MANILA (Reuters Life!) - An art installation that mixes Christ with kitschy symbols of pop culture and includes a crucifix with a movable penis has set off an uproar in the Philippines among conservative Catholics, who say the installations are a mockery of their faith.
Mideo Cruz, the artist responsible for the installation -- intended to be a commentary on icon worship -- has been branded a "demon" and bombarded with death threats and hate mail since his work featured in an exhibit in Manila that began June 17.
"May your soul burn to (sic) hell, you Devil pro (sic) artist," wrote a furious Facebook user, one of dozens denouncing Cruz's work.
Cruz, a 37-year-old visual and performance artist who has exhibited in such international art centers as New York, Paris and Tokyo, said he had wanted to provoke a reaction but was surprised by the violence of the response.
"You can't force people. But I just hope that when we look at something, the process doesn't stop at the surface," he said.
Cruz said his installation, "Poleteismo" or "Polytheism," is about the worship of relics and how idolatry evolves through history and modern culture.
Posters of Christ and the Virgin Mary, crucifixes and religious curios recall the 300 years of Spanish rule that implanted Catholicism in the Philippines, while images of Mickey Mouse, the Statue of Liberty and U.S. President Barack Obama point to the lasting influence of U.S. imperialism.
"This speaks about objects that we worship, how we create these gods and idols, and how we in turn are created by our gods and idols," Cruz said.
One part of the installation is a giant wooden crucifix with a bright red penis that can be moved up and down, a symbol of a patriarchal society where men are "worshipped," he said.
Early versions of the work, which also includes kitschy posters and souvenirs from Cruz's travels, were exhibited as long ago as 2002 in other galleries, but the current furor is unprecedented.
"It is very offensive to the majority, since the majority are Christian. It's sort of mocking the faith," said Emmanuel Fernandez, a teacher who is a member of the staunchly Catholic social group Knights of Columbus.
Roman Catholics make up roughly 80 percent of the Philippine population, and conservatives are vocal in the public arena. Catholic lobbyists have aggressively fought against a legislative bill that seeks to raise awareness on artificial contraception, and bishops have castigated proponents of same-sex marriage and divorce.
Calls for the exhibit to be boycotted or shut down have flooded the Cultural Center of the Philippines, where it is being held, and a Catholic university mentioned as the alma mater of all the artists in the exhibition asked for its name to be withdrawn.
But Karen Ocampo-Flores, the centre's head for visual arts, said the center was only fulfilling its mandate of cultivating artistic expression and regretted that the installation was seen only in pieces and not in its entirety.
"I would call it moralist hysteria, I would call it religious myopia," she said.
"Yes, you can have your faith, and that can be respected. But you must also be able to tolerate and understand other people's views."
Bishop Deogracias Iniguez, who heads a diocese in Manila, said Catholics must not be too quick to judge the artist without sufficient information. But he also said artists must consider their audience.
"There may be some works of art, which... would not be in harmony with the mentality and the culture of a certain group of people, of a certain religion," he said.
"Then I think artists and those who put on such exhibits should be very, very sensitive to that."
For viewers who are neither steadfastly Catholic nor connoisseurs of art, the mishmash of elements in Cruz's piece is indecipherable at worst and thought-provoking at best.
"We are a little surprised by this artwork, it left us very perplexed," said Francoise Masson, a tourist from Paris.
(Editing by Elaine Lies)