Looking at the book

A joint Israeli-German art student brings the Ten Commandments to (abstract) life.

Salman's work inspired by Ezekiel, imagining the face of God. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Salman's work inspired by Ezekiel, imagining the face of God.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Bible has been around a while, and has served as a source of inspiration for people from all sorts of cultures and in all sorts of spheres.
Accordingly, as the jubilee year of the establishment of diplomatic ties between Germany and Israel progresses, the Goethe-Institut here considered that asking art students from both countries to render their individual take on the Ten Commandments might produce some interesting results.
The assumption proved to be a good one. Next week, the Israeli public will be able to view the upshot of the exercise when students from Minshar for Art College in Tel Aviv and from the Academy of Visual Arts, Leipzig, display their edictal- based works at the Tel Aviv institution on May 21, and five days later at the First Station complex in Jerusalem.
Artists, of course, bring both their acquired skills and natural talents to their craft, but there are all kinds of factors that impact both on their approach to their work and the end results. With that in mind, one presumes that Israeli students would go about the business of portraying the content of a pivotal biblical passage very differently from their German counterparts.
Minshar College teacher Oded Yedaya certainly goes along with that idea, and sees several reasons for the aesthetic gaps. “Sometimes the differences can be coincidental, because the tutor can guide his students in some direction or other. There are also differences between students in different classes,” notes Yedaya, “and the spirit and general orientation of a school can also make a difference. We Israelis came out with a more figurative mind-set, and we tried to be communicative.”
The Israeli teacher also sees some basic cultural-religious discrepancies. “We are a lot closer to the Bible than the German students,” posits Yedaya, adding that the former East-West Germany divide may also have had something to do with the proffering from Leipzig.
“You know, the Communist regime did not accommodate religion so much, and Leipzig was part of the Soviet bloc. On the Israeli side, you have students from traditional Jewish homes, some observant, and all sorts of links with Judaism. I think that probably also had something to do with the way our students worked.”
THEN AGAIN, Minshar College student Ginat Salman says she didn’t take the deeper religious context of the Ten Commandments too much to heart when working on her contribution to the binational project.
“I don’t relate to them as hard-and-fast rules, and I don’t think that if I don’t adhere to them then some divine power will come and punish me. I relate to all of this in a historical context. The Bible is a book you read; I don’t think there is anything religious here.”
But surely, we are talking about some of the basic tenets of the Jewish – and, for that matter, Christian – faith here.
Directives such as “Thou shalt not steal” or “Thou shalt not commit adultery” don’t sound too historical to me. This is about God laying down the law.
“Yes, I’d say they are more concrete,” Salman concurs, “but there are commandments like ‘Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy’ or ‘I am the Lord your God,’ which are more amorphous, and you could even say problematic.”
The latter may be a more challenging edict, but Salman took it on and produced a photographic image of a curious- looking hybrid winged figure with all sorts of surprising appendages. “I connected that with the vision of the chariot of fire, from Chapter 1 of the Book of Ezekiel, which is a very special vision in the Bible because it is described in great detail,” Salman notes. “It is one of the most detailed visions in the book.
“Ezekiel claims he sees God, and he really describes Him; he talks about the figure of God being drawn by angels, and He has four faces – of a man, an ox, a lion and an eagle.”
All the elements of the quartet feature in Salman’s image, one of seven works she contributed to the project. The ox is represented by horns, and the fetching humanoid figure also has a lion’s tail and wings, as well as a human face.
The image is blurred, which, says Salman, feeds straight off the biblical format.
“We are talking about a vision, so I made the picture a bit dreamlike and not so clear cut. I think that allows the observer to interpret the subject how they wish. You can see it as a female personification of God, or look at it as conveying the idea of ‘I am my own god.’ You can take it in all sorts of directions.”
Salman also refers to the “Thou shalt not kill” commandment, with a couple of suitably creepy images – one of an apparently dead body covered by cloth, and another of a mummy-like figure encased in nylon wrapping. That, says the student, harks back to the art form’s beginnings.
“When photography was in its early stages, it was a very expensive business, so that they made what they called ‘postmortem photographs.’” That was as a result of both the prohibitive cost of obtaining a print and the relatively primitive technology available back in the day. “Cameras were very cumbersome and you had to be very still, so the best thing to do was to take pictures of dead people,” Salman explains. “And people couldn’t really afford to commission photographs, but after someone in the family died they’d spend the money on a photograph, to preserve the memory of their dear departed.”
TO SALMAN’S understanding, “Thou shalt not commit adultery” is one of the more sketchily delineated commandments, which can be taken in all sorts of ways. She depicts three takes on this directive, all of which – naturally – have strong sexual undertones.
One shows the legs of a recumbent woman, with an unkempt hand reaching out to one of the legs from above.
None of the pictures features a face – which, says Salman, enables us to go with our personal flow. “That takes the specific identity factor out of the works, and allows us to identify with the victim or the culprit, as we wish.”
The bilateral art project was not just a matter of the tutors allocating assignments and the students getting their nose down to the creative grindstone; there was some direct idea-exchange endeavor along the way. This, says Salman, allowed the students from both countries to meet face-to-face and gain a firsthand impression of the works in progress, as well as each other’s mind-sets.
“When we went to Leipzig, we saw the cultural differences between us,” she recalls. “It was amazing to see how wide the gap was. The works of us Israeli students are much more emotive and figurative, we had all kinds of images in our works; while the Germans took their works in a much more abstract direction.”
That is undeniably the case. The German side of the student project is replete with amorphous, inchoate and indefinite subjects that can be taken any which way. For example, Sarah Veith’s three-piece contribution – Cave 1, 2 and 3 – features fuzzily lit shots of rock-like surfaces, and non-concrete representations abound.
Peter Hermans’s work, National Hue, is a little clearer to make out, at least in terms of its contours. The 28-year-old student took a less fettered approach to his reading of the commandments, and chose to focus on our national flag, but in a deconstructed manner. The large digital-print work comprises various elements of the flag, both in terms of the shapes – the stripes without the Star of David – and various nuances of the dominant blue color.
Hermans says that the source material offered him a generous domain for chromatic maneuvering. “There is a gradient, from a lighter blue to a darker blue, which is basically also the content of the work – because it deals with the different shades that are used for Israeli flags. That’s kind of the backstory to it.”
But there is also a historical backdrop to the Belgian- born student’s aesthetic leeway. “There is no standardization of the colors used for Israeli flags,” he notes, “so I played with that freedom, of the different shades of blue. The blue also comes from the tallit.”
Hermans also agrees with Yedaya’s observation regarding the religious-secular context behind the works produced by the students from the two countries.
“When the Israelis came over to Germany we saw that often their references to the Bible were more from the way the Bible appears in their everyday life, or maybe from their biographical background. That may be why the Israeli works are more figurative, or more direct.”
Hermans’s own take on the biblical slot in question was fueled by his current exploratory line. “I have been working a lot with the symbolism of color, in many different aspects, and I found it interesting to work with the different shades.”
He also took the physical display context into consideration, which also influenced his commandment reference choice. “Because we will be exhibiting in a public space, that sort of brings to mind advertising and billboards. I chose ‘Thou shalt not steal’; I find the stealing context interesting in relation to advertising, which is about ownership.”
The cultural melting-pot aspect also came into Hermans’s line of thought. “Nationality, from a Western European point of view, is much more fixed – but after talking to many Israelis, you see people from all different backgrounds who all belong to one state.”
That, naturally, came into the flag hue spread. “As that is not something fixed, that’s where the other shades come from.”
Hermans also did his homework and discovered there is a factual basis for his color permutations. “In 1948, there was a call sent out for designs for the Israeli flag; so my work, in a way, is a chronological historical document.”
Furthermore, Hermans wanted to leave the observer with a liberal amount of interpretative space – hence the absence of the instantly recognizable Israeli national symbol.
“I only used the blue stripes, because everyone knows the Star of David. I wanted to leave things open.” 
The Ten Commandments works will be exhibited at Tel Aviv’s Minshar for Art College on May 21, and at Jerusalem’s First Station complex on May 26.