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"Sacred fools"

Swedish artist Josef Mellergård solo exhibition.

About "Sacred Fools"

By Josef Mellergård

The term Sacred Fools derive from the writings of Saint Paul. The Desert Fathers of the early Christian tradition and other saints acted the part of sacred or holy fools. They employed shocking, unconventional behavior to challenge accepted norms, deliver prophecies or to mask their piety.

Especially in the Eastern Orthodox tradition is there a great prevalence and importance of the sacred fool. In Russia, the St. Basil Cathedral is named after Basil the Blessed, a sacred fool that adopted an eccentric lifestyle of shoplifting and giving to the poor, to shame the miserly and help those in need. He went naked and weighed himself down with chains in a rebuke of Ivan the Terrible for his violent behavior towards the innocent. So influential was Basil that Ivan the Terrible himself was one of the pallbearers that carried Basils coffin to the cemetery.

It could be argued that the sacred fool acts as a factor of quality-control or a failsafe; the sacred fool can criticize the congregation, those in power, and society in general, without fear of losing social status, economic means, or position within the congregation because the fool, by definition, does not have any of these things to start with.

The sacred fool of the Orthodox Church and the desert fathers are directly connected with the prophets of the old testaments, many of who demonstrated strange behavior and performed seemingly foolish symbolic prophetic actions. Like Isaiah, who walked around naked and without shoes for three years, Jeremiah who hid his loin cloth in the wilderness where he let it be ruined, or Ezekiel who shaved off his beard and hair only to chop a third of it with a sword, burn another third and spread the reminder of the hair in the wind.

There are other parallels to the sacred fool outside of the christian context, like the Sufi Malamatis in the 8th-century in Iran, or the Avadhuta in India. There is a story of a Malamatis who was hailed by a large crowd when he entered a town, they tried to accompany the great saint, but on the road he publicly started urinating in an unlawful way so that all of them left him and no longer believed in his high spiritual rank. This was done to avoid the creation of a cult around him and to point to the importance of the personal not public piety.

Just like the sacred fools, the desert fathers, and the prophets of the Old Testament used unconventional methods of conveying their message so does another group in contemporary culture act in similar ways to challenge accepted norms and in some ways deliver prophecies. It is important here to distinguish between a prophetic act and making predictions of the future. The prophets generally did not tell the future, they did not look in tea leaves and tell fortunes, they pointed the finger at something that was amiss and that needed to be righted. Who if not the artist, and especially the performance artist is the prophet of our times? When Ai Weiwei smashes the Neolithic urn against the ground, the sound of clinking pieces of porcelain echo through history and land at the feet of Jeremiah where he smashes his clay pot, and together they speak of the troubles of their times.

For sure the mandate is different but their methods are the same and their message is surprisingly often in tune. They take of their clothes, they shave all their hair, cook food on animal droppings, bind themselves to another person for a year, confront the powerful, steal, are actively inactive, starve themselves, wander through the desert, let violence befall their own bodies, test their own limits, test societies limits, say goodbye to a lover on a great wall, cut up national symbols to bring light to social injustice, poverty, the dangers of xenophobia, pointing to obsolete cultural norms and the coming troubles ahead.

This exhibition is based around the thought-experiment of art as prophecy and artist as prophets through a computer program that makes predictions of the future, instruction manuals for sacred fools, plexiglas, light, and sound.

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