 8, 8pm, at the James Memorial Chapel of the Union Theological Seminary (3041 Broadway, Morningside Heights, Manhattan).