Alumnus art piece initiates conversation about the sanctity of religious images

Saint Gudula, patroness of Brussels, portrayed with a Snapchat filter over her face. The controversial piece was designed by UNCA alumnus Christian Coley. Photo by Maggie Haddock

Maggie Haddock
News Writer
mhaddock@unca.edu

A complaint against a piece of student art displayed in Zeis Hall causes upset for its portrayal of religious figures. The piece, Faceswap, portrays Saint Gudula, patroness of Brussels with a Snapchat filter covering her face. Removal of the piece, which as of now is not under discussion, would breach UNC Asheville’s policy on freedoms of expression and speech.

“I just thought it was funny and cool that people cared that much to complain about it,” said designer of the piece Christian Coley, a recent new media graduate.

The piece was chosen by a faculty member after he participated in an international trip with the department, according to Coley.

“I didn’t choose to put it up,” Coley said. “A professor wanted to [display] it from a media journal I created from a study abroad trip.”  

New media lecturer Peter Kusek, who chose Coley’s piece to display, co-hosted the departmental study trip with associate professor Curt Cloninger. The trip took students to Brussels, Antwerp, Rotterdam and Amsterdam.

Faceswap followed an earlier conversation at our hostel in which I pondered with students whether facial recognition algorithm in the face swap app would read statue’s as people,” Kusek said. “[Coley] later answered this question with this and other images in the media journal assignment for the course.”

The initial complaint about the piece was made under the assumption the image was actually a distortion of the Virgin Mary and not Saint Gudula, according to Kusek.

“The image is a remix of a photo of a statue that, by the way, is also an abstraction of its original subject,” Kusek said. “At no time was it a critique of religion.”

The interpretation of the piece, as discussed with Kusek, may hold different meanings to different people, as the respect one has for an image varies based on one’s own beliefs. The presence of iconoclasm, or the destruction of images, was noted even throughout the international study trip, according to Kusek.

“A related work we saw and discussed was Rene Magritte’s Treachery of Images,” Kusek said. “In a very smart way, it presents the image of a pipe while simultaneously drawing attention to the fact that it is not an actual pipe, but a representation of one, hence, the treachery of images.”

Although one student expressed distaste to the university about the piece, other students said the piece was not offensive to them.

“I understand some people take religion very seriously, but to me, this just seems like some light-hearted fun,” said Levente Szabo, a senior mathematics student.

Other student opinions followed Szabo’s, such as Jake Aschenbrenner, a junior religious studies student.

“I’m not personally offended by it, but I don’t belong to any religious movement, so I don’t have any stake in religious symbols or icons being used in a non-traditional way,” Aschenbrenner said.

According to Kusek, he interprets the piece in his own way, seeing it as something beyond a Snapchat experiment.

“With patron saints devoted to comedy, such as Saint Genesius, I would like to think that the inadvertent humor in [Coley’s] image could have spiritual value as an expression of joy,” Kusek said.

The piece, Faceswap, hangs in front of a window in Zeis Hall. The placement of the piece was intended to be backlit by natural lighting, as shown here. Photo by Maggie Haddock.

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