Imaging Creation - Levente Thury at Judah L. Magnes Museum
The Golem is not Frankenstein nor is the Tree of Life an endangered California redwood. But, in order to penetrate the mystical arena of Jewish thought in Levente Thury's installation at the Judah L. Magnes Museum, the viewer must unpack both those concepts.
"Golmi" (unformed) is how the psalmist (139.16) refers to the Creator's view of the unfinished earthling and the implication, from Genesis on, is that the human being has the awesome task of completing creation: humanity becomes a mini-creator, a divine imitator. The awareness that our creations can run amok is the origin of Frankeinstein, the dark side of knowledge of good and evil, although fear of evil consequences hardly suppresses the need to create. So Superman also was born from the Golem idea, as was the science of artificial intelligence. The first computer is Israel was affectionately named Golem.
The idea that we are created "in the image" gives rise to the Tree of Sefirot (kabbalistic light emanations shaped like a human tree), and the Sefirot try to tell us what the "image" looks like in terms of the character of God. We draw a figure and label it from top to bottom with qualities we associate with God; then we compare it to the official version, how the kabbalists named the Sefirot from the most elusive (Crown, Wisdom/Understanding) to the most discernible (Love/Judging), to even divine (?) sexuality. It reveals that the right and left sides are either opposites or expansions. Love is an opposite of Judgement. But Understanding is an expansion of Wisdom, the feminine vessel through which Wisdom gives birth to the reconciling quality (in the center) of Experiential Knowledge.
With this chart in hand, one enters Thury's Golem - Tree of Life. The room is canopied with a diaphanous pale green netting, the foliage of a vast tree that unifies the Sefirot, which in turn hang as giant fruits, in roughly the same relationship as on the chart. Hand formed of clay, "the dust of the earth" - each wears the wrinkled skin of time and is stampled with coins, currency, or chachkes, obsessions of our cultures. (Outside the installation hangs Thury's chart of an earlier edition of the Golem tree showing the interchange of protean body parts and divine qualities, not unlike the anagram which illustrates the interrelationship of personality traits.)
Crown (Keter) emerges from the ceiling center, a cherubic face cradled in the hands of the Creator. The fingers of the Divine hand form horn-like protuberances on its head that recall the horns of radiance on ancient gods, and, later on, Moses. Our eyes move down to the net cage that encloses Daat: is this the fate of "Experimental Knowledge"? Directly below, like a foundation stone of the axis mundi, rests Kingdom, a cluster of five heads in various phases of involvement or sensory responses. Kingdom is the last Sefira. It represents people and the indwelling divine presence (Shekinah); it also is the receiver of Yesod (Foundation/phallus).
Appropriately, the most evocative of Thury's golems is Beauty, the mediating form of Tiferet, between nurturing Love (Hesed) and scolding Judgment (Gevurah) - a fertile feminine torso whose petaled navel opens to reveal a discerning face. Ironically, Tiferet, a feminine noun, is the Sefira that reads "husband." Is Thury telling us something about the non-absolute nature of sexuality? Athena "born" from the forehead of Zeus, Dionysus from his hip, and Eve from Adam's rib cage? Or is it a joke feminists can relish, the womb envy of the male?
Thury's Golem is discretely sexual in this era of macro focus on the form and function of genitalia. Hands are extraordinary in their delicacy and power (the hands of the Creator/artist); so are shoulders. The body turns with grace. The backside of Foundation is comely. The scroll in its hand only suggests the front; it possesses the greater power of ambiguous nudity.
What is Thury's innovation? It is the embodiment of the Sefirot in the vehicle of the Golem concept, the hopeful building up of the figure through its incremental parts, not its destruction and decomposition (as in the case of De Staebler). And the Sefirot (to my knowledge) have never been embodied. Since the sixteenth century, we have seen a tree that acquires schematic human shape, like a medical drawing that is not a body in any artistic sense. In our own time, Barnett Newman employed the imagery of the Sefirotic tree to design a synagogue whose windows are at right angles to each other, a reflection of the interrelating Sefirot itself. Beth Ames Swartz has used the Sefirot to honor women at various sites in Israel, where she created ritual and non-objective sculptures. Havah Eshel wove beaded fiber hangings incorporating the graphic and numerologic symbolism of the Hebrew alphabet. Moshe Zabari forged gold and silver Sefirotic Torah shields. Mordecai Ardon peopled the heavens with Sefirotic constellations. Only Levente Thury has given us back the figure. His work is spiritual, and contemporaneous. It reflects a religious tradition with honesty and mystery, without sweetness, dogma or stereotype. It nourishes our hunger to relate to the transcendental and to the paradoxes of human existence. Its artistic sensibilities authentically re-member hope for a dismembered humanity at the end of our tormented century.
Levente Thury: Golem - Tree of Life
through February 24 at Judah L. Magnes Museum, 2911 Russell St., Berkeley.
February 7, 1991
Volume 22, Number 5