An Artists’ Collaged Bible Heralds the Horrors of War, Past and Present
Touching on themes of representation, spirituality, and warfare, Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s new exhibition “Divine Violence,” at Cape Town’s Goodman Gallery, collages together annotated pages from the Bible with photographs. In a similar vein to the Bible’s historical chronicle of the Jewish and Christian peoples of the ancient Middle East, the artists attempt to catalogue the mournful tragedies of mankind’s recent past (as well as its lighter, comedic moments), using images selected from the Archive of Modern Conflict, a collection of millions of pictures documenting the horrific toll of warfare in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries.
The collaborative duo was inspired to create the works in the show after seeing Bertolt Brecht’s personal copy of the Bible. The playwright’s edition had been collaged with photographs, and selected passages underlined and inscribed with notes. For their own works, originally published as a book in 2013, Broomberg & Chanarin (as the collaborators are known) have used pages from a King James version of the Bible, overlaid with photographs.
In Genesis (2013), the artists have laid out 30 pages of the Bible in a grid, selectively adding photographs to most of them. Some of the images are mundane, such as those of fireworks or napping picnickers. Others are more political: x-rays, destroyed buildings, a lynching, an anthropological study of a Native American man. There are also repetitions: a series of jugglers appears across the collage’s surface, as well as two perspectives of the same deceased man’s body, and a duplicated picture of an old man on two consecutive pages at the center. These may be related to the two versions of creation that open the Bible’s first book, but the artists do not divulge how their juxtapositions emerge, though phrases related to the images are underlined in red ink as a kind of text-based art.
Other works, such as Leviticus (2013) (named for the third book of the Torah or Mosaic Law) and Deuteronomy (2013) (the name of the fifth book, which calls on readers to follow the Mosaic laws), broadly engage in the Bible’s recurring religious themes of observance, questions about representation and remembrance, and the corporeal and spiritual harm that comes from disobedience. These artworks include many images of people’s bodies, both in states of harm and in health. The contradictions within the book’s text—sometimes extolling violence on God’s behalf, other times condemning it altogether—are here exemplified by the interaction of text and image, and of beauty beside horror.
The artworks refer to each of the Bible’s canonical books, although some, such as Kings 1 & 2 and Samuel 1 & 2 (both 2013), have been compiled together. The size of the collages roughly matches the length of the book to which each refers. Revelations (2013) shows scenes of horror and destruction appropriate to the book’s terrifying visions. Philemon (2013) is a scant two pages: one, a photograph of a tree, facing the other, in which a passage has been underlined exhorting the reader to “[acknowledge] every good thing.” Regardless of the viewer’s religious affiliation, the philosophical and emotional content of these words and images is powerful, and the work surely holds some of mankind’s best ethical wisdom as both promise and warning.