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Golem, Language, Dada

Article in the Exhibition Catalogue GOLEM

Emily D. Bilski

Medieval Jewish mystics are said to have worked in unison in order to make a golem, an act mirrored in the collaboration between Mark Berghash, Rimma Gerlovina and Valeriy Gerlovin. Combining elements of photography, concrete poetry, performance and body art, the artists created a life-sized golem, each depicting a section of the human body adorned with painted Hebrew letters. Arranged in a grid like a Hebrew crossword puzzle or Scrabble board, the possible “readings” offered by this composition constitute a witty, multilingual play of words and meanings.

Reading horizontally from right to left across the middle grid, we have the Hebrew word emet (אמת)—“truth”—one of the combinations of letters said to animate a golem. The two letters painted on the figure’s hand spell met (מת)—“death”—the specific combinations of letters that will render a golem lifeless, the word’s meaning accentuated by the blood-red color. Once we start to read the letters along the vertical axis of the grid, the possibilities multiply. Beginning with the large black aleph (א) emblazoned on the chest and combining it with the two letters on the figure’s ankle (דם) we get adam (אדם), “man.” But the second syllable of that word—dam (דם)—is the word for “blood” in Hebrew, its meaning also highlighted by the use of red. However, we could read this same combination of letters as dame, the French word for “woman.” If we include the letter mem (מ), which is painted on the figure’s head in sounding out the letters, we get “Madame.”

The gender-bending wordplay is consistent with the mixing of male and female anatomies in the figure itself, which boasts a dainty female head perched atop a hairy male chest. Constructed from parts taken from different bodies, the figure calls to mind one of the golem’s most famous relatives, Frankenstein’s monster, though this golem is decidedly more beautiful. The discrepancies in scale and gender give the figure the appearance of having been created by exquisite corpse, a game (from the French cadavre exquis) favored by Dadaists and Surrealists as a collaborative method for creating a composition, the goal of which was to transcend rationality. We, as viewers, join the collaboration, for in deciphering the combination of letters, we help this particular golem come to life.

Four photographs on a metal plate: a woman's head, a men's torso, a hand, a pair of feet. On each photo, there is a Hebrew letter painted onto a part of the body.

Golem II
Rimma Gerlovina, Mark Berghash, Valeriy Gerlovin, USA, 1987
Chromogenic color prints mounted on aluminum
182.9 x 121.9 x 5.1 cm
Photo: Gerlovina, Berghash, Gerlovin, 1987/The Jewish Museum, New York

Citation recommendation:

Emily D. Bilski (2016), Golem, Language, Dada. Article in the Exhibition Catalogue GOLEM.

Golem als Actionfigur (Ausschnitt)

Online Edition of the GOLEM Catalog: Table of Contents

The Golem in Berlin – introduction by Peter Schäfer
Chapter 1
The Golem Lives On – introduction by Martina Lüdicke
My Light is Your Life – by Anna Dorothea Ludewig
Avatars – by Louisa Hall
The Secret of the Cyborgs – by Caspar Battegay
Chapter 2
Jewish Mysticism – introduction by Emily D. Bilski
Golem Magic – by Martina Lüdicke
Current page: Golem, Language, Dada – by Emily D. Bilski
Chapter 3
Transformation – introduction by Emily D. Bilski
Jana Sterbak’s Golem: Objects as Sensations – by Rita Kersting
Crisálidas (Chrysalises) – by Jorge Gil
Rituals – by Christopher Lyon
A Golem that Ended Well – by Emily D. Bilski
On the Golem – by David Musgrave
Louise Fishman’s Paint Golem – by Emily D. Bilski
Chapter 4
Legendary Prague – introduction by Martina Lüdicke
Golem Variations – by Peter Schäfer
Rabbi Loew’s Well-Deserved Bath – by Harold Gabriel Weisz Carrington
Chapter 5
Horror and Magic – introduction by Martina Lüdicke
Golem and a Little Girl – by Helene Wecker
The Golem with a Group of Children Dancing – by Karin Harrasser
Bringing the Film Set To Life – by Anna-Carolin Augustin
Golem and Mirjam – by Cathy S. Gelbin
Chapter 6
Out of Control – introduction by Emily D. Bilski
Golem—Man Awakened with Glowing Hammer – by Arno Pařík
Dangerous Symbols – by Charlotta Kotik
Be Careful What You Wish For – by Marc Estrin
Chapter 7
Doppelgänger – introduction by Martina Lüdicke
From the Golem-Talmud – by Joshua Cohen
Kitaj’s Art Golem – by Tracy Bartley
The Golem as Techno-Imagination? – by Cosima Wagner
See also
GOLEM – 2016, online edition with selected texts of the exhibition catalog
GOLEM – 2016, complete printed edition of the exhibition catalog, in German
Golem. From Mysticism to Minecraft – Online Feature, 2016
GOLEM – exhibition, 23 Sep 2016 to 29 Jan 2017

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