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On the Golem

Article in the Exhibition Catalogue GOLEM

David Musgrave

My toys were not all equal. One toy was conscious, and mediated my relationship with all the others. Certain toys I wanted but were economically unavailable to me (a six-legged walking monster, a robotic vehicle) were secretly desired primarily as elements in this special toy's world.

It wasn't a surrogate self. It was its own entity, distinct from me, with its own experience. My role was to create the best possible experience for this creature. I clearly felt I knew exactly what this experience should consist of, but I’m not sure how. My consciousness was what might be described as a basic distributed network, located in two places. The privileged toy was a mediator between a true object world, one for and of material objects, and my categorically distinct human awareness.

Many years later at art school I came across a discussion of the golem myth in Richard Kearney's book The Wake of Imagination. It was immediately familiar to me as a structure, but it was treated there with a critical distance that allowed me to understand it afresh. This was probably the moment that the idea of the golem coalesced fully for me as a subject, and it's one that hasn't been far from my work as an adult artist over the last twenty or more years.

Light brown object shaped like a hand mirror, on which beige smaller areas are attached with rivets.

Paper golem no. 5
David Musgrave, UK, 2010
Aluminum, acrylic, steel, 23 x 11.5 x 3 cm
Photo: Marcus Leigh, Courtesy of greengassi, London

At college in the mid 90s I was haunted by discussions that seemed to reduce the art object to a commodity, and made practices that steered towards relational aesthetics and curating look more viable. Physical things were allowed, just, as long as they were really markers for conceptual moves. It may not have been fully reasoned, but the golem myth was a way for me to hold the tensions of physical material, narrative and image in some complete but troubled form—a way to hold onto things despite rumours of their decadent obsolescence.

In making a golem, which for me means teasing matter into something more than just a dimly human shape but less than a convincing replica of a living thing, there is a moment when material flickers. It simultaneously is and isn't, image and matter become poles between which a current flows. I think this is internal to the human experience of looking and making, and not a consequence of insertion into discourse or any particular context; it’s also specific to the arrangements and encounters so beautifully framed by the golem myth. My golems are usually very small or very large—either side of the familiarly human. They are not useful for defense, or anything particularly practical. They are more like ‘pataphysical machines, effigies that exist as imaginary solutions to real problems. I have no plans to stop extending this network.

David Musgrave lives and works in London. His work is held in public and private collections around the world, including Tate, MoMA and the Hammer Museum. His novel Unit was published in 2015.

Anthropomorphic figure made of gray tatters held together by rivets.

Machinic figure
David Musgrave, UK, 2012
Aluminum, acrylic, steel, nylon, 42 x 19 x 10.2 cm
Photo: Marcus Leigh, Courtesy of greengassi, London

Citation recommendation:

David Musgrave (2016), On the Golem. Article in the Exhibition Catalogue GOLEM.

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