Fertility images have existed for centuries. There are figurines from the ancient world of women with large breasts, broad hips, and pronounced genitals, as well as male fertility sculptures, often in the shape of a phallus. Once, it was clear to everyone that sculptures of this kind symbolized the divinity of the creative force, fertility, and the gift of life. Worshipping these fertility symbols was not an act of obscenity, but a form of religion. But in the oversexed visual culture of the modern West, how differently we view these sculptures. All too often, people see little more in them than a coarse sexual reference.
The visual artist Ruudt Peters first laid eyes on a lingam while travelling in Southeast Asia in the year 2000. Once he had seen one lingam, he saw them everywhere: in market stalls, homes, and temples. A market vendor showed Peters – not with any embarrassment, but with great pride – that the belt around his belly was hung with more than 20 of these small phallic images. Peters became fascinated with the lingam and began investigating how these phallic symbols are revered and worshipped in Southeast Asia.
At first, he wondered whether the representation of the phallus was purely an expression of lust. Further investigation brought him to the conclusion that it had a much deeper significance. Peters explains, “It’s about reverence for fertility, strength, energy, and creativity! Lingams represent deep symbolic and religious values.” Considering the discrepancy between the religious meaning of the lingam and our crude Western view of this symbol, Peters believes it is high time for a note of dissent, time to re-evaluate the meaning of the lingam from the perspective of contemporary art. The result is the exhibition LINGAM. 121 Contemporary Fertility Symbols.
For the LINGAM exhibition, Ruudt Peters invited artists, jewellery makers, and designers from 24 countries to create works of art expressing their personal views of the lingam. To establish a firm connection between the exhibition of contemporary lingam images and the original, religious significance of these fertility symbols, Peters approached the Dutch museum for Christian art and culture: Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrecht. Peters says, “Many people will be surprised that these provocative objects are on display in this setting. But by placing them in a museum devoted to religion, I hope to make people think about the context of religion, sexuality, and fertility.” Guus van den Hout, the director of Museum Catharijneconvent, agrees. “This is not a sex show, or an exhibition that aims to shock, though I can see how it might give that impression, at first glance.”
Through this exhibition, Guus van den Hout wishes to show respect for the celebration and worship of life and fertility. “Every religion has the basic principle that life is given by a higher power. Over time, however, religions have drawn different morals from this principle. Sexuality was once celebrated in Christianity, but at one point the division of body and soul brought an end to this, and sex, which had been a sacred act, instead became a necessary evil. The good thing about Hinduism and Buddhism is that the body and soul are closely connected. In that context, revering a phallic symbol is not felt to be “crude” at all. It’s something sacred, an object symbolizing fertility, the origin of life.”
Ruudt Peters’ invitation to artists, designers, and jewellery makers led to intriguing results. Peters was careful to invite an equal number of men and women to participate, and the same goes for heterosexuals and homosexuals. "What’s striking is that most of the men made a copy of a male member – who knows, maybe their own – while the women took a much more subtle approach. Most of the objects got me thinking. Take Ruud-Jan Kokke’s work, Device/IVF/ICSI/ovumpenetration/spermatozoidinjection. New life no longer enters through the penis, but through an injection needle. These days, fertility can be artificially induced. And then there's Iris Eichenberg’s object, Pink years back, a light pink knitted sock in the shape of a lingam. It’s impossible to imagine a more appealing female interpretation of this theme.”
Guus van den Hout is pleased to be presenting this exhibition at Museum Catharijneconvent. "It’s not an easy exhibition, but it will broaden our visitors’ intellectual horizons. At this museum, I’d like to build bridges to other religions and offer insight into other traditions. This exhibition about lingams provides an ideal opportunity for that. What we are trying to do here is respond to present-day sexual symbols and introduce people to an alternative perspective, so that this unique celebration of life can be appreciated not just in its own culture but in ours as well. In short, our aim is to take a fresh look at a supposedly ‘crude’ subject and place it in the right context. Or still better, to rehabilitate it.”
Guus van den Hout, *1960 (m), Ruudt Peters, *1950 (m)