[Written by Katy Green]
[Image Credits: Jazmin Quaynor (accessed through Unsplash). Edits by Florence Bridgman]
Content Warning: Contains discussion of LGBTQIA identities in relation to religion.
The source material for Untitled 2009 is extrapolated from an art exhibition based in the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) where queer Christians were invited to physically write into the Bible wherever in the text they felt their narratives had been excluded. As expected, this provoked a swathe of backlash against the organisers and sparked a debate about art, performance, religion, sexuality, gender, identity, and much more. Originally created by queer Christians themselves and intended as a way for marginalised groups of people to explore, renavigate and reinterpret a sacred text, the exhibition was criticised by religious groups for being offensive and sacrilegious. Ten years after the original exhibition, Untitled 2009 took what was written within the margins of the Bible, along with the tabloids’ responses, and created a performance that weaved the complexities of identity and organised religion together in such a way that the audience was provided with no clear answers but rather asked to draw their own conclusions based on the difficult, contradictory, and somewhat messy experience of being a queer person in the Christian faith.
The performance itself was described as a ‘rehearsed readthrough’, meaning the performers inhabited the stage and interacted with each other as one would expect in a traditional drama, but they carried and read from a script at all times. I found this slightly jarring to begin with, but quickly accepted it as part of the visual language of the performance. We, as the audience, knew the text was adapted from what was written by participants during the original exhibition and so the inclusion of the scripts drew our attention to its origins. In fact, the text was born directly from the experiences of real queer Christians a decade ago and the scripts act as a reminder of this. Scripts aside, the performance was still lively and dynamic. The religious imagery was there from the start; the performers entered from the back of the auditorium in a reference to offertory, they then accepted eucharist, they were positioned around the table in such a way that drew allusions to Da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’ and so on.
The performers took on multiple roles over the course of the 90-minute runtime, acting as individuals of different ages and backgrounds as well as critics of the project. I found the sections where the performers took two microphones placed behind the long Last Supper-esque table and voiced various critiques of the exhibition particularly effective. A choice of a few comments that were routinely repeated and prompted — such as ‘I wonder what the reaction would be if it were the Quran and not the Bible’ — increasingly exasperated responses from the rest of the cast. Misunderstandings, subtle homophobia, and general bad faith of such commentators were powerfully conveyed, as well as the taxation of constantly having to explain your place as a queer person who hears the same cycle of comments on a loop. This is what Untitled 2009 does best; there was never a moment where we were lead to believe it is easy to be a queer person of faith as the text constantly doubled back on itself, as the performers switched between declarations of love and outcries of pain and tribulation, as questions were asked but never answered.
The performances were the strongest part of Untitled 2009, with each actor bringing their own unique energy and charisma to the piece. Much of the show’s charm laid in the likeability of the actors and, though the runtime of 90 minutes felt long and quite repetitive in places, the strength of their performances gave Untitled 2009 a fun, playful feeling that was much needed in a dreary and sometimes dejecting conversation.
The intersection between religion and LGBTQIA identity is one of contention. As someone who was raised Catholic, Untitled 2009 echoed many conversations I have found myself having with other queer people of faith: how can you reconcile personal faith with the homophobia present in organised religion? How can we interpret the Bible in a way that includes queer people and narratives? Is there room for faith in queer communities? We understand the Bible as a long, complicated, canon of texts written of a period of 1,500 years, and Untitled 2009 does a stellar job in communicating the frustration of feeling excluded, first by the original text, and then by the centuries man-made prejudice that to this day ostracises queer people from participating in faith. That is not to say there are no open and accepting churches, but being queer and feeling excluded from the religion you were born into is a common complaint and experience.
This is a bold, ambitious project that revels in its own uncertainty — no one will exit the auditorium with a clear view on what it means to live as a queer Christian. Nor do we know whether writing on a Bible is a form of reclamation or sacrilege. However, it is my view that Untitled 2009 invites us to consider Christianity in such a way that does not rely on mainstream assumptions and stereotypes. I believe that we lack representations of queer people of faith in media, and, in this sense, Untitled 2009 is a breath of fresh air. The most disheartening part about the show is how little appears to have changed in the last decade, with much of the dialogue still ringing true to this day. Overall, Untitled 2009 is an engaging, likeable piece of work that provokes the right questions and, in my opinion, does the source material the justice it deserves.