…in which your host wonders what happens when ignorance runs amok.
This week, Artipoeus visits Golem! at The Jewish Museum in Berlin.
I love the golem. It’s one of my favorite literary tropes. It comes from Jewish mysticism, and it goes basically like this: somebody follows a recipe, and forms a human-like creature from mud and clay. It is inscribed with sacred Hebrew letters that bring it to life. And when the golem comes to life, it does its masters bidding: it can help clean up a sorcerer’s studio, it can move bales of hay, help build houses and keep bad guys away. It’s like that other mythical creature, the friendly bouncer.
But usually, in golem stories, (and thankfully not in nightclubs) the golem runs amok. Either it continues to grow and gets too big and dangerous, or it takes its orders too literally and destroys everything, or it grows emotions and turns against its master. Something happens every time, and suddenly there’s a Jewish community somewhere with a Golem out of control. The solution is to remove the mystic letters or at least one of them, rendering the golem back to dust.
I love the golem because it’s such a great symbol of unchecked stupidity that grows too big, too powerful, without the capacity to think or analyze or even be gentle in its movements. It goes from being something not worth worrying about – since it’s lifeless — to being a singular cause for mass destruction. It’s not just ignorance out of control, it’s man-made ignorance out of control. Such a good story!
So the Golem exhibit the Jewish Museum is just great. I mean, really. It’s the best kind of museum exhibit, the kind that has been conceived of globally, from presentation to artifacts to the way the text is displayed on the walls. It’s comprehensive in scale, but not overwhelming and every gallery has a clear focal point and story to tell.
You walk in and it’s all golem golem golem. The heads of famous golems are stenciled to the walls leading to the second floor gallery, and at the top of the stairs, waiting to greet you, is a massive golem made entirely of… lamps. Lamps that fade off, and then slowly light up again until the entire thing is lit, pulsing electricity and light and life. You expect it to start moving any second, to open the door for you or hand you a pamphlet. It’s a wonderful sculpture by Prague-based artist Kristof Kintera and such a hopeful, delightful way to introduce a concept that is usually quite dark in nature.
Once inside the exhibit proper, the whole thing starts out … unexpectedly. Where I was expecting to step back in history, it jumps right into the here and now, offering up various modern golems from Pokeman (the only Pokeman I’ve ever seen), Minecraft, Transformers, and other pop culture sources. They are tiny little figurines displayed on cement grey pedestals and lit from below… so as tiny as the figurines are, their shadows loom large and menacing on the cement wall.
In fact, the whole room has a very Doctor No feel to it, like around the next corner it’s not Golem you’ll meet, but some diabolical maniac out to destroy humanity… as you lurch past a glass case referencing human genome cloning… and an iPhone… and a Make America Great hat from the campaign of Donald Trump, speaking of “an existence unmolested by the rumbling of a soul.”
In the next gallery, you’ve stepped out of the underground bunker of Dr No and into… the cabinet of Dr Caligari. brings you back to the beginning, the birth of the Golem concept in Jewish mysticism. This gallery and for most of the following have been made over with hard angles, firm lines and sharp points of German Expressionist cinema. I’m not entirely sure why this is, apart from the reference to the 1920 film The Golem, but I like it. I like the ominous geometry of it paired with the Goth colors.
This second gallery is dominated by an actual golem, about 2.5 meters, lying prone and inanimate on the floor, a chain around it’s neck staked to the ground (in case it comes alive at night!). The entire body is made up of Hebrew letters, and of course a space for the Hebrew word “Emet” is carved deep into its chest, the mystical letter lying by the head on the ground. Because the wood used is a warm balsa or oak, it’s the color of good whiskey and cozy fires, this golem is not especially threatening, but rather peaceful and earthy and warm. The gallery also features some historical texts, from Kabbalah practitioners and others, with the actual incantations and recipes for creating a golem — so if you read old Hebrew, bring a notepad and pen!
What I like most in this room, though, is the large sitzbank built into the wall. It’s warm and you can make yourself comfortable, and listen to the story of the Golem of Prague, told in English by Simon Srebny (but also available in German). It’s a lovely little quiet moment of storytelling, gazing across the pitched room with the golem anchored to the floor. A little respite after the horror of the golems we’re living with in real time.
The exhibit goes on to explore the idea of golem as art, and segues into this exploration via a simple, if somewhat literal sculpture by Anselm Kiefer. I think it’s always nice to see an Anselm Kiefer, and so much of his work — especially concerning the human body — is golem-like anyway, he’s a natural choice. This one is, as I say, quite literal: it’s a simple concrete block with a vaguely head-shaped blob of cement plopped on top of it, a lone wire connecting it to a smaller block perched next to it. It’s the golem in formation — either forming into a being or back to dust, but golem is the intent. You can be sure of this because the words “the golem” are scrawled across the concrete block in Kiefer’s peculiar handwriting.
The rest of the work in this section is more interpretive… and, to me, more interesting. The idea of artist as creator — taking an inanimate object and bringing it to life — is explored through a few more pieces of deconstructed Golem works, like Jana Serbak’s Golem: Objects as Sensations. Pieces of golem – a throat, a hand, a penis, a stomach, are laid out on the floor and lit by a spotlight on a field of midnight blue, tying the work back to its mystic origins. A caged blue heart hangs from the ceiling in the middle of this gallery, its shadow repeating on the floor and walls – so the heart and the shadow of the heart — which is the true heart of a golem anyway — are the actual work.
Michael David’s Golem: A cluster of blessings is a mixed media piece made up of older works from his oevre, pasted and patched onto a wooden frame, painted over in oils and latex and dead flowers — a golem of a piece, formed of the mud and clay of of the artist’s own creations – the most direct interpretation of artist as God.
Amos Gitai’s video scene Naissance d’un Golem stars Annie Lennox as a golem birthing out of the israeli desert while three men call her forth on the musical instruments they play. Annie Lennox is the Tilda Swinton of pop music, so this all makes sense, but a woman as golem being called forth from the dirt by men makes me think more of the Biblical Eve than a dumb, soulless, potentially dangerous being unleashed upon the Earth… hey wait a minute…
The best piece in the golem as art section is Jorge Gil’s Crisalidas. It is arresting, and the museum — keeping to its clever angles and planes — has hung this work in such a way that you catch an unsettling peek of it from the previous room. It is several, adult human sized bright yellow crysalises with the larvae inside just forming through — the larvae being humans, hanging by their feet, their faces peeking out of the protective yellow cyrsalis they are wrapped in. They are behind a very fine web of golden thread, and are so lifelike you kind of just accept them as real — for some reason, this work requires no leap of the imagination, and you have expect the heads to open their eyes and start talking to you, and have fear that they’ll complete their gestation and wriggle out of their crysalis, drop onto the floor, and come after you. They are deliciously creepy, like something out of the movie Pan’s Labyrinth. And they are the only piece of art that is not actually titled, “Golem”.
The Golem of Prague really is the classic golem story, and it’s such a good story that it has been told and retold countless times, in story books, as woodcuts, with marionettes, in film. The next two galleries are devoted to the Golem of Prague, but first you pass through a clevel 3D portal (the museum provides 3D glasses for you) that illustrates the history of Prague on its walls. I’m not a big fan of the trick of 3D, but this little room is cool. It’s such an efficient way of illustrating all the layers of history of this rich city, and giving a quick shot of context to set the Golem story in.
It’s a round and high room, like a turret, and it spits you out into a gallery that is a deep, blood red. Red, by the way, is my favorite color so I’m pretty happy in here. Lithographs and etchings illustrating the Golem of Prague story are displayed in frames hung at odd angles into the room, a nice way of showing off the illustrated pages while keeping to the Dr Caligari theme. And here are the marionettes as well, which are suitably creepy because: puppets.
This literary history leads us to Paul Wegener’s classic film The Golem, released in 1920. Walking through what felt like the sets for this Expressionist masterpiece up to this point, it’s disappointing to not see the film projected large onto the walls — which are instead taken up with original film posters. The film itself is shown on an embedded video screen, which may have been chosen for quality, but I’ve been immersed in Golem for so long now, I really want to be surrounded by it.
Which artists Stefan Hurtig and Detlef Weitz successfully do in the next room, which is taken up entirely with a three-channel video projection of about 60 film clips that feature or reference a golem, from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to the Terminator films to sundry Disney clips and even to The Simpsons. What is amazing about this is how meticulous it is — it’s not just random clips thrown together; Hurtig and Weitz matched scenes throughout movie history to connect each genre of golem to the others, where even the camera angle and position of the golem itself in the frame is mirrored, like Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator to the little robot Wall-E. It’s really remarkable how comprehensive and thorough it is.
The exhibit winds up with Golems in modern times – in plays, in artworks, as monsters, as mysterious strangers, as our own reflections in the mirror whenever a little bit of our own fears leak through the mercury, as shown in some clever works by Daniel Lauter. French photographer Yves Gellie explores the concept of Golem through the concept of Doppelganger, with large print photos of robot laboratories, the robots and their creators. They are haunting photos, not because the robots take on the characteristics of their creators, but because of the symmetry between the two, and the very real connection they share that each photo seems to be charged with — the danger of connecting to this manmade thing, this helper, this potential monster filled with our clumsy intelligence and logic, rather than connecting to each other instead.
The golem is brought forth as a helper, and often to protect a community in times of danger — usually when the fear of the other has peaked to such a degree that the fear tunrs physical, into pogroms and holocausts or, in modern times, into Brexit, the Wall of America, the crumbling of patriarchy. Golem also tends to appear both in literature and in real life during times of economic hardship and social upheaval: the Golem of Prague during the 16th century; Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, created in a year of immense flooding, ruined crops, starvation and disease; Adolf Hitler, along with Stalin and Mussolini, arriving on the threshold of history exactly when the world was reeling from the Great Depression, more failed crops, and the ashes of war; and today’s Trump, made huge and voracious by reality TV, arriving in the wake of a disastrous economic slump, here to protect Americans from Muslims and Mexicans and Nasty Women.
The exhibit The Golem is basically set up like a four dimensional college thesis: it states its premise, shows relevance, and then steps us back through history and time to build a case for its argument. It is a little academic in this way, and a little rigid too. Once again, I had a brief conversation with the Israeli artist Roey Heifitz, who I really have to stop talking to before I write these reviews because she’s always subverting my preconceived notions. Roey suggested that the exhibit was a bit too literal, a bit too rigid in its definitions of Golem. I argued that venturing too far beyond the exhibit as its presented now would only confuse visitors who are not familiar with the golem story; that to include more abstract interpretations of golem could be infinite, an the exhibit could run amok, essentially turning into a golem itself. Roey felt this might ok – that a little confusion, a little bit of unknowing, a little bit of loosening up those rigid definitions of what we believe things ought to be, and a little bit of breaking down how things have always been, is what Golem is really all about.
And maybe Roey’s right.
Golem! is on view until January 29th 2017 at The Jewish Museum, located at Lindenstrasse 9-14 in Berlin.
Brought to you by Susie Kahlich from Artipoeus