The Holy Bible: Broomberg and Chanarin’s religious experience
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The Deutsche Börse 2013 prizewinners have been experimenting with Bertolt Brecht, war and the scriptures for their provocative new work, the Holy Bible
At first glance, artists Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin‘s new work, The Holy Bible, looks just like an old-fashioned Bible: a black cover with a title embossed in gold. Inside, though, many of the pages of holy writ have been overlaid with photographs that refer obliquely to specific passages or words underlined in red.
A few thunderously violent lines from Exodus – “… lie for lie. Eye for eye, tooth for tooth … wound for wound, life for life” – are illustrated by an image of an atomic bomb’s mushroom cloud. A black-and-white photo of a couple kissing, meanwhile, refers to “My lips … My tongue … my delight” from Psalms. Each time the line “And it shall come to pass” appears (which is often), it is accompanied by shots of circus performers or magicians.
So far, so conceptual, and so in keeping with Broomberg and Chanarin’s previous book, War Primer 2, a reworking of Bertolt Brecht’s original War Primer, in which Brecht matched photographs of war and conflict to a series of his own short poems. War Primer 2, which puts Brecht’s original texts against images from the war on terror won the 2013 Deutsche Börse photography prize last night and was hailed by judges as a “bold and powerful” reimagining.
With The Holy Bible project, though, the choice of both text and images is altogether more problematic and may be seen by some as wilfully provocative, indeed blasphemous. The phrase “arrows drunk with blood” (Deuteronomy 34:32), for instance, is accompanied by a graphic photograph of the blood-soaked corpses of two young women. A shocking image of Holocaust concentration camp victims, their bodies piled in a heap, is linked to the words “princes of the congregation” (Joshua 9:15) . Then, there is Broomberg and Chanarin’s appropriation of the already infamous photograph of a Palestinian child dressed as a suicide bomber which, here, is linked to the lines “As is the mother, (so is) her daughter” (Ezekiel 16:44).
Elsewhere, there is a pornographic portrait of a naked young man with an erection and others of couples having sex, as well as photographs of suicide victims, Nazis in uniform, deformities and disfigurements. All of the photographs come from the Archive of Modern Conflict, a vast private collection of found photography housed in London. Broomberg and Chanarin’s bible will perhaps come as no surprise to those who have followed the trajectory of their politically-fuelled, often provocative, work thus far. Should it travel beyond the borders of contemporary art, though, where this kind of appropriation and re-contextualising is common practice, it will almost certainly offend Christians of every hue.
“The book includes some images that are undoubtedly violent and shocking,” says Chanarin, “We did debate whether or not to shy away from these images, but, after all, they exist within the archive and elsewhere, even if we don’t like to look at them. The artist, Thomas Hirschhorn, has argued that images of destroyed bodies need to be looked at. It is our duty to look at them. We also see the inclusion of these types of images in our bible as an antidote to the way in which mainstream media is horribly controlled and sanitised. In fact, our illustrated bible is broadly about photography and its preoccupation with catastrophe.”
Alongside Jeremy Deller, Broomberg and Chanarin are arguably the most politically engaged artists working in Britain today. “We are more interested in the world than the art world,” they told one interviewer recently. They first collaborated as photographers while working for the groundbreaking Colors magazine in the early 1990s, where post-modernism practice and reportage existed in an uneasy alliance, and have worked together ever since. Whereas War Primer 2 questioned the role of contemporary photography “in the images generated by both sides of the so-called war on terror”, the subtext of The Holy Bible is power. Broomberg describes the project as “drawing a parallel between a holy book that is so linked with power and photography, a medium that possesses this extraordinary, often unscrutinised, power.”
Once again, the starting point for the project was Brecht, whose own personal bible they came across in his archive while researching War Primer 2. It has a photograph of a racing car stuck to the cover. “The curator let us look more closely at this sparingly illustrated book,” says Chanarin, “and we realised that, when Brecht had run out of notebooks, he’d paste clippings from the popular press into it, and make small annotations. We can safely say this planted the seed of the project.”
The other perhaps more important touchstone for the project is the essay that provides the afterword: Divine Violence by the Israeli-born contemporary philosopher Adi Ophir, which draws a direct parallel between the violence of the bible and the violence of “the modern state … a multi-apparatus that strives to control everything it contains and to contain everything it can control.” Broomberg says: “We chose the bible because we were in communication with Adi and his text morally and politically shaped the project. The bible is his main concern and his reading of it – that the book is a parable for modern governance and its relation to catastrophe or punishment – rang true with our understating of the world but also of photography and its relation to power, to war, to catastrophe.”
Broomberg, who grew up in South Africa and attended what he calls “a right wing Zionist-based school” as a child, adds: “The Bible has informed my life, but when I read Adi’s essay, it blew my mind as a political reading of the book. Until then, I had never looked at it in that way. His contention is that the book is so linked with power that it is a parable for, and indeed a model of, modern governance.”
Are they worried that the book might, like the Bible itself, take on a life of its own? “Well, if you you actually read the Old Testament from cover to cover you notice very quickly that God reveals himself through acts of catastrophe, through violence, “says Chanarin, “Awful things keep happening, a flood that just about wipes out most of his creation, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorra. We constantly witness death on an epic scale and the victims hardly ever know what they have done to deserve such retribution.” He adds, “I do hope people make the connection between Adi Ophir’s reading of the Bible and our project and to the fact that the camera has always been drawn to these themes, to sites of human suffering. Since it’s inception it has been used to record but also participate in catastrophic events.”
Broomberg concurs: “The Bible itself could be considered highly offensive and provocative. All we’re doing is equating its violent project with the violent project of photography. We also hope this helps reactivate the text – we haven’t seen many people reading it of late.”
via Art and design: Photography | guardian.co.uk http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2013/jun/11/deutsche-prizewinners-new-work-holy-bible Sean O’Hagan Thanks for reading Jay
Posted on June 11, 2013, in Photography News and tagged Art and design: Photography | guardian.co.uk, arts, guardian, IFTTT, info, information, journal, news, newspaper, photo, photography, Sean O'Hagan. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.