Visual arts: A heaven lit by some very dim bulbs

The Liverpool Tate's exhibition undoubtedly has a Big Idea about celebrity and religion. Unfortunately, it's also Very Stupid.

Heaven is a contemporary art exhibition about religion and pop culture. This is the show that has the statue of Di as the Madonna that has provoked such a storm of controversy about whether or not it is controversial. Devised in Germany, the show had its first run in Dusseldorf before opening last week at the Tate Gallery in Liverpool.

It gets together all sorts of work, most of it not much good. It has art about Elvis and Michael Jackson. It has art about fashion and bodybuilding, about children and virtual reality and aliens from outer space. It has some not-quite-art too, fantasy couture and real-life star relics such as a bustier of Madonna's.

The show also has an argument; all this work has been gathered to present a thesis about religion in contemporary life. It seems to me a bad, stupid argument. But then I'm not sure if it's meant in earnest. An air of jokiness pervades the exhibition, though it's hard to say quite what the joke is about.

The show's subtitle - An Exhibition That Will Break Your Heart - sounds like a joke, a knowing nod at the blurbs you get with blockbuster novels and movies. And the point seems to be that this is not an exhibition that will break your heart, but which - on the contrary - deals in emotions to which the viewer is expected to feel superior.

Then, as you go upstairs to the Tate's top-floor gallery, you pass signs saying "You Are Approaching Heaven", and that's another joke, or bit of jokiness, emphasising that we are not really approaching heaven. And a visitor leaflet, written by the director of the Liverpool Tate, takes up the strain: "Dear Visitor," it begins, "Welcome to Heaven."

So while this is a show about religion, it is immediately hedged about by hints that we should not take it too seriously. Perhaps this is wise. For now the argument begins, and it's not a promising start. "Heaven," the leaflet continues, "is a name we give to our heart's desire." I don't think so. For this claim must mean something like: if my heart's desire is - say - to have a little cottage in Devon, then for me, that is the equivalent of what a Christian - say - means by Heaven. Indeed.

But the argument goes on. Religious belief has declined. The religious impulse has not. It has just moved on, and now we worship other things (the coercive/inclusive "we" does a lot of work here): "Celebrities, supermodels and pop stars are now idolised as once were saints and angels, while their clothes and props have become devotional relics. Physical perfection is suffered for and valued more highly than spiritual perfection. Glory has become glamour, innocence has become youth, virtue is money and paradise is a beach holiday."

You could not think this unless you thought that whatever fascinates, enthuses and obsesses people qualifies as a religion (there is, of course, no cult of Di anyway). And you could not think this unless you thought that, prior to some unspecified date when religion declined, everyone was unstintingly pious and never gave any attention to worldly values (although the fact that religious preachers have often strongly denounced such values suggests otherwise).

So the guiding idea of this show is one you could expect to find in a completely disposable journalistic think-piece, an argument which collapses on a moment's examination, and which - in a newspaper - is of course only designed to detain the reader for that moment. Whereas this art exhibition must have been a very complicated and expensive thing to organise, it asks an hour or two of you time, it runs for months - and all the while it's sustained by no more than a bit of mental fluff headlined "Celebrity - Is It the New Religion?" or whatever. It seems disproportionate.

And the more depressing thing is that this thought is not the usual curatorial guff. It is what much of the art in the show thinks too. When Jeff Koons does a flawless, polychrome effigy of Michael Jackson and a cuddly monkey, that's his point. When Mariko Mori presents a computer-generated artificial leisure paradise, it's hers too.

The show is full of pieces that boast a Disney-meets-Baroque aesthetic, that evoke religiose kitsch and the twee sublime, that graft the faces of Leonardo di Caprio and Kate Moss onto religious paintings, that equate VR with the world beyond. (The fit isn't always so neat: Gilbert and George's "Underneath the Arches" living sculpture routine is included for the absurd reason that it "echoes the steps of the medieval St Vitus's dance".)

Memories here are extremely short. The whole show is a long-winded footnote to Andy Warhol's gilded, iconic portrait of Marilyn Monroe. And looking a little further back, you'd have thought that the prime and obvious case of mass devotion in recent history was not Elvis or even Valentino, but Man of the Century Adolf Hitler. I suppose a show organised in Germany might not wish to dwell on this point.

But Hitler wouldn't do for another reason. The whole plan of this show is to say, not only that all worship is really religious worship, but that there are no distinctions to be made between worthwhile and unworthwhile objects of devotion. Some people like the Blessed Virgin Mary. Some people like Di. Some people are martyred for their faith. Some people are martyred for personal beauty (the French artist, Orlan, whose work consists of having endless of plastic surgery on herself, is included).

The presence of Hitler would naturally make this attitude harder to maintain. Or rather, it would disrupt the show's basic jokiness, its deeper cynicism. For I haven't put it quite right. You, the viewer, aren't truly meant to agree that Elvis or aliens or the perfect body are worthwhile objects of worship. No, the thought process that's encouraged here is in fact even more stupefying. You are meant to recognise - easy enough - that these are pretty dumb things to give your life to. But then comes the twist: hey, let's face it, like it or not, don't we all? That's what religion is now. The global media, you know, and its image world. It's taken over all our heads, hearts and souls. We may not want it, but we can't help it, so we may as well admit and affirm our helplessness.

The attitude is the old Warhol ethic, that of the volunteer zombie. The jokiness is a nervous snigger of knowing collusion with powers presumed to be beyond one's control or resistance. This is not a specific blasphemy against any established religion. It is a general and most disgusting blasphemy against the human mind.

Heaven, Tate Gallery, Albert Dock, Liverpool L3. Until 27 Feb. Closed Mondays. Admission pounds 3. concs pounds 2

Arts and Entertainment
Cold case: Aaron McCusker and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tv Review: Sky Atlantic's ambitious new series began tonight with a feature-length special
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee