“The Ten Commandments”

Deutsches Hygiene-Museum

Although “Die Zehn Gebote” (“The Ten Commandments”) was, to my mind, one of the best exhibitions in any German-speaking country in recent years, the reaction to it has been muted at best. Some of the more progressive newspapers neglected to cover it at all, while it was greeted by the leading dailies with mockery, as an undertaking not exactly in step with the expectations of enlightened secular society. That said, there are quite a few intellectuals within this very society who, in the face of recent catastrophes (from Srebrenica to Iraq to the explosion of child prostitution fueled by global tourism), question not only the causes of the ethical failure of Western societies but also whether and how the millennia-old standard of the Ten Commandments can still be binding in a culturally, religiously, and ethnically diverse world—Alain Badiou, Judith Butler, and Slavoj Žižek among them. And so, the derision of the dailies notwithstanding, Klaus Biesenbach, founder and director of Kunst-Werke Berlins and now a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, would seem to have his finger on the pulse of the times. Biesenbach was not concerned with illustrating the individual rules of the Decalogue: “The artworks displayed,” he says, “are not a direct response to the individual commandments; they don’t illustrate them, but rather have been chosen to show perspectives on certain societal and ethical tensions in the modern world.”

The first commandment, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” was juxtaposed with vanity, the deification of one’s own ego, as embodied in the works of Sylvie Fleury, Olaf Nicolai, and Tim Noble and Sue Webster. At once the most successful and most controversial juxtaposition was the grouping of some remarkable works under the precepts “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain,” “The seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God,” and “Thou shalt honor thy mother and father”: Francis Alÿs’s When Faith Moves Mountains, 2002, which the artist has called “Land art for the land-less,” Anri Sala’s video Uomo Duomo, 2000, showing a man sleeping on a pew, and Alexander Sokurov’s 1997 film Mother and Son, the disturbing documentation of the death of the filmmaker’s own mother.

The helplessness of the Western world in the face of death is apparent in the contributions under the commandment “Thou shalt not kill”—lurid photographs by Taryn Simon (of a woman whose leg was lost in a suicide attempt) and Adam McEwen (a notorious image of the dead Mussolini, but upside down). And should one categorize, for example, our passive witnessing of the spread of AIDS in Africa as a sin (murder) by omission? However, one photograph, by Nebojsa Seric-Shoba, balances out the otherwise superficial commentary on killing: a bird’s-eye view of geometrically arranged piles of the dead at Auschwitz—killing as an endeavor rationally and functionally carried out.

The grouping under the commandment “Thou shalt not bear false witness” includes some seductively beautiful photographs by Gianni Motti. Their aesthetic qualities are in stark contrast to their content: exploding bombs during the war in Yugoslavia. With such images—as with those taken in New York on September 11, 2001, by Tony Oursler—the good sense behind the ban on images, upheld by Islam and Judaism but broken by the Christian West, is immediately apparent. Images tell lies, exhibitions try to seduce, and no one seems to care—yet another sign of the state of ethics in Western societies.

Noemi Smolik

Translated from German by Sara Ogger.