Art

From a 16th-Century Book to a Robot-Assisted Performance, Artists Explore the Legend of the Golem

More than 100 golem-inspired artworks are on display at Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme in Paris.

Miloslav Dvořak, “Le Golem et Rabbi Loew près de Prague” (1951), oil on canvas, 244 x 202 cm (Prague, Židovske Muzeum © Jaroslav Horejc) (all images courtesy of musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme, Paris, unless noted)

Noise-math philosopher Norbert Wiener once aptly compared the old Jewish myth about the golem with cybernetic technology. Viewed through that lens, everything from transhuman artificial life cyborgs to anthropomorphic robots to humanoid androids to posthuman digital avatars bear the mystical mark of an artificial body madly turning on its creator. This oily tale is the oldest narrative about artificial life and is now subject of the exhibition Golem! Avatars d’une légende d’argile at Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme.

The golem was first mentioned in passing as גֹּלֶם in the Bible in Psalm 139:16, but the first golem story was spun by the 16th-century Talmudic scholar Rabbi Loew ben Bezalel. In it, he supposedly used Kabbalistic magic, Hebrew letters, paranormal amulets, or mystical incantations to conjure into existence the Golem of Prague: a colossal figure built from mud or other base materials, who protected the Bohemian Jews of the country from the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II. Though initially a savior, the Golem of Prague eventually became harmful to those he had saved and had to be destroyed. There are myriad subsequent versions of the story, with many variations and contradictions. It is generally agreed that what animated this mystical entity was an inscription either applied to its forehead or slipped under its tongue, and the golem has largely been understood to be an artificial man that is part protector and part monster, but many other differences abound. This specious aspect makes the golem particularly interesting to artists because such contradictory vagueness yields opaque and elusive visual iconography.

Paul Wegener, “Le Golem, comme il vint au monde” (1920) (Deutsche Kinemathek, Berlin © succession Paul Wegener)

The legend spread in the late 19th century, popularized by the 1915 novel The Golem by Gustav Meyrink and three movies by Paul Wegener: The Golem (aka The Monster of Fate) (1915), The Golem and the Dancing Girl (1917), and The Golem: How He Came into the World (1920). An essential general reference for the golem-phile is Idel Moshe’s 1990 book Golem: Jewish Magical and Mystical Traditions on the Artificial Anthropoid, published as part of the Judaica: Hermeneutics, Mysticism, and Religion series by the State University of New York Press in Albany. In it, Moshe maintains that the role of the golem concept in Judaism was to confer an exceptional status to the Jewish elite by bestowing them with the capability of supernatural powers deriving from a profound knowledge of the Hebrew language and its magical and mystical values.

I first encountered this titillating thesis mixing creation and destruction at Emily Bilski’s 1988 show Golem! Danger, Deliverance and Art, which she curated for The Jewish Museum in New York City. I still remember seeing Louise Fishman’s fine painting “Golem” (1981) there, and I was disappointed that the plucky street performance artist Kim Jones (aka Mudman) wasn’t included.

Joachim Seinfeld, “Golem” (1999), series of 5 photographs, 39.5 × 40 cm (Prague, Židovske Muzeum © Adagp, Paris)
Lionel Sabatte, “Smile in Dust #1” (2017), dust and wire, 13 x 14 x 11 cm (image courtesy of the artist)
Steve Niles and Dave Wachter, Breath of Bones: A Tale of the Golem (2013) (© Dark Horse Comics)

This show in Paris follows on the heels of the Golem exhibit at The Jewish Museum Berlin. Both venues had the idea for an exhibition on the golem at the same time, and the institutions cooperated on loans and exchanged ideas. The Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme show has 136 works, including paintings, drawings, photographs, cinematic clips, literature, comics, and video games by the likes of Charles Simonds, Boris Aronson, Christian Boltanski, Joachim Seinfeld, Gérard Garouste, Amos Gitaï, R.B. Kitaj, and Eduardo Kac. Animated films included are Jan Svankmajer’s masterful Darkness Light Darkness (1989), Jakob Gautel’s First Material (1999), and David Musgrave’s Studio Golem (2012). But the best dramaturgical presentation is the humanoid robotic metaphor of an awakening of posthumanity in School of Moon (2016), a dance choreographed by Eric Minh Cuong Castaing for the Ballet National of Marseille in conjunction with digital artist Thomas Peyruse and roboticist Sophie Sakka. Their impish portrayal blurs our perception of the human and the nonhuman by mixing ballet dancers with children and anthropoid robots.

Christian Boltanski, “Le Golem” (1988), mixed media, 19 × 11.5 × 27 cm (New York, The Jewish Museum © Adagp, Paris)
Gerard Garouste, “Le Golem” (2011), oil on canvas, 270 × 320 cm (collection de l’artiste © Adagp, Paris)
School of Moon (2016), performance (photo courtesy of the artist)

The show kicks off with a large straightforward illustrative painting by Miloslav Dvořak, “Le Golem et Rabbi Loew près de Prague” (1951) but soon turns weirder with a 1964 Dennis Hopper photograph of the great beatnik Wallace Berman. Berman is known for his underground film Aleph (1956–66), in which he uses Hebrew letters to frame a hypnotic, rapid-fire noise montage into a bit of wonder. Moving on, I was fascinated by an odd printed book page from the Sefer Yetzirah (Book of Creation) (1562), in which Kabbalists, wishing to bring a golem to life, looked for the aid of alphabetic formulae. Other powerful pieces include Lionel Sabatte’s redolent sculpture “Smile in Dust” (2017), Philip Guston’s cartoonish painting of a cuddly Ku Klux Klanner “In Bed” (1971), Anselm Kiefer’s crusty stout block “Rabi Low: Der Golem” (1988–2012), Antony Gormley’s rusty condensed sculpture “Clench” (2013), and Niki de Saint Phalle’s swashbuckling “Maquette pour Le Golem” (1972), her model for the architecturally scaled triple-tongued monster slide “Le Golem” (1972), which she built in Jerusalem, that represents the three monotheistic religions plummeting from a golem-monster’s merry mouth.

Sefer Yetsirah, Mantoue: Livre de la creation (1562), printed book page (detail), 21 × 16 cm (Paris, bibliothèque de l’Alliance israélite universelle)
Philip Guston, “In Bed” (1971), oil on canvas, 128 × 292 cm (Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne / Centre de création industrielle, dépôt de la Centre Pompidou Foundation; photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Niki de Saint Phalle, “Maquette pour Le Golem” (1972), plâtre, 64 × 114 × 118 cm (Jerusalem, Israel Museum © 2017 Niki Charitable Art Foundation / Adagp, Paris)
Anselm Kiefer, “Rabi Low: Der Golem” (1988–2012), plastique, bois, plomb, verre, résine synthétique, acier, et charbon de bois, 95 × 95 × 58 cm (Anselm Kiefer, courtesy galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris-Salzbourg)

One of the more delightful displays was the room full of Ignati Nivinski’s 1924 watercolors made for the costumes of the 1925 theatre piece The Golem, on loan from the Russian National Archives of Literature and Art. The play was based on the 1921 text The Golem: A Dramatic Poem in Eight Scenes by H. Leivick, a Yiddish poet and political radical who served jail time in Siberia. On the other hand, I was startled and disturbed to see Walter Jacobi’s distasteful 1942 book Golem, a flagrant anti-Semitic propaganda text concerning a Judeo-Masonic conspiracy theory within the Czech Jewry, issued during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. Seeing it made me think that a Trump-era cyber-golem would busy himself with public relations, propaganda, market research, publicity, disinformation, counter-facts, censorship, espionage, and even cryptography (which in the 16th century was considered a branch of magic).

Ignati Nivinski, “Esquisse pour les costumes de la pièce Le Golem de H. Leivick” (1925), crayon, aquarelle, tempera sur papier, 23 × 15 cm (Moscou, Archives nationales russes de littérature et d’art)
Walter Jacobi, Golem (1942), photo by the author

The show winds down wonderfully with Walter Schulze-Mittendorff’s sculpture “Robot from Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis” (1926), which was recreated by the Louvre in 1994, standing in front of Stelarc’s “Handwriting: Writing One Word Simultaneously with Three Hands” (1982). The combination of these works suggests that golems have to do with an abiding conviction that cold and inert matter may be brought to life through the correct application of words. But rather than a sign of human accomplishment, the golem casts a sour shadow onto our gleaming technological age. The power of human language to summon golems to artificial life is experienced as hubris in this exhibit. This vanity enhances the sexy love-hate of spooky computer-robotics we feel at the root of Alex Garland’s 2015 film Ex Machina, a poster for which is on display. We cannot and do not escape the triumphal attraction of the golem here, as we are confronted (again) with the fetid fact that a determinative force in human life is the virtual merging with the actual. As such, the golem is the minotaur at the heart of our viractual labyrinth.

Stelarc, “Handwriting: Writing One Word Simultaneously with Three Hands at Maki Gallery, Tokyo” (1982) (photographed by Keisuke Oki; re-photographed by the author)
Golem! Avatars d’une légende d’argile, installation view

This brave new word-world was suggested back in 1965 by Kabbalah philosopher Gershom Scholem, when he officially named one of the first Israeli computers Golem I. Because just as the golem is brought to life by combinations of letters, the computer (which is behind any artificially intelligent robot) only obeys coding language. And that coded situation slots us back into Norbert Wiener’s excited trepidation toward machine learning. While learning is a property almost exclusively ascribed to self-conscious living systems, AI computers now exist that can learn from past experiences and so improve their operative functions to the point of surpassing human capabilities. This posthuman transcendence raises concerns both aesthetic and ethical, casting around the art in this show an apologetic air heavy with ambivalence toward human cunning and trickery and seductive art and technology.

Golem! Avatars d’une légende d’argile continues at Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme (Hôtel de Saint-Aignan, 71, rue du Temple, 3rd arrondissement) through July 16.

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