Unhampered by false modesty, the timeline for Matt Freedman’s installation, The Golem of Ridgewood (which was on view at Valentine in Ridgewood, Queens, through March 11) reaches all the way back to “Eden—6000 BCE,” where “G-d fashions Adam from the dust of the ground, and animates him.” That’s certainly one way to begin at the beginning, as the King of Hearts gravely advised Alice.
The timeline, posted on the gallery’s website, is a swift fall down its own exquisite rabbit hole, bouncing from Adam to Diogenes, founder of the Cynics, through Carl Linnaeus, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, to the Michelin Man, the Diogenes Brewery in Ridgewood, Franz Kafka in Prague and the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in Ghostbusters (1984).
Not to mention Leni Riefenstahl and the 1936 Olympics, J.R.R. Tolkein, and a side trip to the founding of Wikipedia before it ends up back in Ridgewood, where Freedman and the artist Jude Tallichet discover the relics of the golem in and around their home, a deconsecrated synagogue:
Ridgewood, Queens−2008-2011: Guided by clues in what remains of the film [an 8mm DIY production allegedly shot in 1941 by a local teenager], Freedman and Tallichet recover parts of the lost golem. The left hand is buried the garden; the odd object they had previously removed from the synagogue’s safe (in what is now their living room) is revealed to be the right or “iron” hand [a 1550s-vintage prosthesis (see the “Götz von Berlichingen” section of the timeline)]. The sword is in the shed. The head, complete with helmet, turns up in their own attic, which the two sculptors use as studio storage.
Not knowing Freedman’s work ahead of time – that is, other than a rather (with all due respect) off-the-wall public conversation he had with the writer Frances Richard titled “Clumpism vs. the Avant-Garde” at Bushwick’s Studio 10 — and given the sprawling, Pynchonian nuttiness of the timeline, I expected the installation to be highly conceptual, brainy and abstruse.
It was brainy for sure, but I should have paid closer attention to the part of the timeline that dealt with Freedman’s gig as a cartoonist for The Onion, where he created a series of cutout dioramas featuring “full-frontal-nude paper dolls of Margaret Thatcher, Mikhail Gorbachev, George H. W. Bush, and Dan Quayle.”
To say that Freedman turned Valentine’s cozy gallery space into a museum-quality funhouse, however accurate, would sell The Golem of Ridgewood short. Dominated by the golem itself, a towering, neo-archaic Plasticine figure with a detachable head and two missing hands (which, as indicated in the block quote above, were discovered in separate places), the installation was a squirrelly mass of vividly colored half-scale figures — Achilles, Diogenes and his dogs, Carl Linnaeus, Leni Riefenstahl, a seven-headed hydra and a German spy — hauled from key points of the narrative to populate a highly concentrated, interwoven cosmos.
On the wall opposite the golem, an 8mm silent black-and-white film “fragment” — the local teenager’s 1941 production of The Golem of Ridgewood — depicts the boy’s discovery of the golem, which soon dons Achilles’ helmet and trudges out of the synagogue and down the sidewalk. As the timeline entry explains:
Local Jews feel at risk as the German-American Bund takes root in the area. To reassure his flock, Rabbi Weiss creates his golem. A young congregant, Elias Bergman, stumbles on the plot … From the surviving footage, it appears that the boy is discovered while filming. Perhaps considering the uses of newsreels as propaganda, and presaging the role of moving-image documentary in disseminating information about the death camps, the rabbi then allows him to film openly.
The narrative progression that Freedman employs to arrive at this juncture — the simultaneous creation of the golem and the film that eventually leads to its discovery — with its casual mixture of fact and fancy, skipping like a stone across the breadth of Western civilization (and its frequent uncivilized outbreaks), brings to mind the popular equation of artistry and madness — specifically paranoia.
From the mouth of street corner monologist, such a streamlined version of reality would be heard as a string of conspiratorial delusions. In the hands of an artist, it becomes a sharply faceted sequence of events, flipping nonsense into a unique and enthralling form of sense.
Freedman has accomplished this by digging deeply into his personal history and the eons-old traditions that formed it — by returning, as it were, to the golem’s elemental mud — via an aesthetic of unjaded sophistication, the state of the innocent eye, in which jokes and storytelling are as much a part of making art as line, shape and color, where one’s own home and garden come alive at twilight with harbingers and phantoms.
Despite its eschatological buildup, the story of The Golem of Ridgewood, like Macbeth’s idiot’s tale, finally goes nowhere — a welter of suppositions, suspect memories and blurry facts. Cause and effect give way to efflorescences and unintended consequences. Simultaneously distilled and unbounded, Freedman’s narrative unfolds across a historical landscape where nothing ultimately adds up, in spite of our best efforts to convince ourselves otherwise. The golem’s mysteries remain unfathomed. It’s a place we know all too well.
Matt Freedman’s The Golem of Ridgewood closed on March 11 at Valentine Gallery (464 Seneca Avenue, Ridgewood, Queens).