The Many Faces of Isaac and Ismael

Video box with Peter Greenaway and Saskia Boddeke

Peter Greenaway and Saskia Boddeke at the video box in the Eric F. Ross Gallery © Jewish Museum Berlin, photo: Yves Sucksdorff

For the last several weeks, an interactive video box has stood in the Eric F. Ross Gallery, as part of the current special exhibition, “Obedience: An Installation in 15 Rooms by Saskia Boddeke and Peter Greenaway.” “Are you Isaac or are you Ismael?” a neon sign asks visitors as they approach the box. The question relates to the story from Chapter 22 of the First Book of Moses, in which God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son. However, Saskia Boddeke and Peter Greenaway turn this story on its head. It’s not the voice of God greeting the visitors at the beginning of their installation, but a large-screen projection of various children and young people presenting themselves, each in their own languages, as Isaac or Ismael.

Exhibition room with calligraphy and multimedia installation

Beginning of the exhibition with the large-screen installation © Jewish Museum Berlin, photo: Yves Sucksdorff

The video box in the Eric F. Ross Gallery acquaints the visitors with this approach and  thereby with the heart of the whole exhibit. Here at the Eric F. Ross Gallery, too, a video installation with two monitors presents different faces saying “I am Isaac” or “I am Ismael”. The video box invites visitors to perform this speech act and thereby understand and identify with the children’s perspective. In this way, visitors can be a part of the biblical narrative told by the exhibition.

Matching well with the meaning of the name, Isaac (Hebrew: “he will smile”), you come across a crowd of smiling visitors assessing their freshly made videos. About one hundred are created here every day, each one an Isaac or Ismael, each one spoken and presented differently. A huge amount of visual material needs to be sifted through before being played on loop at the video box. Every now and then someone will be sitting near the box, a laptop open on their lap and a grin across their face, as they go through the new recordings. Whenever it’s me, I am astounded by the sheer diversity of the exhibit’s visitors: the recordings reveal a range of languages and faces, sometimes smiling, sometimes inquisitive, and sometimes serious. Only a few remain silent, while others prefer to present themselves as someone other than “Isaac” or “Ismael,” or express their impressions of the exhibit, or to simply show off the scarf of their favorite football team.

The most difficult part of the recording seems to occur once they’ve already managed the first part: Following “I am Isaac” or “I am Ismael”, visitors are then asked to look into the camera for a few seconds – an eternity, it can feel like – and smile, completely naturally. Here come the grimaces, or the demands and provocative commentary, such as, “What about the girls?” Of course, this moment – alone in a box with a camera – also produces funny moments, especially from the younger ones: rapping Isaacs, singing Ismaels, dancing teenagers.

Visitor looking at the video box

A visitor looking at the recordings of the video box © Jewish Museum Berlin, photo: Lisa Albrecht

These youthful displays we get to witness delight, impress, and amuse us, even if we ultimately can’t show them because we lack the required written consent from their parents.

Through the course of the exhibit, we’ll post here our favorite recordings from the video box and present our Isaacs and Ismaels of the month. So swing by the Museum and take part – or check out our blog.

Lisa Albrecht of the Museum’s media department is at the video box twice a week and looks forward to all the faces and people greeting her on the screen.


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