South African artist Jane Alexander has long worked with blurring the evolutionary line between humanity and animals, using anthropomorphic sculptures to respond to the dehumanizing nature of the Apartheid. Yet with her work’s installation in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, one of New York’s most hallowed spaces, this space between what is human and what is beast becomes even more interesting.
The exhibition, Jane Alexander: Surveys (from Cape of Good Hope), was organized by the Museum for African Art in New York and has already traveled to the SCAD Museum of Art in Savannah and the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston, but having her humanoid figures creep in chapels and places of prayer is much more unsettling than any installation in a traditional museum could be. There’s something deeply unnerving about the fiberglass sculptures of dog-faced soldiers processing before stained glass windows of saints, and the imprisoned bird-headed wingless thing that is captured in double chain-link fences and barbed wire in a part of the cathedral gutted by the 2001 fire.
It’s kind of amazing that a church — though a very open Episcopalian church that has a Keith Haring triptych on one altar and regularly hosts public events like an annual reading of Dante’s Inferno — would invite such subversive work into its worship space. In one of Alexander’s “tableaux,” a “Harbinger” wearing a skeletal mask and supported by two walking sticks stands by a “Ghost” sculpture wearing the pelt of a caracal and holding the leash of a sheep-like “Hobble ruminant” that has both its back legs bound together. Both the human-ish figures have lamb faces, making for a very odd scene of domination that can readily be seen as a comment on neo-colonial control, but is also just a really haunting visual of control and the turning of a being into a harnessed animal.
These ideas of prejudice, surveillance, and borders are the foundation of Alexander’s work, although even if you didn’t know it was about South Africa or a reaction to Apartheid, it would still be deeply upsetting. It’s hard to pick an installation with the most lingering impact, but the “Attendant” hanging in one chapel, where a fiberglass figure is draped in cotton and silk with its face veiled, really got to me. One hand of the sculpture seems to slightly beckon you over, and once standing beneath the sculpture at just the right angle and looking up, you can glimpse in the mess of fabric the face with its traces of a nose and lips on pale skin. While I’m sure Alexander never expected her art to be exhibited in a cathedral surrounded by icons of the holy and votive candles, it still dragged out all those memories of attending Catholic churches when younger and feeling a pull of foreboding when looking up at the statues of Mary’s eyes cast beneath her veil, like you were gazing at something you were not meant to, but now that you were there, she expected something of you.
Along with Alexander’s sculptures and installations, there are some of her “photomontages” exhibited that superimpose the figures directly over photographs of South Africa. I found them a little too literal and unconvincing, as seeing something like the butcher apron-wearing “Ghost” placed over an image of diversionary fences in Johannesberg seems to take away the uncertainty that makes Alexander’s work so interesting. Luckily, we don’t just have photographs, we can see for ourselves these strange and inhuman, yet uncannily beautiful, figures lurking in the High Gothic architecture of St. John the Divine in all their ambiguity.
Jane Alexander: Surveys (from Cape of Good Hope) is at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine (1047 Amsterdam Avenue, Morningside Heights, Manhattan) through July 29.