From paintings sprawled over the walls of churches to the frescoes of the catacombs, Catholic art has historically been used to command devotion and respect.
But sacred imagery is no longer restricted to the church. In many places around the world, Christian iconography has become a full-blown industry, churning out a never-ending supply of semi-disposable garbage. Holy symbols now adorn everything from anklets to dildos, pushing the boundaries between reverent and blasphemous.
For the last few years, Polish photographer Pawel Jaszczuk has been finding and documenting Catholic iconography in everyday objects. He’s now amassed a collection of over 50 images which speak to the blurring lines between high art and pictorial mass production. VICE spoke to him to find out more about his project, and the release of his photobook ¥€$U$.
VICE: Hey Pawel, can you tell us what ¥€$U$ is about?
Pawel Jaszczuk: Sure. It’s about how I see things and it’s about how the image of Jesus is portrayed today – how the image of Jesus has become nothing more than a product or sale. Actually, how it all started was I wanted to expose the Catholic church as a business institution. They are very good are marketing – they’ve had 2000 years of experience – and they’ve created a product and they sell it and it’s all about money. I wanted to show the hypocrisy of the Catholic church, but also the Catholics in it.
So, in essence, it’s a critique of religion?
I don’t want to touch religion. It’s very important to me that beliefs are untouchable, but I think people are lost now, and there’s no distinction between the sacred and the profane. For me, the catholic church is no different from McDonalds, Nike, or Apple.
Why did you decide to go down the route you did?
I speak using images, and I was thinking about how I could connect with my audience and I decided to go with bizarre and black humour. That’s why in the book there’s no text at all, because I wanted to provoke and make you think about what’s going on around you.
With the paraphernalia you used, are they all sourced from the Church itself?
No not all of them. In Poland, there are huge churches and there are actually shops inside the church, which is obviously against the bible. Some things I bought from there. Other things I was buying elsewhere.
When did you start working on this project?
The idea came to me in 2013, maybe 2014. I was living in Japan and I came back to Poland as an observer and ended up seeing a lot of changes. The church was everywhere – they owned radio stations and television channels. If you see debates about sex on television for example, you’ll have a panel of specialists, PHD doctors, sociologists, psychologists and then the priest. What’s the priest doing there? It’s mixed up. Anyways, I wanted to somehow react. It took me a few years to collect all these things – maybe some other photographer would have done it quicker – but it took me a few years.
Has the idea evolved throughout those years?
The idea hasn’t changed that much. From the beginning, I knew exactly what I wanted to talk about and from the beginning, I knew that I was going to use very bizarre gadgets. When I started to think about the church, I wasn’t sure how I was going to talk about it. The one day, when I was surfing on the internet I came across a pocketknife, and it represented all I wanted to say. It’s Jesus on the cross, but it’s actually a knife so it captures the dualism and the layers of the Catholic Church; there’s something behind it and it’s not pleasant.
Walk me through your image curation process. How did you decide how the images were staged and presented?
When I find something, I try to put it in its natural environment. For example, I found a cheese grater called a “cheesus grater” so I took some cheese and used it in the kitchen. Soap, I put in the bathroom. With the silicone dildo, I was thinking of where you could put a silicone dildo – there are a few places – and I decided to find a nice pair of boobs. This image actually came about accidentally, the silicone dildo was on my desk and this girl I invited to a shoot started playing with it. I said do this, do that, and she just put it between her tits, and I said well great and click, there you go.
A Jesus dildo? Huh. I can’t believe there’s a market for something like that.
What was shocking for me was the deeper I dug, I started finding stuff I couldn’t believe. You can find everything with Jesus on it. Absolutely everything. I don’t think you can surprise me with anything I’ve not seen. I found some websites that sell home furniture that can print logos of Jesus wherever you want, even on shower curtains or car mats. The scale was enormous, and it really surprised me.
What has been your biggest takeaway from the project?
I got the feeling that we are living in very strange and bizarre times. In Poland, there are a few places with huge churches, massive, and next to them, markets with lots of religious kitsch. I’ve witnessed behaviour that is so aggressive and so rude, and they really truly think only about the money. There was a fight between a seller and a customer, and the seller said, “you cannot touch it, you watch too long you buy it or fuck off.” He actually said that, you buy it off or you fuck off, right next to church. So, like I said, it’s proof that they don’t care about what Jesus is trying to tell you. They only care about money.