16 September 2008

Energy Bursting Out of Every Page

From review in
Network, issue 05, 2008

by Adam Brown, Course Leader, BAs Photography and Media and Photography and Video at University College for the Creative Arts, Maidstone, UK:
Book: The Future of Art in a Digital Age:
From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness
Author: Mel Alexenberg

Alexenberg’s book attempts to open up perspectives on the understanding of contemporary digital and relational art practices based on their coherence with Jewish heritage, theology and philosophy. It both underscores the importance of the Jewish contribution to developments in contemporary artistic practice, and traces the intricacies of that relationship through a thorough and wide ranging meditation on form, religious observance, and context.

Alexenberg’s insights into this relationship draw on a wide range of scholarship and an encyclopedic knowledge of the contribution of Jewish artists and cultural producers to Western cultural development. It is necessary to explore what is specifically Jewish about the development of contemporary art, as the turmoil of the twentieth century places Jewish writers, artists and émigrés at the heart of global experience in which cultural paradigms were violently overturned. By tracing his own journeys– artistic, spiritual and pedagogic - Alexenberg explores the specific practices, texts and ideas of the Jewish faith in depth and constructs a narrative that attempts to explain how they influenced Western art production, in the context of a global audience.

Alexenberg describes the shift from a Hellenistic to a Hebraic consciousness as one which moves from fixed outcomes, passive reception, and the importance of objects, to fluidity, intertextuality and the primacy of relationships and practice over form. Broadly put, modernism was Hellenistic, postmodernism is Hebraic. To demonstrate this point, Alexenberg applies Kabbalistic textual analysis to both biblical sources and postmodern ideas. The Talmudic principle that every biblical verse has seventy readings provides a way to ground postmodern notions of multiple readings in a long standing tradition of textual practices which take no single reading of any text as definitive. This is a key idea, which Derrida also explores in his writings on Edmond Jabès, making similar claims for the importance of understanding the centrality of a diasporic, global, textually complex Jewish identity to contemporary thinking.

Drawing on a huge range of sources, from Roy Ascott to Arthur Danto, Talmudic scholars to Irit Rogoff, Alexenberg reveals himself as a voracious reader, and a prolific producer, and his energy bursts out of every page. In the early pages, he quotes Thorleif Borman’s contrast between the ‘static, peaceful and moderate’ Greek and a ‘dynamic, vigorous, passionate and action centered’ Hebraic consciousness. This book was written in the latter spirit.