Christian confessions, Jewish prayers, Islamic surahs, Buddhist sutras, and Vedic Sanskrit hymns are de- and re-constructed in contemporary artist Meg Hitchcock’s typographic collages—or “text drawings,” as she calls them. Seeking to highlight the beauty of the world’s various religions, she cuts individual letters from one religious text and then rearranges them on paper in an intricate pattern that spells out the beliefs of another tradition. The continuous, run-on line, which weaves in and out without spaces or punctuation, creates a “visual mantra of devotion,” Hitchcock says.
When asked how she responds to reactions of horror that she is cutting up and reauthoring the word of God, she said, “I’m very respectful of a person’s faith, and would never intentionally insult anyone. If my work is seen as an affront, it’s only because that person hasn’t heard the meaning behind the work. In short, I don’t see it as a desecration, but a celebration of the word of God.” (Read the full interview at StudioInternational.com.)
Hitchcock was raised Methodist. She had a “born-again experience” (her words) at age twelve and continued in that profession until age thirty, when she decided to step away from the faith. Now, she says, she’s not religious or even spiritual, but she’s definitely “not an atheist.” She says she follows a “pathless path.”
Despite the distance she keeps from organized religion, she is fascinated, she says, by its texts—not necessarily what they say, but what they mean to the people who deem them sacred. The words are so alive and true to communities of believers who recite them, sing them, chant them, pray them with all their heart and soul. People seek direction through these words. They seek comfort and healing. They seek meaning, and self-definition. And in the seeking, believers across all faith traditions are united. It’s this universal impulse—to connect with something larger than ourselves—that Hitchcock wants to explore.
Here are some works that reconstruct (Judeo-)Christian texts—songs, prayers, creeds, and scripture passages.
Ancient of Days is the most theologically interesting to me, because it holds in tension God’s immanence and transcendence. It lays out in linear fashion a hymn to the Triune God, praising his character and his activity in the lives of his people, and yet a large black shape looms dead center of this hymn, rendering large portions illegible. God’s simultaneous knowability and unknowability is one of the paradoxes of the Christian faith. While he revealed himself in myriad ways to ancient Israel and then ultimately through the person of Jesus Christ, and continues to reveal himself both generally and personally, he is still very much shrouded in mystery. The fullness of his glory is inaccessible to us right now. And his ways are often inscrutable. But both will be unveiled to us at the end of time.
The unknowability of God is a theme that’s been written about within Christianity since the church’s early days, especially through what’s called apophatic theology. Tertullian (ca. 155–ca. 240), for example, wrote, “That which is infinite is known only to itself. This it is which gives some notion of God, while yet beyond all our conceptions—our very incapacity of fully grasping Him affords us the idea of what He really is. He is presented to our minds in His transcendent greatness, as at once known and unknown.” And further, Cyril of Jerusalem (313–386): “In what concerns God, to confess our ignorance is the best knowledge.”
But just because our knowledge of God is imperfect and our God-concepts deficient doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seek to know God. Through her text drawings, Hitchcock foregrounds some such attempts to do just that, giving them visual density.
Though she sometimes employs assistants to help her meet deadlines, for the most part she does all the cutting and pasting herself. I sense that these two acts, in their labor-intensiveness and repetition, are themselves a sort of meditative practice for her—one that can be blissful, she says, but at other times hellishly boring.
In 2011 Hitchcock installed Obsession: The Book of Revelation from the Koran—a letter-by-letter assembly of John’s entire Apocalypse using cutouts from Islam’s holy book—on the walls, floor, and ceiling of the Famous Accountants Gallery in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Disparate word-strands cross over and under one another, creating a thick cord that coils and tangles as it meanders through the space. In some places it frays or is blended into a Muslim prayer or personal meditation. Here’s a short video interview with Hitchcock taken during the installation process, followed by a Quiet Lunch magazine interview from 2012:
And here’s Hitchcock commenting on three of her works: Throne: The Book of Revelation (different from the Bushwick installation), The Satanic Verses, and Shunya:
In Throne, Hitchcock reproduces the book of Revelation using letters from the Koran, creating a sensuous surface texture through bulges and curves. Because of the book’s many references to the throne of God, she decided to establish some interreligious resonance by setting a popular Muslim prayer known as “The Throne Verse,” or the “Ayat al-Kursi,” at the center, shaped like an Islamic mandala:
In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful.
Allah! There is no God but He,
the Living, the Self-subsisting, the Eternal.
No slumber can seize Him, nor sleep.
All things in heaven and earth are His.
Who could intercede in His presence without His permission?
He knows what appears in front of and behind His creatures.
Nor can they encompass any knowledge of Him except what he wills.
His throne extends over the heavens and the earth,
and He feels no fatigue in guarding and preserving them,
for He is the Highest and Most Exalted.
Allah, the Most High, speaks the truth.
This text, which describes Allah’s all-encompassing dominion, was constructed using letters from the Bible.
Hitchcock has spoken a lot about the significance of her work and what she hopes viewers will take away from it. Here are some excerpts from interviews she’s done in the past six years:
“I celebrate all religions. That’s what a large body of my work is about: the celebration of the human need to reach outside of themselves.” [source]
“I’m not a theologian by any means, but it’s really in my heart that I experience this knowledge; the sensation that God is something, but that no one knows what God is. There is no one answer and every path is legitimate, including the Christian path. I weave them in and out of each other conceptually – that’s pretty much the point behind my work, in that God is found speaking poetically in the threads, not in the overall picture or the overall tapestry.” [source]
“I incorporate and ‘cross-pollinate’ the sacred writings of all spiritual traditions, suggesting that all religions derive from the same source, and are sustained in the same unwavering faith.” [source]
“I’m really interested in taking all the religions and looking at the common denominator—rising above the particulars and really looking at what God is to people, if God even exists. . . . What’s interesting to me is the need—the common human need, no matter who the human is—to reach outside of our experience to something higher. And it’s the reaching that really interests me—that we all have this need to reach outside of this existence.” [source]
“I’m trying to discourage a literal reading of the text.” [source]
“That’s what my work is about: sort of undermining the idea of specificity when it comes to God and really showing that God is not one thing. He is not just Allah, it’s not Jehovah, it’s not Jesus—they are all pointing toward what God is.” [source]
“It’s not the purpose of my work to try to convince anyone to believe one thing or to believe another, and I have no bias as far as religion goes.” [source]
“I have absolutely no idea of what God or Consciousness is, and I think that anyone that claims that they do, and then someone who really makes systems out of it, is nuts. It’s really crazy, as far as I’m concerned—the institutions that have been created out of Christianity, which were used, and still are used, to rule the masses. So that’s, to me, what religion is. And my work is undermining religion.” [source]
“Ultimately, what I really would love to happen . . . is for people who have a belief system to be exposed to something else and consider that that isn’t the only way. I’m not trying to talk a Christian into not being a Christian, because I think they should be a Christian, but for them to acknowledge that the Muslim path is a beautiful path or atheism is a beautiful path.” [source]
(Referring to Muslims and Christians) “They kind of all believe in the same thing.” [source]
“If there’s a book that calls itself the word of God, I believe it. I don’t try to analyze it to see if it’s true; I just assume that it is.” [source]
“The concept behind my work . . . is an examination of the, I would say, prison cell which people find themselves locked into by following religion that they haven’t questioned and really looked at deeply. Because you can spend your whole life confined by thinking a certain way or believing a certain way, and if you never examine those beliefs, what a shame, because you may find, if you examine them, that they’re actually imprisoning you rather than setting you free.” [source]
I can appreciate the desire to find points of commonality among religions and to recognize beautiful religious poetry and/or practices from outside one’s tradition. But the popular notion that “all religions are the same” is trite and false, as any religious studies scholar, and most religious practitioners, will tell you. Those who insist on the ultimate sameness of all religions have not deeply studied all religions. Similarities exist, of course, but they’re surface-level. (God Is Not One by Stephen Prothero is an accessible introduction to some fundamental differences, to name one resource.) And the mix-and-match, DIY style of spirituality, of which Oprah is the foremost champion, may be de rigueur, but it doesn’t “celebrate” or “honor” religions in the way its adherents think it does. It waters them down and ignores their distinctives. It promotes a superficial understanding.
Hitchcock has said that she wants to transcend particulars and just bask in the divine Presence, whatever or whoever that might be. So with that statement, she at least admits that there are particulars; she’d just rather not dwell on them because they’re too divisive. She embeds them in her work, however—declarations like “Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”; “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God”; “As a result of their good karma they go to heaven and enjoy celestial sense pleasures”; and so on. Sometimes opposing particulars even appear within the same work, and rather than cohere they clash, because their truths are irreconcilable.
But she says her intention is not that viewers actually read the text-strands she so meticulously constructs. Rather, she hopes the effect will be to lead the viewer to surrender to mystery. To become less dogmatic, more relativistic. To recognize that we’re all on a path, and those paths will cross in places and run apart in others, but we are still fellow pilgrims, all of us trying to make our way to Truth.
The casual blending of religious teachings bothers me in some of the works. I don’t think they all succeed on a conceptual level—for example, “all is Brahman” forming the nucleus of the Nicene Creed in her 2015 Credo. But others do, such as Life Eternal (2015), which combines the Christian prayer “Grant us life eternal” with the Hindu prayer “O Brahman, free us from the bonds of death.” The Christian God and the Hindu Brahman are utterly different entities, but here they each receive a similar petition from their respective devotees.
Even those works that ineffectually blur boundaries are still aesthetically engaging—impressive feats of patience and design—and I encourage you to explore more of them on Hitchcock’s website: www.meghitchcock.com.