Abstraction, Decoration, Weave, Plot, Repetition, Image, Debt.

Conference held in the context of the exhibition Arte in Memoria at the Synagogue in Ostia Antica, curated by Adachiara Zevi.

Maybe I should start by clarifying why I’m here, today, talking about the forthcoming seventh edition of the exhibition at Ostia’s ancient synagogue, although I will not be showing any work as part of the event. It would suffice to say that it was the curator, Adachiara Zevi (whom I also wish to thank for the invitation), who invited me to speak here today. But I asked myself, why is it important to speak although I wasn’t invited to exhibit? The answer I have given myself is that what’s important, on this specific occasion, isn’t really the speaking but the writing and for this reason, amongst others, I have chosen to read you a text, rather than to talk without a written trace.

In other words, writing allows me to take part in this event even without being a central player within it. It also allows me to reflect (briefly) on what it means to put on an exhibition amongst the remains of the oldest synagogue in the West and, finally, it allows me to attempt to thread a weave of relationships between art and Hebrew-Judaism as a culture which, coming from a remote past which is still nonetheless open to interpretation and working hypotheses, continues to supply questions which burn through the skin of contemporary culture to the point of revealing its nervous system.

What we should all ask ourselves, above and beyond any kind of guilty oblivion or of innocent ignorance, is where we can find the characteristic themes of Hebrew-Judaic thinking in amongst the active wefts of contemporary artistic culture. Through which instruments has its influence found its diffusion? Within which canons does it take shape? Finally, we should ask ourselves if and if so, how, it is possible to think an idea of abstract form outwith this specific tradition of reasoning. We need to ask ourselves if it’s true that the art we make and practice today should be considered as the continuation of a revolution which began with the historical avantgardes (as we are wont to do), or whether it is to be imagined and lived (if not solely, then at least partly) as the continuation of a much more ancient tradition which reaches us without us being wholly conscious of its trajectory. If that were the case, wouldn’t it be necessary to re-read and re-write the history of our recent art with a stronger, deeper consciousness of this journey? And what questions would arise from the possible discovery that this influence is still in progress and that in fact it continues to act within us and our work, although it may do so “homeopathically”, so to speak, that is without us even noticing?

I believe that this flux is still active and that, like a karstic river, every now and again the water returns to the surface in order to repeat its questions: what relation do we establish between form and formlessness? What role does the word ‘work’ have within art, both as repetitive and productive activity and as final result of this activity? What are the formal, human, historical and symbolical plot lines interweaving art and the real with its language? What are the debts established between art and the common good? And in conclusion, how does art play its part in making Us a community, or even a people and, finally, within the weave of these questions, what space is left for our solitude?

These are just some of the themes which have struck me since my encounters as a visiting professor at the Bezalel Academy in Jerusalem, where I taught from 1997 to 1999. The first thing I asked myself at the time was what the meaning was, or whose name it was, that gave the name ‘Bezalel’ to the institution. As all the specialists present here today (to whom I extend my apologies for all the inaccuracies I might be guilty of in this talk) know, ‘Bezalel’ means ‘the shadow of God’, or ‘he who dwells in the shadow of God’. You will also know that Betsaleel was first and foremost the name of the artisan who made the Tabernacle.

In the book of Exodus, point 31.1, it says:

“Then the Lord said to Moses, 2 “See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, 3 and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills― 4 to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, 5 to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of crafts. 6 Moreover, I have appointed Oholiab son of Ahisamak, of the tribe of Dan, to help him. Also I have given ability to all the skilled workers to make everything I have commanded you: 7 the tent of meeting, the ark of the covenant law with the atonement cover on it, and all the other furnishings of the tent― 8 the table and its articles, the pure gold lampstand and all its accessories, the altar of incense, 9 the altar of burnt offerings and all its utensils, the basin with its stand― 10 and also the woven garments, both the sacred garments for Aaron the priest and the garments for his sons when they serve as priests, 11 and the anointing oil and fragrant incense for the Holy Place. They are to make them just as I commanded you.”

So Bezalel is the worker, the artisan who builds, manipulates and decorates the tabernacle following Divine instruction and, most importantly, it is he who is able to follow the Word in every detail in order to build what he is ordered to. Therefore the Word, in the perspective, is to be considered as the creative principle of the universe. From the Word two entities take shape, both the tabernacle built by Betsaleel and its opposite: the fetish or the golem (of whose creator we do not know the name), semi-human representation of the body, made of confused materials, devoid of form and devoid of soul, but nonetheless assembled, and assembled with the same letters which compose the name of God, although they are erroneously arranged.

This is what is written in the Book of Psalms, Psalm 139.16, in which the birth of the Golem is described: “your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” And here is what Gershom Scholem writes in his “The Name of God and the Kabbalistic Theory of Language”: “God has created all things through the thirty-two ‘wondrous paths of sophia’. These paths are constituted by the ten originary numbers, here referred to as sefirot, which are the fundamental forces of the order of creation, and by the twenty-two letters, which are consonants, and which are the basic elements of all that is created”.

Therefore, within words, within their shape and their weave (that is, then, both in their individual images and in their disposition as a composed whole) we find not only the creation of the world, but also all the good and all the evil possible. Within words and not within images, and especially not in those images which reproduce and represent the body, or in images which evoke the body as a necessary subject of narration. This non-figurative aspect, which we could call “abstract”, is the basis of every type of thinking (and of traditional thinking) which has at its heart the impossibility, for art, to place itself on a level of “creation” in any way close to divine creation. In fact, we could even push the argument to the point of asserting that, in the sphere of art, every act of creation would give shape to a form which is confused and soulless: a golem, indeed. In this perspective the artisan’s work, on the contrary, would be the work of he who, by incessantly decorating and repeating gestures and formulas which he already masters, would extend a sort of prayer which confirms the Word, its light and its sophia, that is its knowledge and its wisdom.

At this point, a question opens up towards us, a question which hangs weightily on the meaning we are to give these words: art, artist, knowledge… etc. It is a question based on a conflict that is beginning to appear in the background, which opens up a battle with regard to knowledge, and which culminates in a diaspora. Not a collective diaspora regarding a people and its escape, but rather one which belongs to a subjective order. And it is a diaspora which gives a raison d’être to art in general, an escape from language, from its consciousness and from its knowledge, although it is an escape unable to annihilate its symbolic origins, nor is it able to do away with artisanal, or even ritual, craft. Every artist, no matter how big or small, augments this diaspora by making. Every artist is Bezalel escaping his obligations, Bezalel leaving behind his tools, abandoning his instruments in the communal settlement. Bezalel who escapes the protective shadow of God and who, in doing so, also loses his guidance, hence losing his unquestioning interior voice. Every artist is Bezalel, finally, who feels remorse (but who also feels excitement) for having given in to the path of language and for having, as such, opened up a debt toward his community which he will probably never be able to settle.

What has this got to do with the exhibition we’re here to discuss today? On the surface, nothing; but in truth, it has a lot to do with it: although none of the pieces presented as part of this exhibition, in this edition or in past editions, is the direct product of these exact discourses, they do nonetheless appear as a sort of filigree which ties and knots the works together and which inevitably harks back to these themes.
For example, many of the pieces on show are essential, abstract and wisely realised: essential the way words are essential, and realised like the works of a great artisan. As well as this, many of the works are woven into the remains of the synagogue, as if they were joining a larger tapestry which holds together place and material; a tapestry made of plots and relations, a weave which urgently poses the question of the relationship between art and knowledge, art and renewal, art and reality, art and politics, art and society and, lastly, between art and debt towards the word.

The fascinating aspect of all of this is to be found wholly within the story of this diaspora. But the fact that we’re here interrogating the reasons, attempting to follow the traces backwards in time, even looking for these traces in the sacred scripts, doesn’t turn us into savants, doesn’t give us any a priori knowledge of our destiny the way it was promised in Psalm 139:16… “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be”… on the contrary: now that art, and artists, have been touched by the golem and by its unformed materials, by its lack of sense, of sophia, of knowledge, they can no longer help us understand anything we didn’t already know. Now, art is cadenced by a repetitive, circular rhythm which continuously turns on itself, a rhythm which drives us away from a prospective and collective view of knowledge. If anything, art actually drags us away from the practices of collective knowledge, because its horizon (if indeed there is an horizon), is mobile: art generates mirages of knowledge, while all the time feeding the need for knowledge, through the constant interrogation it fuels by simply existing and being amongst us. This interrogation, though, isn’t to be imagined as an act of reflection (something which regards the world by making itself into a reflective surface), nor is it an act of abstraction (something which regards the world and has contempt for it), but rather it is an interrogation which is based on the experience of an image which asks language: who am I? But especially, why do I exist?

Our answer to this question needs to be simple, perhaps excessively simple: the image is not the staging of a question, nor is it the staging of an idea – is anything, in the comedy of human life, it represents the dark side, the skipped answer, the revival of a problem. And art, in fact – which is the vehicle of the image – has attempted to continuously renew itself, in fact more than that, it has made renewal the very basis of its existence, it has gifted its vitality and proposed to use it as an instrument made to learn how to know the new: but how can art, through image, make us know the new, when even art itself belongs to the realm of the already-existing, and when it refuses to manifest itself through the practices of knowledge?
Although art tells us nothing knew, it does renew the things of the world (and our own beings) by making them into pure presence. A presence which is greater than the presence we already knew. It renews things, but it doesn’t necessarily push us towards knowing them. New things are things which appear youthful although they have already, and by a long stretch, entered their old age. Things simply appear born again to us, looking different from how we have already seen and known them. Art is never innovative, it is re-innovative. It regenerates the hidden new in what is already consumed and finished in a petrified reality (like a golem). But it would be a mistake to consider this as a gesture entirely performed within the very grammar of a language, in fact the longer we linger within that grammar, the less likely we are to perform that renewal which is the distinctive trait of the truly new work of art. And this is why the invention of the image remains art’s principal instrument, because without that invention there would be no confrontation, no dialogue, nothing able to enrich the language: without invention there would be only traditionalism, formalism. The task of creation, then, is to shed light on the vivaciousness of tradition renewed, to show us its living necessity, its absolute presence. Invention makes present the renewal of the world through the work of art, it presents and conceives the renewal of the world for us. But we must be careful with our words: we mustn’t confuse the term ‘Us’ with the term ‘Society’. Society is a collective pact made to govern through taste. ‘Us’ is different, it is a term without a pact and without a common taste, but, rather, within it are the will to confront each other and our solitude. It is a term which absorbs the new and recounts it, itself taken aback, marvelled, by its own capacity and grandeur, by its own voice, by its own harmony. It is this sense of marvel which qualifies the method. Of course there can be exchanges between ‘Society’ and the ‘Us’, but their acts mix like water and oil. Or rather, as the two mix, the result is a substance in which the trajectories of one and the trajectories of the other never appear fused, never appear to be invisibly part of one another.

The fusion of the two has been imagined, in the past: a system within which beauty grows inside the real to the point of occupying it wholly, to the point of completely fusing aesthetics and ethics on the same, unifying level. These operations appear to us today imbued in all their horror: the idea of the affirmation and extension of an aesthetic society on a planetary scale finds comparisons only in the Final Solution Programme applied in Europe during WWII; the Programme could be seen as its consequent completion, its application on a universal scale, and the final creation of one, unitary, point of view. Art which sees “the stage of the world as its blossoming space” (as Harold Rosemberg puts it in his 1959 The Tradition of the New) has crashed against the rocks of reality like Majakovski’s fragile lifeboat, leaving only debris behind it. From the debris, we began to work again. But our intention was no longer to rebuild the lost vessel (or the Tabernacle, which is at its origin), nor did we have any instructions for it, any original drawings or projects, since we had also lost those in the crash. And although we have some sense of remaining narrative fragments, which we sometimes use as buoys to keep our heads above water, we know that the image is our only certainty and the only instrument we have to attempt to pay a debt which, and at this point it has to be said, is not only a debt towards language, but also towards history. “Us”, “Us” Westerners, have a debt towards the Hebrew people which we will most likely not be able to pay; a debt which, maybe, only an imagination will be able to settle. A complex imagination, able to hold together its origin and the diaspora of language. An imagination, also, which needs to have the strength necessary to impose itself on the real even in the cases where our tendency is to make unimaginable what happened in the concentration camps, relegating these events to a chapter which no longer has to do with human history, as if it pertained to mystics, and to its destiny. An imaginary, then, which is able to at least attempt to give shape, to give image, to give some sort of truth to what happened and which, at the same time, can push us towards a wider dimension of history and of art, a dimension which can truly understand history and art as the story of thought and of mankind in general.

As a conclusion, and as a homage to the day of memory which is about to take place, let me read you the words of philosopher Georges Didi-Huberman, from the introduction to his book Images in Spite of All. A book in which the philosopher argues against those who believe that the image is always sacrilegious, to the point of negating the authenticity, and the witnessing value, of certain photographs which he defines as ‘four pieces of film snatched from hell’, which are the only four images which have reached us from the extermination camps, and which show the criminal activities which happened there:

“In order to know, we must imagine for ourselves. We must attempt to imagine the hell that Auschwitz was in the summer of 1944. Let us not invoke the unimaginable. Let us not shelter ourselves by saying that we cannot, that we could not by any means, imagine it to the very end. We are obliged to imagine that oppressive imaginable. It is a response that we must offer, as a debt to the words and images that certain prisoners snatched, for us, from the harrowing real of that experience. So let us not invoke the unimaginable. How much harder was it for the prisoners to rip from the camps those few shreds of which now we are trustees, charged with sustaining them simply by looking at them. Those shreds are at the same time more precious and less comforting than all possible works of art, snatched as they were from a world bent on their impossibility. Thus, images in spite of all: in spite of the hell of Auschwitz, in spite of the risks taken. In return, we must contemplate them, take them on, and try to comprehend them. Images in spite of all: in spite of our own world, full, almost choked, with imaginary commodities.”

Alfredo Pirri

Rome 11 January 2013, Casa della Memoria