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  • Source: ARTFORUM
  • Author: Ara H. Merjian
  • Date: October 5, 2008

Babylon: Myth and Truth


KEINE HURE! (NO WHORE!) Thus reads the text on many posters—featuring the grainy image of a sultry pinup—currently lining the walls of Berlin subway and bus stops. The picture is a still from Douglas Gordon’s Black and White (Babylon), 1996, a video that recasts 1960s-era footage of a buxom stripper as the proverbial whore of Babylon. The Pergamon Museum’s “Babylon: Myth and Truth” sets out to burst various proverbial bubbles—not simply that of the eponymous and anonymous “whore” but also those of the Tower of Babel, the apocalyptic destruction of “the city of sin,” and the exaggerated exploits of Semiramis and Nebuchadnezzar. The proliferation of the word Babylon in popular culture—indeed, in culture at large since the Old Testament—alone merits a consideration of its endurance as a screen for the projection of all manner of fantasies and fears. Perhaps most compelling about the exhibition’s endeavor is its means and method: an unabashed mixing of the high and the low, the ancient and the contemporary. In presenting a civilization as both material reality and literary construct, “Myth and Truth” dusts off not only artifacts but also the most encrusted of cultural fables—memorialized in painting, prints, and pop culture alike—and sets them side by side.

Ishtar Gate and facade of the Throne Room, Babylon sixth century, reconstructed 2008,
clay tiles, baked and glazed in various colors. Installation view.

Well, not literally side by side. Like its title, the exhibition is divided spatially and symmetrically; the right side of the museum’s galleries presents the “Truth” segment, while the left is devoted to “Myth.” The former fittingly commences at the arresting Ishtar Gate and Processional Way, drawing on the museum’s formidable archaeological holdings. Rounding out its panoply of artifacts—from codices and cuneiform seals to bronze daggers and zodiacal calendars—are various didactic and cartographic panels. Subsections like “Royalty,” “Daily Life,” “Science,” and “Law” attempt to evoke Babylonian culture from various angles, from the most quotidian and materialist to the more rarefied rapport between astronomy and religion. Architectural reconstructions, such as that of the famous Babylonian ziggurat, help to flesh out the civilization’s scale—the settings in which we might imagine these objects to have existed.

The geographic correspondence between that setting and modern Iraq lends the show a particular urgency, one not ignored by its curators. The “Myth” portion, especially, affords the drawing of inevitable parallels between ancient and contemporary conceits. Dash Snow’s series of collages feature a series of front-page tabloid stories about Saddam Hussein—and his grizzly demise—splattered in semen and glitter. These works hang in the same room as William Blake’s famous etching of Nebuchadnezzar, the leader of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, who ended his days plunged into madness (and whom Hussein evidently claimed as his spiritual forbear). Other, similar crosscurrents occur between medieval manuscripts and contemporary artworks. One passes from a Dürer print of the whore of Babylon to a cinematic portrayal of Semiramis, and the galleries culminate in a room dedicated to depictions of the Tower of Babel. These present not so much a faithful rendering of a Mesopotamian ziggurat as the projected incarnation of their authors’ own anxieties and architectural fantasies. To the “Truth” segment’s layered reconstruction, the “Myth” portion of the show offers a nuanced deconstruction of Babylon’s most persistent commonplaces.

The exhibition’s neat cleaving of “Truth” from “Myth” seems to disavow the contamination of the one by the other, or to claim—absurdly—that empirical and artifactual evidence suffices to clear away the cobwebs of caprice and illusion. Indeed, the main entrance gate to the exhibition announces “Truth” in one color and “Myth” in another. But in the space between the two titles, these two colors converge and bleed. Here visitors find, however subtly and tacitly, an admission of their inexorable conflation.