If (as the Greek affirmed in the Cratylus)
the name is archetype of the thing
in the letters of “rose” is the rose
and all the Nile in the word “Nile”.
And, made of consonants and vowels,
there’ll be a terrible Name, which
guards in precise letters and syllables
the ciphered essence of God and the Omnipotence.
The verses in Spanish recited in a low rumbling voice by Luis Borges himself invade the darkened space, a cryptic and lyrical introduction to our exhibition’s main protagonist as a video of Jakob Gautel’s performance Matière Première (1999) sees the slow modelling, perfecting and . The Golem is the iconic creature of Jewish lore, a mass of man-shaped clay which comes to live when the word EMET (truth) is carved into its forehead, and returning to a pile of dust and dirt as soon as a letter is removed to form MET (death). From the onset, however, it is obvious that this will not simply be a historical account of a legend, but rather an exploration of the ways in which its presence has trickled down into art, science-fiction, cinema and even video games. Beyond the fantasy of the creature coming to life, there are deeper-seated meanings. The Golem represents the tension between being animated and being truly “alive” as a person. Furthermore, like Frankenstein and his monster, a vast part of the Golem’s myth lies in relation to its maker. The most famous protagonist of the Golem legend is Rabbi Löw, the 16th century Maharal of Prague, who created the Golem of Prague to defend the Jewish ghetto from antisemitic pogroms. Beyond the myth and its power as a symbol of resistance, the tension between creator and creature, maker and object, have fed into the collective artistic conscience up until now.
Thirsting to know what God knows,
Judah Loew arranged permutations
of letters and complex variations
and finally pronounced the Name: the Key,
the Door, the Echo, the Guest and the Palace,
over a doll which with clumsy hands
he carved, to teach it the secrets
of the Letters, of Time and of Space.
This is a peculiar exhibition which escapes any attempt to categorise by object, preferring a loose thematic which starts at the basics of the legends then unfurls into questions of personhood, resistance and artificial intelligence. Rather than being relegated to a special room, a sideline to the historical content, contemporary art is present from the very beginning. It is deeply rooted into the space of the exhibition with the work of Lionel Sabatté, Smile in Dust (2016) which uses the dust picked up in the museum itself to create a composite portrait of the Golem, highlighting the fragility of a creature born from dust and the poignant image of a figure born from a collective Jewish heritage and imagination. This is because the Golem has never been a fixed historical and legendary figure: his significance is as malleable as the clay he is made of. The expressive and dramatic films of the 1920s and 1930s reveal the Golem as a political figure but also a subjective one. It is inevitable to misread the Golem from Wegnerer’s Der Golem (1915) as anything but a figure of resistance against a dangerously growing antisemetic sentiment. The same case can be made in no subtle terms by Julien Duvivier’s Golem in 1936. However, Jean Kerchbon’s 1967 film chooses to portray the Golem as just another facet of the main protagonist, away from political concerns into the psychological. Both films use experimental camera work to convey the statue coming to life – shaky camerawork and plunging shots channeling a tense and erratic state of mind. This feeling runs throughout the exhibition: the Golem is the reflection of what we create and what we fear to become.
The figure becomes a signifier for Jewish resistance in visual culture as well as an interrogation on existence and agency. Navigating throughout the exhibition, Joann Sfar’s comic on the Golem rubs shoulders with a Minecraft-style animation in which the creature comes to life to wreak pixellated havoc. Further away, Niki de St-Phalle’s golem is a strange but benevolent monster which children can use as a slide in a garden in Jerusalem. Anselm Kiefer’s interpretation, meanwhile, in Rabi Löw: Der Golem (1988-2012) is more abstract and solemn, the Golem trapped in its original form to which its creator’s name is attached. It is as if representation itself has become too much: the very idea and notion of the creature which would emerge from a mound of matter becomes enough. Kiefer’s particular work around German memory and pain, combines with his interest in kabbala lore, takes on the mythos of the Golem with purposes that are clearly understood yet never explicitely stated. In the space, its presence feels commemorative, like a space of prayer, a feeling heightened by the work by Christian Boltanski next to it. In Le Golem (1988) the creature is reduced to a silhouette, a play of light and shadow. The main criticism of the exhibition could be that it had so many complex strands to play with that some may have become tangled along the way. The way in which the Golem was a part of comic-book pop culture alongside the Incredible Hulk feels slightly dissonant; so do the video-game interventions which feel more like a fleeting argument that a powerful statement. Far more interesting is the notion of what it means to animate an idea and to toy with this concept, playing God until it is taken too far. Jan Svankmajer’s Darkness Light Darkness (1989) is a dark and funny take on a clay body defining and constructing itself into existence in a process that is both grostesque and engrossing.
The final part of the exhibition is compelling in and of itself and was perhaps what I was really looking for in the contemporary, pop-cultural references: the current feeling of unease we have when we face our own sentient but non-human creations. The iconic robot from Metropolis looms over the visitors as the Golem’s legacy updated into artificial intelligence is unravelled beautifully, from Hiroshi Ishiguro’s uncanny twin android to Lars Lundsröm’s series Real Humans about a society in which robots have developed emotions and a thirst for agency. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis robot, Maria, towers gracefully over the proceedings as the golem of the new age. Our anxieties and fascination around robots and artificial intelligence shows that what the Golem represents has never disappeared. In fact, the Golem feels more powerfully conveyed through silicone and metal than clay. The exhibition does not attempt to attribute any moral or immoral commentary on artificial intelligence. Instead, it does exactly what the Golem does in the first place as an enduring piece of Jewish mythology trickled into the mainstream. It raises a mirror to the fears and hopes we have about creating animate beings, the anxiety and fantasy of looking up to powerful beings who could also destroy us if they spin out of control.