'It's an issue that has dogged humanity since before we invented the word 'dog' - this thorny issue of God. Jeremy Mahadevan checks out an exhibition compiled with the hope of snipping off some of those thorns.
'Early man has a moment to reflect and he thinks to himself, 'Well, this is an interesting world that I find myself in,' and then he asks himself a very treacherous question. Man the maker looks at his world and says 'So who made this then?'
When the late Douglas Adams this in a speech in Cambridge in 1998, he expressed a sentiment which has brewed in Western liberal thinking since the Renaissance: that humans are not only individual, but alone products of impersonal physical and chemical processes that are incapable of wrath, mercy, love and all the other things we ascribe to divinity.
The deconstruction of religious thought has been gaining steam even as religious fundamentalism becomes a larger and larger problem in John Gray's best-selling 2003 book Straw Dogs went so far as to denounce humanism itself as a relic of Western religion, stating outright that humans are animals and all our technology and civilization akin to anthills and termite mounds on a spectacular scale.
Seasoned cushion-rocker David Gray's new album even has a song in it that's based on the teachings of his namesake John.
But while beating up on religion may seem like a de rigueur ritual for intellectual liberal types, that doesn't stop a lot of them from steering towards a belief in spirituality of no particular sort, a faith in an unidentified higher power of vague goodness, great benevolence and general indeterminacy.
JDouglas Adams called it a "vague wishy-washy agnosticism" that, in England, has replaced "vague wishy-washy Anglicanism".
Which brings us to Man+God: 3 Years on the Road, an exhibition of graphic design, performance and installation art. It's a traveling collection organized and expanded by Art4Soul, a division of local "brand identity consultancy" and design house 3nity. It started in KL in 2003 and has since been to Penang, Singapore, New York and Stuttgart, growing in size along the way before returning to its home base for a stint this month.
And yes, it's about spirituality. Kind of worrying, especially considering the words of one of the founders of 3nity, graphic designer Joseph Foo, as he relates the origins of the idea behind the division.
"I was on a trip with David Lok, a photographer I collaborate with, and I just threw him this idea that being spiritual is a cool thing," recalls the slight, carefully-spoken Foo, "It's being true to where you're coming from."
Sounds like wishy-washy stuff, and it doesn't help that Foo is the urbanite son of Lutheran preacher - a fact which puts him in an ideal position to be your stereotypical spiritual artist, full of ludicrous notions formed in response to rigidities of religion. Until you visit the exhibition itself, you could easily dismiss it has hippie nonsense,
The first thing you notice on approaching the small gallery is that the long window has been pasted over with large, bold white text simply repeating "God Makes Man Makes" over and over again, creating a recursive mantra that encapsulates the vast tensions at the heart of what this show is truly about.
One of the exhibition's oldest posters, done by 3nity, displays hundreds of tiny Chinese characters, signifying "man", which have been selectively thickened here and there, so that from a distance a single, large Chinese character for "God" becomes apparent in the jumble. It's this kind of simple statement that abounds in the exhibition, about everything that has ever come up between man and the divine, from atheism to fundamentalism.
The entire exhibition was born out of a book, Man + God, which 3nity launched in 2003 and which now sits out front, on sale. It's a fat, white, fascinating and strangely mesmerizing work, a collection of largely visual messages on humanity's engagement with God.
The designs within are often ingenious - there's a set of opposing pages, one with a question-mark on it to symbolize humanity and the other with a full-stop to signify God. Many of the pages have found their way, in form or spirit, into posters in the exhibition.