Arts & Culture
Finding the Messiah, With the Help of QR Codes
We talk with R. Justin Stewart about his new installation, “Distorting (a messiah project, 13C),” and his research into the Jewish concept of the messiah Read More
Walking through, around, and under R. Justin Stewart’s sculptural installation, “Distorting (a messiah project, 13C),” doesn’t immediately bring to mind the idea of the ‘messiah’—though, as Stewart’s website explains, the “intricate web of fleece, rope, and plastic is a three-dimensional representation of the concept of the messiah, as it existed in the 13th century.” Yet simply looking at the installment and interacting with it are two completely different things. The spring-colored nodes beg to be touched, and when you do you realize they’re made of felt and not hard plastic. Touching them causes neighboring nodes to quiver and vibrate. A gust of wind shakes the installation, even though it’s secured to the ground and ceiling. Nearly all of the nodes have a QR code which, when scanned by a smartphone, tells a story, though perhaps not quite in order.
The installation reminded me of a jungle gym, not the divine, and I wondered how this piece could have any connection to the concept of the Jewish Messiah. I talked with R. Justin Stewart, a self-professed agnostic married to a Jewish woman, about his new installation, on display at Brooklyn’s Invisible Dog Art Center through May 5.
Your bio states that you’re a self-proclaimed agnostic. Why pursue an art installation about the idea of the Jewish concept of the messiah?
I was researching a wide variety of topics and landed on this topic at the suggestion of my wife. I like to learn about how ideas evolve and change over time based on the time and space they exist within and the other ideas that they’re around. This project really could have been about anything, but the messiah concept worked.
Why do you think people are preoccupied with the idea of a messiah?
What I find fascinating in my 18-month study of the Jewish Messiah is that this type of thinking has been happening forever. There’s a sort of religious ferment where people are waiting for the end: The Y2K, 2012 Rapture, the Mayan calendar. The world is hard on people, it’s not fun all of the time. People want someone, some thing, or somehow to change it. It seems that people are just trying to deal with the world that they’ve got.
So this is a religious piece?
It can’t not be. It becomes a problem of categorization. There’s religious content, there’s Jewish content. Is it Jewish art? Probably, but I think it’s just as secular. You don’t have to be engaged in Judaism to find this piece interesting or relevant. It’s about ideas, and the messiah just happens to be the idea that this work is about.
What do you want the viewer to see when they look at this work?
I struggle with talking about it. I make work for my own learning and to challenge my own way of thinking. I put these works out kind of for myself—they are ideas that are in my brain that I can manifest in a physical way. As an artist, the materials and space have a specific meaning to me, but the content is here for the people to access.
Who do you want to see this? Who are you hoping to attract?
Anyone and everyone, there’s no specific audience. Viewing people in it is interesting to me as an artist. People react differently, it alters your movement. These types of sculptures make people do things they wouldn’t do at an art space.