Berkeley artists share religion-focused work at Richmond Field Station

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Green and orange ceramic statues with a reptilian texture were displayed inside “Bodurinao’s shrine,” surrounded by candles. At first, the statues looked like the body parts of crocodiles, but on closer look, were actually mixed creatures composed entirely of sex organs. The shrine itself was actually the inside of an art studio at the Richmond Field Station. It was built for a new religion called “Leymusoom,” created as an art project by Heesoo Kwon. Visitors came into the shrine and looked at the statues, wondering what those were. Kwon explained the religion to them.

Kwon is a project-based artist and a first-year graduate student pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree (MFA) at UC Berkeley. On Saturday afternoon, Kwon exhibited her art along with her 11 classmates at an open studios event. It is held once a year to share the students’ work with other artists, students, faculty members and the Richmond community.

Kwon started Leymusoom last November to highlight the misogynist aspects of mythology and religion, such as the degradation of females and a fixation on gender binaries. “I found out that females in the Christian Bible were described as the ones who brought danger or crisis to mankind, like the example of Eve,” she said, speaking in Korean. “With the project, I wish to express a utopian world that I dream of, where there is no violence, discrimination and prejudice.”

Kwon made up the name “Leymusoom,” although the word’s meaning is secret. She said she hopes that the “believers”—other participants in the project—will build up their own meanings of it by themselves. So far, about 20 people have become believers. “They have different reasons for joining it,” she said. “Some felt sympathy in my motivation for this project. Some are interested in the idea of using religion as a medium for art.”

Starting next month, Kwon will write a bible for Leymusoom, and 12 other believers will co-author it. “I wish to have authors who have diverse sexual identities for the rest of positions of the authorship,” she said. She hopes to write the document with new terms when referring to gender, because she feels that the current ones seem problematic. “The word ‘male’ and ‘man’ are the roots of the gender terms,” she said. “Females are expressed with the prefixes of ‘fe’ and ‘wo’ on them.”

Leymusoom has a distinct feature from other religions: It does not have a strict, unchanging truth, nor will it have single version of its scripture. In fact, the bible’s contents will be updated every year. The only unchanging part of the religion will be its utopian worldview: Believers want a world where there are no concepts for “ordinary” or “usual,” a world where everybody is special and has their own uniqueness, a world where all of the people are happy and free. The religion is intended to constantly evolve with the participants who build it. The degree of participation will vary depending on believers’ tendency and willingness, Kwon said. “I will keep the religion to be updated with thoughts and feedbacks from new believers,” she said. “People who agree with the core idea can join and participate.”

Another artist exhibiting at the open studios also showed work with a religious theme. Sarah-Dawn Albani, a second-year graduate student, showed her paintings of people who belonged to a religious cult called “Heaven’s Gate.” Its members committed mass suicide in the late 1990s. She painted the people based on the video that the group made to describe their belief system before they died. In the painting, pair of two men were standing together, looking at the front. 

“I have been always really interested in how people come to believe what they believe and how they make community through developing their own meaning of the world,” Albani said.  “I wanted to look at them because I have a lot of empathy for the desire to belong to a group, to be recognized, to feel like your beliefs are recognized in a group.”

Many second-year students introduced the works that they are preparing for their final exhibition in May. The works are not yet complete, but visitors can see their progress. Many undergraduates who study art came to the event to see their process. “It’s interesting to see where students work at the spaces, and to see not just final pieces, but also all the sketches and documentation,” said Evie Liu, a senior student majoring in art practice at UC Berkeley.

The works that the artists had on display were closely related to their own interests. Rachel Cardenas-Stallings, a second-year student, filled her studio with everyday household objects, such as clothes and plates. At the event, she wore clothes that she made by herself. “I like thinking about when art can be functional,” she said. “I like to think of my art not just in my studio, making art for the gallery or museum. I’d like to think [that] everything I touched can be part of my practice.” Cardenas-Stallings said she comes up with a lot of her ideas from ordinary parts of her daily life, such as taking a shower or falling asleep.

Maggie Lawson, a second-year student, showed a rough cut of a video that she is working on. The video shows her and her father making the same cocktail, which was Lawson’s grandfather’s favorite drink. Her grandfather died of a disease related to heavy drinking, she said. “I’m interested in nostalgia, and the relationship between nostalgia and the violence in the past, how we long for the past,” Lawson said. “But in fact, there were a lot of things that are very violent and [I’m interested in] how you reconcile those two things.”

The Richmond Field Station is an off-site academic facility for UC Berkeley, used primarily for large-scale engineering research since 1950. The place is isolated from crowded places, such as housing or commercial areas. Some visitors were impressed by the studio’s location. “This place is funny. It’s hidden,” said Jerome Pansa, an artist who lives in Richmond. “You would never think that there would be art studios, which is really good.” Pansa said that for artists, “it’s so rewarding to have places like that,” because artists can have a calm place where they won’t be bothered.

“I feel that this is very creative space, and the students can do anything they want,” said Shuli Fang, a junior majoring art practice at UC Berkeley.

Kevin Drury, a visitor from El Cerrito, learned about the event through the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA). He brought his high school friend, Robin Daugherty, to the open studios. Daugherty tried on the virtual reality gear that Olivia Ting, a second-year student, was demonstrating. Daugherty explored 12 different situations using the gear, such as different galleries at a museum and called it “amazing and refreshing.”

Drury said that the open studios are fascinating because he can see the hands-on artwork and talk to the artists. “In the actual studios, you see a lot of conceptual stuff that never makes it to a museum. You see that they are in process,” he said. “You get to see different stages and different inspirations that people have, different things around their personal studios space. So, it gives you a different flavor.”

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