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In the current Tower of Babel exhibition at Schema Projects, three curators — in New York, Perugia, and Tel Aviv — asked artists living in their three countries to create new works related to the Bible’s story of the Tower of Babel. While the artworks often focus on questions about language, they also address other timely matters related to this ancient tale: group identity, urban development, and the risks of hotly pursuing either one. The results are mixed, but altogether the exhibition offers a fresh view of globalism, which is especially welcome in light of the fraught political debates about Israel.
In the biblical story, which is quoted in full in the gallery’s press release, the people of the world unite and use a single language to build a tower tall enough to reach the heavens. Their hubris gets thwarted: God “confused the language of the entire earth,” making the people unintelligible to each other, and “scattered them upon the face of the entire earth” (Genesis 11:9). Understandably, then, “Babel” often has been associated with “babble” (and the Hebrew root of “Babel” does mean “confusion,” though “babble” has other etymological roots). There are indeed so many works in the Tower of Babel exhibition, about so many subjects and in so many styles, languages, sizes, and media, that it is hard to find the show’s coherence…but this is true of many group exhibitions. In Tower of Babel the variety is a strength: it conveys a vision of pluralistic openness among nations and cultures. More on this below. Another strength is the works’ generally consistent level of high polish.
Individual pieces feature, among the show’s many motifs: towers (often fallen), semiotic systems (or scribblings), and formal explorations of communication technologies and building materials. Some of the shapes evoke Barnett Newman’s zips, or New York’s Twin Towers, and some compositions incorporating blocks recall Israel’s politically charged walls (sacred and secular). The mostly rectangular works are hung salon-style, like building blocks (of language?) on the gallery wall, and the entire installation therefore resembles the construction of the eponymous biblical city. Many pieces depict ziggurats, in keeping with common interpretations of the fabled tower’s assumed shape, though skyscrapers and ruins are just as common. And as images of architecture tend toward the dystopic, with many tumbling forms and fragmented collages, they suggest not only an ancient city abandoned mid-stream, but also contemporary cities threatened by overdevelopment or neglect. Many of the artists’ statements in the exhibition’s thick Guidebook address politics, mythologies, and the philosophy of language.
The curatorial focus emphasizes the Genesis story’s foundational position in the mythology of language. This is fitting for an exhibition that brings together artists whose diverse languages — and even alphabets — represent countries well-steeped in the history of making language visible. Israel is home to scribes who preserve sacred calligraphic traditions for Semitic alphabets; artisans in Italy developed Latinate italics, serifed inscriptions carved on stone monuments, and many crafts related to book printing and binding; the U.S. is home to historic centers of publishing and multitudes of speakers of the world’s languages. Many works in Tower of Babel play with the formal qualities of visible language: legible texts; texts that would be legible if they weren’t layered into unintelligibility; codes; small blocks resembling lead “sorts,” the mounted, movable letters of metal type used in letterpress printing; or asemic writing (abstract marks that gesture toward language).
But if the Tower of Babel story focuses on language to tell a political cautionary tale, it can also be used to forge a vision of peaceable diversity; this is where the exhibition gains power. A fresh look at the original text will help unpack this theme and flesh out the corresponding, understated achievement of Tower of Babel.
The story in the book of Genesis appears as a narrative interruption — only nine verses — between two long lists of names tracing the family tree between familiar characters, Noah and Abraham. This means that the Babel episode is the only blip of dramatic intrigue between the more fully articulated stories of the Flood and the founding of Monotheism, both of which inform the backdrop to the Tower of Babel exhibition. The Tower of Babel emerges from the aftermath of the Flood as an answer to the question: how can a viable human society emerge after global devastation? The chapter before the Babel story often focuses on the variety among the descendants of Noah as they multiplied: “the islands of the nations separated in their lands, each one to his language, according to their families, in their nations” (Genesis 10:5; see also verses 20, 31, and 32, plus verses 18, 21, and 25).
So, if people are “scattered” and the earth is emphatically multilingual and multicultural, even before Babel, why is the tower story said to explain the invention of languages? Because the people of many nations leave linguistic diversity behind as they gather in one place for a common goal: “Now the whole earth was of one language and uniform words” (Gen. 11:1). The contrast with the previous chapter is strong and impossible to ignore, but the new monolingualism doesn’t last long. The reason for the renewed proliferation of languages is not that monolingualism is a problem in itself; it’s that the people decide to use their ability to communicate for their own gain — “let us make ourselves a name” (Gen. 11:4). They use their shared language not to fulfill a psycho-social need (cf. Adrienne Rich’s The Dream of a Common Language), but to build a city motivated by inappropriate intentions. Think of English in today’s world economy: in many cases it is being used to fuel positive developments, but it can also enable exploitation, not to mention art-market prices as sky-high as Babel’s misguided tower.
In Genesis, a new abundance of languages foils the plan: when no one can understand anyone else’s instructions, the hubristic construction stops. In other words, diversity creates a less ego-driven society. Perhaps the basic striving literally to understand each other helps to foster goodwill. With the people now inhabiting many locations and speaking many languages, the social field is restored to a peaceful patchwork, and the litany of names in the text resumes. Similarly, in the Tower of Babel exhibition, the English-only platform of the global art world is undercut by foregrounding the linguistic and national diversity of the artworks, which are mixed together on the wall, instead of being divided by their three countries or languages; the juxtaposition of these silent, separate interlocutors echoes the patterns of the landscape at the end of the Tower of Babel story. And although the thick book of Tower of Babel artists’ statements (all in English) practically forms a tower in itself, this exhibition has a humility that comes from the collective’s multivocality. The artists cannot be tied easily to their home nations: some were chosen by a curator from one of the other countries in the exhibition. This move away from predictable alliances — let’s call it an avoidance of linguistic essentialism — adds to the complexity of the show’s version of identity politics.
A further surprise about this exhibition is that it deals with Israel in a nonchalant way, even as ever-new controversies erupt in the Middle East, and (art) world attention perseverates over the vexing and trenchant problems of Israel/Palestine. In Tower of Babel, artists from Israel are included as individuals, not as representatives of their government; they are not distinguished from the others on the wall or denied their expression through cultural boycott. What does this achieve, aside from presenting a quiet, alternative model to such movements as BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) and CDS (Challenging Double Standards, a critical response to BDS that hasn’t received as much media coverage)? In our age of global warming (a future Flood story!), Tower of Babel shows citizens from an unlikely jumble of countries responding together to the catastrophes of our shared narrative (past, present, and/or future). What we see in this exhibition is mellow, international cooperation, a global politics beyond ideologies and loyalties.
Babel’s legacy of multilingualism has led to bloody consequences more than to sanguine peace: mutual incomprehensibility can create unwitting, mortal danger (as in the 2006 movie, Babel) as well as war (as among the monotheistic cultures derived from the Abrahamic story that follows Babel). This is why the Tower of Babel exhibition is such a revolutionary offering. Given the challenges we face in using the “one language” of English (to enable healthy global development), and in defusing the bigotry of English-only politicians (who loudly proclaim their denials of climate change), it is refreshing to find such an unassuming international display, where the common language of art combines with the matter-of-fact diversity of its creative exploration.
Tower of Babel continues at Schema Projects (92 St. Nicholas Avenue, Bushwick, Brooklyn) through May 15; it will then travel to Trebisonda Centro per l’arte Contemporanea in Perugia, Italy and to Givitayem City Gallery in Tel Aviv, Israel.