Houses of the Holy: Al Farrow’s Sculptural Provocations

His replica of the White House may be the color of feces, but it’s more than a snide comment on the current resident.

As a symbol of power, the White House has been a site of protest from almost the time it was rebuilt in the early 19th century. Anyone who has witnessed or participated in the yelling and sign-waving that takes place at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. — especially in the Donald Trump era — will testify to the cacophony of sound and noise directed at the neoclassical building.

What Al Farrow has constructed is a kind of silent protest. But because it’s an Al Farrow work, The White House is both a resounding sculptural feat and a resounding cultural commentary. Farrow’s White House isn’t white. It’s a de-scaled replica weighing almost a ton that’s coated in a color that — let’s put this kindly — resembles that of a lightly colored bowel movement. In other words, shit. The White House doesn’t advertise its color scheme on any accompanying text. It doesn’t have to; art-goers who visit Farrow’s new sculpture and exhibit at the Museum of Craft and Design can make that connection for themselves. Maybe they won’t see fecal matter. Maybe they’ll see layers of pollution. Or soot. Or the color of corruption. But one thing that Farrow hopes they see is a building stained by both major political parties, not just the current occupant’s.

“It’s corroded. It’s rusted,” Farrow told SF Weekly at the opening-night reception for his exhibit. “It’s symbolic of the corruption we’re experiencing, but it’s not only about Trump and the Trump White House — it’s really about the presidency in general, and that over the past 40 or so years, every president has expanded the powers. And Congress has taken less and less of its own responsibility. And it’s not clear in the sculpture, but symbolically, I’m talking about the corrosion of our system, and the corrosion of our government.”

The title “Al Farrow: Divine Ammunition,” references Farrow’s penchant for making replica religious buildings from guns, bullets, and other weaponry. Farrow built The White House from similar materials, along with steel. The work’s explicit connection between weapons and abuses of power and privilege is a motif that carries over to his replicas of more overtly religious buildings, which he’s been doing for more than a decade.

Al Farrow Synagogue VI (Temple Emanuel). Photo by Jonathan Curiel

He gives equal treatment to the three great monotheistic faiths, so “Al Farrow: Divine Ammunition” — which toured the United States for three years before arriving at the Museum of Craft and Design in Dogpatch — includes his 2010 work Bombed Mosque, a beautifully haunting replica of a Shiite place of worship in Pakistan. Beautiful because it faithfully reproduces the turquoise tile pattern that is common to Shiite mosques across Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran. And beautiful because it faithfully reproduces the shimmering dome that is also inherent to Shiite mosques. Shiism is a distinct branch of Muslim identity, and architectural scholars have lauded the sect’s mosques in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran as some of the highest forms of Islamic architecture.

But in Pakistan, extremists from Sunni Islam — the religion’s dominant branch — have bombed Shia mosques, and the back side of Bombed Mosque is cratered in as if ruined in a blast. Unlike The White House, the munitions that comprise Bombed Mosque are, on close inspection, obviously munitions. Bullets lie atop other bullets. Handguns hang above the main entrance. And gun barrels comprise the mosque’s minarets. Still, from a distance of 20 feet, the artwork’s guns and bullets aren’t obviously weaponry.

“The involvement of religions in war is universal and has been all throughout history and even pre-history,” says Farrow, whose Bombed Mosque is owned by Sacramento’s Crocker Art Museum. “Socrates was going to be assassinated because he preached against the local religions. So this concept of violence and religion goes way back. I’m just reflecting our times and our cultures today. All the religions are involved in violence on one level or another. That’s what the work is really about. I’ve set things up to not be dogmatic — but to be interpretive. I try to make it so that it’s not obvious that I’m using violent materials. I want people to discover it when they get close.”

Farrow’s interpretations of buildings, which he calls his Reliquaries series, began in 1995, after he visited Florence’s San Lorenzo Basilica and saw a reliquary that featured a finger bone that was bent, as if from a disfigured hand that had experienced trauma. Reliquaries can be dazzling displays of reverence and death. Like an ornate tomb, a traditional reliquary contains a person’s remains — but not just any person. Usually it’s a saint or other revered figure. And usually the reliquary is adorned with jewels and gold to increase the veneration of the deceased. The Shrine of the Three Kings, a gilded reliquary inside Germany’s Cologne Cathedral that supposedly houses the body fragments of the three magi who visited Christ, epitomizes the religious fervor associated with reliquaries. Every year, more than 5 million people visit the cathedral and its Shrine of the Three Kings. And every year, at reliquaries around the world, adherents become so emotional that they shake, sob, or reach another state of religious ecstasy.

A Brooklyn native who lives in San Rafael, Farrow isn’t religious himself. He describes himself as “agnostic, from a Jewish background.” Weapon-constructed synagogues are also part of his Reliquaries series, and his newest one — a striking replica of San Francisco’s Temple Emanu-El that features bullets and gun barrels — is being exhibited for the first time. Farrow made Synagogue VI (Temple Emanuel) as a private commission for a Jewish patron. Farrow isn’t anti-religion. Far from it; he mourns the destruction of religious buildings. But it’s often religious zealots who destroy the buildings. “Al Farrow: Divine Ammunition” features a new Vandalized Doors series of large doors that Farrow created to resemble the damaged entrances of a mosque, church, and synagogue. Each door — similar to his Reliquaries replicas — is made from munitions and looks eerily like the real thing. Vandalized Mosque Door, which features a cache of ammo boxes, is shot with bullet holes that Farrow’s friends made with their own guns.

“We just did an evening of shooting — and we shot about 200 bullets in there,” he tells SF Weekly. “We took a lot of precautions.”

Seeing all of Farrow’s work in one gallery space, especially with people milling around and standing over and near realistic-looking mosques, synagogues, and churches, is like being on the set of a Fellini film. “Surreal” is one way to put it. Farrow says the vast majority of religious-oriented art-goers who encounter his work approve: “I’d say 99.5 percent of the reactions are positive, no matter what religion, including Muslims.” And, he says, all his art — religious or not, political or not — comes with a bigger, unadvertised plea. “I don’t have a singular message in any of my work,” says Farrow, whose regular S.F. gallery, Catharine Clark, worked with the Museum of Craft and Design on his new exhibit. “My message is ‘Think! Look at the symbols — and think.’ I want to lead people to a place of wondering. And wherever they go is perfect.” 

Al Farrow: Divine Ammunition, through Feb. 24, 2019, at the Museum of Craft and Design, 2569 Third St. $6-$8; 415-773-0303 or sfmcd.org

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