This collection of work draws on my experiences of growing up as a Quaker and attempts to navigate the long-standing Quaker testimony against gambling. The exhibition brings together work in a range of media to explore my conflicting views of religion and its parallels with gambling and addiction.
A 2002 submission to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport from Quaker Action on Alcohol and Drugs states that “Quakers have a long-standing testimony against gambling because we believe that it involves unfair gain without effort, it fosters the idea that happiness is gained through material possession, and because the profits of gambling are acquired at the expense of others’ loss. We endeavour to “Resist the desire to acquire possessions or income through unethical investment, speculation or games of chance.” (Quaker Faith and Practice, 1.02.39) Quakers also testify for moderation or abstinence from those behaviours that can cause addiction.”
An international study from 2017 suggested that gambling addiction activates the same brain pathways as drug and alcohol cravings. Each volunteer in the study went into a magnetic resonance imaging scanner — which uses a powerful electromagnet to monitor brain activity — and was shown various images. These included pictures of gambling scenes, such as a roulette wheel or a betting shop. The study, funded by the UK Medical Research Council, found that two brain areas, called the insula and nucleus accumbens, are highly active when people with gambling addiction experience cravings.
A similar study was undertaken by the University of Utah in 2016 as part of The Religious Brain Project. Researchers studied fMRI scans of 19 devout Mormons as they were exposed to prayer, scripture and sermons designed by the LDS Church to evoke spiritual feelings, and found reproducible activation in the nucleus accumbens, the same region in the brain associated with reward and pleasure that was identified in the aforementioned study into gambling addiction.
Elvis died the day before I was born, and the mystique of Elvis has remained a constant source of fascination for me. Elvis was a Christian, praying before every performance he gave, however also wore a necklace carrying symbols from different religions and was quoted as saying that he “didn’t want to miss out on heaven due to a technicality”. He was the biggest celebrity in the world at the height of his fame and Graceland remains the second most visited house in the USA after The White House. Whilst he is still idolised by millions, he died tragically on the 16th of August 1977 just as his career was beginning to wane. The cause of death was probably a massive heart attack, but his addiction to opiates and the use of other pharmaceuticals to manage his addiction certainly played their part.
The works in the exhibition are the artist’s attempt to create seemingly authentic objects that reside in a world where gambling, addiction and religion are understood as being different sides of the same story. The exhibition unashamedly walks the line between the opulent, gaudy extravagance of the casino and the equally opulent and rich aesthetics of many types of temples, churches and cathedrals, all designed to inspire awe, exude power and, ultimately, exert control. In this world, of course, Elvis is still King.
The exhibition is supported by The Arts Council of Northern Ireland and the Department for Communities through the Creative Individuals Recovery Programme, and the Esme Mitchell Trust.
Special thanks to John Rainey, Kristi Campbell, Jelvis Pelvis, Stuart Trevor, Jane Morrow, Stephen Millar, Paul Moore, Marieke de Wit, Belfast Tool Library, Jacob Anderson, Kylar Ditmar, all the Canteen Gallery crew and Sally O’Dowd.