Michael Petry Discusses In League With Devils with Revd Jonathan Evens

Michael Petry, In League With Devils

Michael Petry is interviewed by Jonathan Evens about his upcoming ‘In League with Devils’ exhibition.

JE: Why, when secularisation has led many to reject all forms of divine being, are you creating art by “sifting through the sands of time to uncover the old stories, the old myths, the old beliefs”?

There’s a type of story that is so universal that when somebody tells it, it can be translated across the world in any language or culture, like Romeo and Juliet. When you look at Greek theology, the stories are amazing and come to the core of what it means to be a human.
I’m interested in how belief systems interact with each other, and the secular world, because they’re very much at odds, particularly when parts of those beliefs call for actions that would be illegal or immoral or unethical. Those are the things I try to eke out in these projects.
I’m saying, how can we look at this without fighting, without violence, can we actually have a dialogue? That dialogue engages the secular world, because the basis is within the secular world. I think when you live in a world where religion is so contested, it is important that people have these dialogues.

Michael Petry
Michael Petry, reverse image of Apollo’s Mirror 2023 reflecting the stained glass at Wesley Chapel, Henry Luce III Center for the Arts & Religion, Washington DC

You are understandably critical of the way in which the major world religions have oppressed those they classed as devils. Yet the main venues to have embraced ‘In League with Devils’ have been associated with either Christianity or Judaism. Why is that so?

MP: The churches that have been interested are those that have a willingness to question. That willingness is at the core of one side of Christianity, that may be the reason. You also find a lot of Anglican churches having art within them. That includes contemporary art, so, is now not so scary. Those US churches who are interested tend to be more liberal. I don’t think a Southern Baptist Church would be having this kind of dialogue.
Within this particular discourse, those institutions that are open to discussion, are the ones able to have a conversation with someone who respects them. You don’t have to believe yourself to be respectful of the people who have those beliefs.

Does that mean that you’re only talking to those already acting in ways that are non-violent and not having the conversation with those who actually need to be part of it?

Both sides have to be willing to engage. I don’t know that there is any way to have a conversation with a violent person or someone who proposes violence as a solution. So, maybe, I can’t talk to them, but neither can the religious people within their own communities. I believe that conversations do go on internally within faith communities, but that doesn’t stop those people who want to engage in violence. I would say those people are using religion; they’re fake Christians or fake Muslims because they do not listen to the words of their own prophets.
I have an upcoming installation which will be a big Heaven painting triptych that has in front of it a piece called ‘The Foot Prints of Jesus’. These are bronze, but look like stone, like someone has stepped into a riverbed or something like that. There are a lot of Christians in America who have a fundamentalist notion that the Bible is 6,000 years old and everything in the fossil record is a trick of Satan. So, I’ve made this kind of fossil and it brings into question the notion of what timeframe humankind exists within. I believe in the secular scientific technology for dating the universe to about 14 billion years old, and trying to get that across to people who refuse to accept that notion is not going to happen. I wanted to make a piece that was about conflating those two timescales.

 You write of being inspired by the likes of Apollo, Eros and Athene. How is their influence revealed in these works?

Apollo is the god of light and enlightenment; he’s not the sun god. Apollo takes Helios, who is the sun and attaches him to his chariot every morning and flies him across the sky. Apollo brings light. Similarly, Jesus is said to be the light of the world and pretty much every religion has a god that has a connection to light.
We have to look at religion as an early technology for explaining the physical processes that people encounter; how does the sun move, how do we get crops to grow? All belief systems are technologies for understanding the world. I use the technology we refer to as science as an attempt to look at the universe and how it functions. It has a different set of rules but is still a belief system.

‘Piercing the Barrier’ is an open-ended invitation for the viewer to look at the Classical and Christian worlds and how love has been depicted. To what extent are you seeking commonalities with the best to be found in all religions, as well as drawing attention to those that have been demonised by the worst aspects of religion?

Romeo and Juliet, it’s translatable. If you talk about love to people, they know what you mean. Yet, most people don’t understand that in the classical world, love, as we know it – romantic love – only existed within same-sex couples; marriage was for procreation and dynastic reasons.
There’s a famous tale where a man’s house is on fire and he runs in and grabs his male lover and leaves his wife and children to die. He can only pick one and is asked, why did you save him? He said, I can always get another wife and always have more children but I can only ever have one loved one. That was the core of their belief system. Love was this romantic love that we now see as a male-female thing, but was then very much a male-male or female-female thing.
In the Symposium, Plato tells a story about the birth of desire, because humans used to be double (fused twins) now separated, we spend our lives searching for our other half. It’s a fantastically romantic story. You have men looking for men, women looking for women, and what they called hermaphrodites, male and female looking for each other.
The point of these stories is that love, in that world, was a dangerous thing because it had such big consequences. The arrow is a metaphor for that, because they knew it caused death. When you’re struck by the arrow of Eros, the old ‘you’ dies and you’re reborn as the lover with a new life because you’re in love and your whole world is different. I think anyone who’s fallen in love understands that.

What is the significance of working with fragments, particularly in the context of these exhibitions and themes they explore?

Artists have a dialogue with each other over time; referencing other artists and sometimes directly remaking, because nothing comes from nothing. Fragmentation comes in, because everything is a part of a whole but there is no way to see the whole of humanity, a person, or belief systems. That’s part of our culture, our visual culture, which is informed by that.
I’m keen to understand as many fragments as I can and the more pieces you have of the puzzle, the better your understanding. There’s no way to put the puzzle of life back together but the more fragments we have the better. As a Christian scholar, even if you spent the whole of your life trying to read everything, there’s still going to be a lot you don’t know. How much more in relation to Hinduism where there’s hundreds of gods and lots of stories? What I’m doing is cutting up belief systems because I’m taking bits here and there. Mine is a very cut up notion of saying, let’s look at all those different religions, and there’s so many of them!
One wonders what religions think of each other and, in the American tradition, they will quite happily say, “Oh, they’re all going to hell”. What I’m saying is, we should have a better dialogue. That goes back to extreme people; they are the ones who feel they have the whole and nothing else is needed. That certainty is terrifying for the rest of us.

About Michael Petry

Michael Petry, born in 1960, is an American multimedia artist and author currently based in London. He serves as the director of MOCA London (Museum of Contemporary Art London) and is also a co-founder of the Museum of Installation, located in London. Previously, he held the positions of Curator at the Royal Academy Schools Gallery, Guest Curator at the KunstAkademi in Oslo, and Research Fellow at the University of Wolverhampton.

‘In League with Devils’, July 14 – August 31, 2024, The Parsonage Gallery, Maine

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‘Apollo’s Mirror’, July 19 – August 31, 2024, St Mary the Virgin Episcopal Church, New York

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In League With Devils by Michael Petry, foreword by Stephen Fry, texts by Daniell Cornell and Rich Herron, published by MOCA London 2023,

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