Treating Sacred Texts as Art Objects at Museum of Biblical Art

In the Beginning Was the Word — and It Was Art

Text Messages: Carole Kunstadt’s ‘Five Books of Moses’ is one of the artworks on display at the Museum of Biblical Art in Manhattan.
Kevin Kunstadt
Text Messages: Carole Kunstadt’s ‘Five Books of Moses’ is one of the artworks on display at the Museum of Biblical Art in Manhattan.

By Jillian Steinhauer

Published August 06, 2013, issue of August 09, 2013.
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Sometimes stories are so ingrained in us, so much a part of our culture, that we take them for granted. In these instances, artists become particularly valuable, revisiting and reinterpreting stories for us, giving them new life.

In “As Subject and Object: Contemporary Book Artists Explore Sacred Hebrew Texts,” which runs through September 29 at the Museum of Biblical Art, in Manhattan, more than a dozen artists do just that, taking foundational Jewish texts and turning them into contemporary works of art. The title of the exhibition is slightly misleading in that not all these artists are specifically book artists — they are, more accurately, contemporary artists inspired by stories that originate in books. For some, the result is a new book, a take on the old one that mimics its form; for others, the book is only the starting point for explorations in other media.

The show is divided into two categories: “Subject,” which showcases works offering “narrative interpretations of the source materials,” according to the wall text, and “Object,” whose pieces are “driven by the symbolic value with which the Hebrew texts are imbued.” The setup works in theory, but in reality the distinction is hazy. What are Jacob El Hanani’s wondrous ink-on-paper micrographies — three of which open the “Subject” section — if not art objects to be admired? It’s difficult to make the case that the repetition of the verses of “Song of Moses” (“Shirat Hayam”) 30 times within a 4-inch-by-4-inch space is driven by content more than by form. But what a form it is: a frenzy of writing compacted into a delicate square, with stray stems and lines of letters swooping out and elegantly breaching the perimeter.

And on the 8th Page:Archie Granot’s “Book of Esther, Page VIII”
Courtesy of Archie Granot
And on the 8th Page:Archie Granot’s “Book of Esther, Page VIII”

Other works are more obviously subject driven, including one of the strongest pieces in the section, Siona Benjamin’s “Esther Megillah” (2010). Benjamin’s giclee print, more than 5 feet long, is a scroll containing the Hebrew text of Megillat Esther, with the artist’s illustrations. Benjamin was raised Jewish in a predominantly Hindu and Muslim part of India, and her style here reflects the Persian and Indian miniatures that inspired her: Haman and King Achashverosh have brown skin and mustaches with perfectly curled ends, while Esther is a rich shade of turquoise and wears traditional Indian jewelry and clothing. Benjamin’s images are gorgeous, but they also connect the foundational Jewish story to ancient Persia and, by extension, modern-day Iran — a part of the world that, although it’s where the episode is supposed to have taken place, has largely been cut off from Jewish heritage.

The most compelling artworks in the exhibition result from a similar process, an opening-up of the ancient texts in some nonliteral way. Moving into the “Object” section, one of these is “Emandulo Re-creation” (1997), an artists’ book conceived by South African artist Robbin Ami Silverberg at Artist Proof Studio, a printmaking center in inner-city Johannesburg. Silverberg invited 21 artists to contribute their interpretations of the myth of the origin of mankind (emandulo means “in the beginning” in Zulu), and ended up with an array of images of a male-female pair; it turns out the Judeo-Christian story of Adam and Eve has displaced most others.

But the styles of the contributing artists aren’t necessarily what you’d get with a Western Judeo-Christian treatment. Figures here haunt the pages in shadowy block cuts and burst forth in passages of frenzied color. They have the rough-hewn and provocative nature of much contemporary South African art. This incompleteness, a feeling of perpetual transformation (another feature of the biblical story), is played up in the format of the book, which takes all the artworks and divides them in half vertically and in thirds horizontally. The reader may then combine one head with a different torso and another set of legs, on each side of the page, making an exquisite corpse of creation and allowing the work of six artists to be seen in a single spread. Unfortunately, at the museum the book is encased in glass and untouchable. One can only glimpse all the contributions fleetingly on a video screen — a shame, considering that this is one of the two best pieces in the show.

From the Book of Mark: A detail of Mark Podwal’s “Ezekiel 3:21.”
Courtesy of Mark Podwal
From the Book of Mark: A detail of Mark Podwal’s “Ezekiel 3:21.”

The other is Archie Granot’s famous “Papercut Haggadah” (1998–2007), although unlike “Emandulo Re-creation,” Granot’s work is on full, almost overwhelming display. Each of the 55 pages of the paper-cut artist’s take on the Passover Seder guide is framed and displayed across a long wall in the space, spilling over onto an adjacent one. The installation and individual works are so eye-catching, it takes effort to avoid skipping everything else when you enter the room.

Granot is a master of paper; his designs and compositions draw you in, and his methodical layering reveals intricacies the longer you look. He arranges the Haggadah text innovatively — slanted, sideways, swirling — and creates colorful, abstract shapes both from and around the passages. The energy and motion of the compositions evoke a host of precedents, including the late modernisms of abstract painter Piet Mondrian (his “Broadway Boogie Woogie” comes to mind) and graphic designer Saul Bass. The “Papercut Haggadah” is joyful and transcendent, the ultimate sublimation of the art object — and in that, an unexpected treatment of the arduous Passover story. But Granot doesn’t want us to forget the hardship so much as celebrate the heritage, and he uses his work to nudge us along. He filters the familiar story through his singular vision, and in doing so, makes it novel again.

Jillian Steinhauer is the senior editor of the art blog Hyperallergic.

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