In The Beginning: Artists Respond to Genesis


of an Exhibition

by Mark Walhimer

Published on September 01, 2008, Modified on September 01, 2008

  • Description:

    Big Bang, “The Breath of God”, The Beginning of Time, The Beginning of Human Kind”…

    Wow, heavy stuff for a holiday weekend! Except here I was at the Contemporary Jewish Museum having a conversation about the Book of Genesis with a total stranger, having a conversation with strangers about “by viewing micronisms through a microscope, are we looking back in time?”, "Is god like a giant slot machine?, I can’t say if ever, I felt comfortable enough to be having such conversations in a public setting. That is the genius of this exhibition, creating an atmosphere that is intelligent, playful, respectful and inclusive. “Inclusive” being the most important adjective

    The exhibition starts off with quotes from the book of Genesis, and a video from December 24, 1968, in what was the most watched television broadcast to date, as the crew of Apollo 8 read in turn from the Book of Genesis as they orbited the moon. William Anders, Jim Lovell, and Frank Borman recited verses 1 through 10 of the book of Genesis.

    For the exhibition the museum commissioned seven contemporary artists to respond to the book of Genesis and then augmented the exhibition with pieces from the museum’s collection.

    The first piece that I encountered is by Ben Rubin a recreation of the Horn Antenna made in 1959 by Bell Laboratories in Holmdel, New Jersey. "In 1964, two physicists, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson were working on the antenna when they inadvertently detected cosmic background radiation that they eventually determined to be remnant sounds from the Big Bang. “Their Nobel Prize–winning discovery constituted the first physical proof for the Big Bang theory and has provided an essential touchstone for cosmological science ever since,” Ben Rubin’s piece entitled “God’s Breath Hovering Over the Waters (His Master’s Voice)”, asks the question is the static of the Big Bang heard from the antenna the breath of god?, is this our master’s voice?

    Alan Berliner created a console and visitors “play” a seven-screen slot-machine-like game. Each of the seven monitors contains a rapid-fire montage of all 837 words contained in the story of creation in Genesis.

    “Playing God is a reflection on the role that human beings have played as God’s proxy, with better and worse consequences.” Each time the word god appeared as part of the montage, a light and sound explosion accompanies the montage. Again, I had to pause, am I playing God? not only here, but also else where?

    Mierle Laderman created an environment inspired by the “Kabbalistic interpretation of the origins of the universe. It is believed that God had to contract to make room for the creation of the universe, and as a result of the contraction, there was a shattering of vessels. The act of symbolically repairing these vessels is called tikkun olam, a Jewish practice of doing good deeds, translated literally to mean repairing or correcting the world. Ukeles’s work often requires the viewer’s participation to complete it. Here the artist invites visitors to actually make an agreement to perform a good deed so that they can participate in this repairing of the world, tikkun olam.”

    I can’t speak highly enough of this exhibition, the artists were asked to react to the book of Genesis, and in their reaction we as visitors are allowed our own "intellectual space to also react to the book of Genesis, creating an atmosphere of sharing and mutual respect, the highest compliments for any exhibition.

    The Museum has created a five-part video about Genesis, with interviews of physicists, Mathematicians, staff of the Exploratorium and Rabbis. The interviews are fascinating, the second website above is the link to the videos.

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