The Gospel According to Santa Claus
Roman Tolici is silent by nature. Two years ago I first went into his studio. He served me a giant cup of coffee and we had to speak for about an hour (well, I did most of the talking, roused by the effect of the coffee) before he decided it is time I should see some of his works. All the paintings were turned with their front towards the wall. I basically knew what he was working, but that day I had some pleasant surprises. That was our first encounter. What followed was “In exitus”, the exhibition he had in 2005 at my gallery.
This exhibition has an interesting story as well. I returned to his studio after several months of absence. He announced me with a low voice that he had finished the last paintings he promised for the exhibition. After my arrival, I had to pass through the coffee ritual once again, to finally see the paintings. I admit I got scarred at first. I said to myself that I screwed it big time. There were lots of skeletons, celestial landscapes, and plenty of blue. After a moment of panic, I managed to relax a little, and I said to myself I should not be hasty, because there may be something there after all, and maybe the pattern of my artistic expectations is beginning to develop into a dumbfounded taste. After all, a guy in my line of work has to step into the artist’s shoes, he has to become a protean being that always finds the proper way of appreciating and understanding a work of art. After several minutes of making conjectures I felt that there is something there after all. What Romanian artist speaks with such buoyancy about death? Is it still possible, after all the uses and abuses of the subject, to still show an image of the sky? It seems that these subjects – death and celestial landscape - are out of fashion these days. Are they really? Well, of course not, I said again, we are not immortals and now, more than ever, the image of the sky is becoming more and more spectacular for urban lizards like us. I realized that my hesitation came from a sort of aesthetic canon that I borrowed unconsciously by doing the gallery work. It was an insidious expectation that stated, in a postmodern manner, that the grave and other existential subjects should be treated with irony rather than seriousness. In Roman’s works there were both.
The latest exhibition entitled like a Discovery Channel documentary, “The Gospel of Santa Claus” puzzles me again. Roman Tolici is showing a series of works which depict the story of the Gospel remixed in a strange way. The leading roles are played by The Easter Bunny and by Santa Claus! There is a Nativity scene were the Easter Bunny is held by a young girl, a Temptation were the Devil is a strange bunny with severed horns and serpent-like tongue, a Judas’ kiss that is also a self-portrait of the artist as Judas, a bunny that is bearing the cross, a Last Supper were the bunny is sitting alone after everyone has gone, a bunny with a thorn crown, a Crucifixion, a work that depicts the story of the doubting Thomas, and finally a sort of wacky Pieta with Santa Claus alias Roman Tolici holding the dead, crucified Easter Bunny. With time I began to like Roman’s mystical approach. It is hard to find in contemporary art that type of frontally engaging the “big”, existential subjects without any conceptual hesitations. The trend is to avoid those subjects or to deal with them either with irony or detachment. Roman is taking risks and I always respect that in an artist. The artists that are playing it safe bore me to death.
First of all, why the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus? I think it has something to do with the fact that he was interested in the most effective way of retelling a story. Artists always want to do that. It is obvious that the story of the New Testament is one of the most frequently told. We hear it time and time again and it reaches us only on a superficial level. The same thing happens with classical poetry, for example. Mihai Eminescu’s poems (the most important Romanian poet) cannot be recited anymore by professional artists. All the manners of reciting from Eminescu are outdated and therefore boring. Or so I thought, until I heard Eminescu’s poems recited by a little girl last summer. It was touching. I suppose Roman is aiming at something similar when he decided to show the Christ-like story of a toy bunny in a childish, but serious manner. There is a sort of primary sensibility left in us that makes any cynicism impossible when seeing a child’s toys. When we are kids we communicate through toys, they are the setting of each story.
Roman told me one day that one way to understand this series is to take into account the fact that back in the 80s in Soviet Moldova, were he comes from, the main religious holydays, Easter and Christmas tended to focus mainly on the characters that do not have a direct link with the life of Christ like Santa Claus renamed with a lay name ( Mos Gerila instead of Mos Craciun) and the Easter bunny that lays red eggs. The Communist regime was trying to determine the citizens to avoid religiousness by allowing some harmless celebrations. Then, as well as today and probably as always, the people gave up their gods easier than their holydays. In capitalism, Roman said, the same characters are the symbolic pillars of the holyday sales. What would our economies do without Santa Claus and the Easter bunny?
After that chat I have done some research about the two characters. As I expected, they were a cultural remix, on a global scale. The hare and the painted eggs are old pagan fertility symbols. They were used in all the pre-Christian rituals that were celebrating the Vernal equinox. For political reasons the early Christians were very open in borrowing older practices from other religions in order to make the conversion to Christianity easier. There is also an academic controversy concerning the name of Easter. It is supposed to come from the Saxon fertility goddess Eostre. The source is the Venerable Bede, an English monk from the 8th century A.C. Also Jackob Grimm talks in his “German Mythology” from 1835 about a certain Germanic goddess Ostara. The speculations are continuing linking the goddess Eostre/Ostara to the Persian goddess Ishtar.
What about Santa Claus? In his case, the remix is even more obvious. Everything emerged from the celebration of Saint Nicholas, the bishop of Myra from the third century A.C. that is celebrated in many countries on the 6th of December. In Holland he was called Sinterklaas that is the Dutch name for Saint Nicholas. It seems that some of the main features of Santa come from old pre-Christian mythologies as well. In Germanic mythology we have the god of war and wisdom Ondin or Wodan who organizes a hunting festival every winter solstice. The kids were hanging socks full of carrots, straw and sugar near the chimneys in order to feed the horse of Ondin. The god repaid their gesture by replacing the goodies with sweets and gifts. This custom reached America through the Dutch colonies. The standard version of Santa Claus happened in 1823 after the poem of Clement Clark Moore – A visit from St. Nicholas. The reindeers and the red robe trimmed with white fur were his invention. Around 1920, after a very successful advertising campaign by Coca Cola, Santa Claus got a global carrier. Step by step the original figure of Saint Nicholas still celebrated in some countries on the 6th of December got cloned and became Santa Claus, a character closely linked with Christmas. That is how one of the most spectacular remixes in the history of mankind happened.
Roman Tolici is proposing his own remix. “The Gospel of Santa Claus” is in fact the “Gospel of Roman Tolici”, for little kids and for candid souls that have the benefit of being exempt from useless rational concerns. Roman is doing what each artist is supposed to do at some point: to continue the endless remix of a generous myth with the determination of an elf that is working for a higher class employer.(Dan Popescu)