When I go abroad, I like to see art. Usually, something with presence and gravitas, as you might find at Washington’s National Gallery – a museum in which I once spent a precious 3.7 minutes with children before being asked by a guard, firmly but not unkindly, to leave. He was right. We were disrupting the quiet, spiritual serenity of taking in Great Art. A museum like that is a temple. The emotions swell, and sometimes, tears threaten.
Subtle, well thought-out modern art has a different set of effects. Even for an uneducated amateur like me, it can hit you deep in the gut and keep your thoughts back in the gallery long after your eyes have readjusted to the glare outside. Last week I found myself in the contemporary section of Hamburg’s Kunsthalle to see an exquisite exhibit entitled “Lost Places”. It was, really, a psychological thriller.
A lot of contemporary art uses what might be described as explicit, closed expressions of intertextuality to get the mind’s wheels turning. One type includes works that are sub-divided into different components and then given to develop certain, suggestive connections between the various parts. A work that has stayed with me from “Lost Places” is a video installation by Israeli artist, Omer Fast. Like some of his other pieces, Nostalgia I-III (2009) performs this sort of intertextuality remarkably well. The three sections of the installation had videos going simultaneously with surprising and unexpected connections. Here is the way the museum’s curator describes the piece, followed by a clip (until 3:00) that because of the limitations of the medium cannot do much justice:
Omer Fast (*1972, Jerusalem / Israel) explores the shifting meanings of places and the resultant unravelling of apparent certainties. A key stylistic device in his films and video works is the interview, which – as a seemingly realistic format – holds the promise of authenticity, but is invariably staged with actors. The three-parts of Fast’s video installation Nostalgia I-III (2009) are linked by the motif of a trap: in Nostalgia I (first room) we see a gamekeeper attempting to construct a trap using bent branches. Nostalgia II (second room, 2 monitors) shows a conversation between two actors in an office of the immigration authorities, whereby the issue of building a trap also becomes the pivotal point of the narrative. Nostalgia III (cinematic projection) is a 30-minute feature film in which the current geopolitical constellation has been inverted: in this scenario, Africa is the only safe place left in the world. Europeans try to enter an unnamed African country through a system of tunnels and repeatedly find themselves in situations where they are trapped and subject to the arbitrary practices of the police and other authorities. The multiple narrative levels of Fast’s Nostalgia deconstruct the apparent objectivity of history, nationality, justice and injustice.
For many, ‘explicit intertextuality’ is really no intertextuality at all, since intertextuality is a framework for understanding the complex and non-explicit relationship between widely disparate ‘texts’ realized synchronically. As Daniel Boyarin noted in Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash, ‘sources and traditions’ approaches cannot really be understood as employing a method of intertextuality. There are also problems with thinking about intertextuality when its realization is confined to a limited canon, like rabbinic literature, or especially to a single work of art. Instead, in works like Fast’s installation, the effect of the interconnections must be to remind viewers that the carefully curated intertextuality of the piece simply reflects the intertextuality of the everyday – or if you are religious, God’s intertextuality.
Regardless of what we’ll call them, theoretical methods that seriously probe the intersections between various parts of rabbinic literature on an intertextual axis can be nicely related to some of these expressions of contemporary art. Last year, I mused about how the redaction of the Bavli and its relationship to the culture that produced it can be illuminated by YouTube’s Life in a Day. Now, it occurs to me that Life in a Day‘s canvass is far too wide and overpopulated. Maybe its worth thinking about the redaction of the Bavli and its suggestive juxtapositions along the lines of a contemporary video installation like Fast’s, which take place within a single space. Within the confines of a tractate or pereq, the Talmud has multiple screens going, which you view when you walk into different ‘rooms’ or see things from different angles. The videos on the screens frequently intersect despite apparently broadcasting separate films. If you’ve joined daf yomi and have followed the tides of some of the early aggadot in the first chapter of Berakhot, you can see this with certain reocurrences, like the tangible presence of night and its various articulations. Reoccurrence however, is not merely restatement, and when one text is read in light of the other, sparks fly. The flip-side, of course, is that maybe like in Fast’s Nostalgia, the illuminations are little more than a trap. But that too is an illumination.