The blockbuster exhibition Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven at the Met has long since come and gone, so my weigh-in here comes a lot more than a little late. But I wanted to gather my thoughts about what it was that I think I saw in a semi-coherent way. And since those thoughts revolve around retrospection and after-impressions, there’s a little bit of logic to these late comments about place, memory and imagination in relation to הקודש עיר (ir ha’kodesh, the holy city). For those who did not see or read about it, the exhibition gathered objects either from or relating to Jerusalem between the years 1000 and 1400. It was a time when it seemed, at least according to the conceit of the exhibition, that Jerusalem was indeed at the center of the world. Many of the objects are ecumenical, like the glassware, ceramic and metallic plates, lamps. Some come from rather far-flung places. They confirm this notion of Jerusalem as a center of cultural and commercial interactions drawn more or less equally from perspectives drawn from Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Needless to say, the secular objects and the religious objects cannot be understood one without the other.
My thoughts about the show concern the exhibition of and the viewing of objects, the city itself, and the place of the city not so much as real physical place in real historical time but rather as a shifting datum of the imagination, as a memory construct or thought-image that flares up in memory, and so on. In life as in art, that illumination, the mental illumination, the one that develops only after the first direct impression, is far brighter than that first impression of the objects that define one’s initial sense of a place or a thing as it stands out in the imagination.
These were my impressions, the first impression and the after-impression:
My first impression was bothered by a kind of boredom. I went having read great reviews and there was a lot of positive hearsay. As a Jewish Studies scholar, I was expecting or hoping to see fantastic things. The exhibition itself was a bit of disappointment. If anything, it reminded me of the Old City today. The first impression was of all the objects that I have seen so many times before on countless visits to the city over a lifetime. These were only deluxe versions of the same. What this first impression of the exhibition brought to mind were all the decorative junk and religious tschotshkes that crowd the stalls and narrow lanes of the shuk. The physical objects on exhibit were mostly little things. They did nothing to fill the eye’s optical frame in any compelling sort of way. As someone who likes to take digital photos at museum and gallery visits, I found them difficult to shoot.
Far more interesting and far more “impressive” for me than the first impression of the objects gathered together and put on view was the after-impression they made as I began to recollect the exhibition only after leaving the museum out into the light of a bright winter day in New York City. What the memory of my first walk through called to mind was a flash, as it were, recalling the after impression of gold, glass, stone, wood, ink, gold leaf glaze, and so on, all placed in glass display cases lit up by high tech museum-lighting systems. As I’m recalling it only now as I write these lines, the after-impression was dominated less by shape and more by color and light. When I returned to revisit the show, I did so with a much better idea how I wanted look at the objects. Instead of taking in the objects with an idea of the whole, viewed from a distance, my eye was drawn to close-up kinds of visual cutting the effect or sense of which is both visual and haptic, relating to the “touch” or “feel” of a physical object. I have tried to convey this sense of a view in the digital photos posted here at the blog.
What are we looking at and what are we looking for in an exhibition such as this? Consider two reviews that were not entirely helpful in conveying a sense of the exhibition-aesthetics. The first is this actually excellent review by Peter Brown here in the New York Review of Books. The second is this petulant review that appeared here online at the rightwing Mosaic Magazine. In both cases, the frame of analysis was historical, not visual. Neither reviewer gave any attention to the art and to object-aesthetics. Most problematically, less severely so in the review by Brown, was how no sense whatsoever was given to indicate that Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven was not so much about history and historical truth. As I have sought to convey it, the exhibition worked most powerfully as an image bubble, an after-impression from a distant place and time. In terms of western Enlightenment literature and political philosophy, the show recalled to mind the imaginary world dramatized by Lessing in his great play Nathan the Wise.
About the second review, the one that appeared at Mosaic, I want to register a closing statement about ideology masquerading as art review. The ideology in question has as its true object contemporary cultural politics surrounding Jerusalem and the deteriorating Israel-Palestine imbroglio. Judge for yourself if you want. My own take was that the review came down to whining about the absence of a Jewish presence in the exhibition and the representation of Islam by either the exhibition or the exhibition catalogue.
As regards that first matter: as I saw and remember seeing it, the Jewish dimension in Jerusalem 1000-1400 was represented mostly by images shown from illuminated Hebrew manuscripts relating to Temple design and equipment, and by three beautiful little wedding rings. Indeed, apart from the layout of the Temple Mount there is otherwise no strong material Jewish footprint in the Old City, which for most of the common era, has been dominated by Muslim rule. What then were the curators to do about Judaism? Focus on Muslims and Christians as the actual historical power players and exclude the Jewish stake? This is precisely the reason why one should not have confused this show with a history exhibit. Exhibitions like this should not be read too literally for historical information of a positivistic sort. What they do to better effect is to lift historical objects abstractly out of context, conjuring impressions and after-impressions of mental-visual-imaginal landscapes. One of the subtle differences between imagination so-called and reality so-called is the way they touch lightly upon each other.
Regarding the second matter about which the reviewer at Mosaic complained, it makes better sense simply to set aside this or that rhetorical excess in the written record represented by some of the catalogue essays and to look to the objects on display as visual data. Again as I remember seeing it, the actual artwork in the exhibit made no necessary claim about some putative Islamic-Christian-Jewish harmonious synthesis at any single historical moment. What the exhibit did instead the exhibit was to work carefully across historical and cultural strata and alongside historical cultural seam lines, which, when properly re-constructed as a work of the imagination, hold together in a glimmering relation to the diversity of and conflict between its diverse parts. In these kinds of exhibitions, the grit has been intentionally removed to brighten a polished visual effect.
One can read for ideology if one wants to, and perhaps one always should. But too much gets obscured by this kind of politics that having to do with beauty, imagination, and in this case, religion. Rather than historical truth, the truth conveyed by these kinds of exhibitions are phenomenological in character. It is in the interstice between history and memory, between matter and memory that a city-place like Jerusalem appears, disappears, and reappears in the work of the imagination. This is as true in life as it is in art. As imagined, particularly in relation to places of pilgrimage, the effects and affects produced are made possible only by human subjects who circle back and forth around, towards and away from the physical object writ small and the place of the city writ large. That Jerusalem is so overinvested in religion, religious history, religious ideas, and religious conflict only intensifies the tension in the alternating close-up and distancing nature of the phenomenological experience, a dynamic that a flat and grimacing ideological critique cannot hope to illuminate.
What Jerusalem 1000-1400 manages to do is hold together a diverse group of objects relating to the same place and time in a three-fold suture. Bracketing politics and other social fissures, the objects are essentially neutral and equal as such. That reflects the decision of the curators and their skillful tact, to bring all these objects together in their independent suchness, and to bring three religions together in the exhibition space of the museum. At the end of the day, what such an exhibition leaves behind is the bright after-impression of a visual memory with which the viewer walks away.