BERLIN — A gigantic golem made out of wooden Hebrew letters lies motionless on the ground, yet it seems as if only a few magic whispers are needed to bring the creature to life.
The sculpture, created by California artist Joshua Abarbanel, is one of 250 objects on display at the new “Golem” show in the Jewish Museum Berlin, opening this week, which approaches the legend in diverse and unconventional ways.
First mentioned in ancient Jewish texts, a golem is an artificial being made from mud or other inanimate material that’s brought to life through the power of Hebrew letters. It became popular and known outside Judaism in a famous story about the sixteenth-century Rabbi Judah Loew who is said to have created a golem out of clay in the hope it would help protect the Jews of Prague from persecution.
However, the golem has a dark side, too. It often spins out of control and its superhuman powers can become a threat to the one who created it.
“The golem can look back on a long career, in Judaism and far beyond,” Peter Schaefer, the director of the Jewish Museum Berlin told reporters Thursday. “Its story begins in the Hebrew bible and continues, in constantly new transformations, into the present day.”
The exhibition, which opens Friday and runs through Jan. 29, shows both traditional images of the golem and modern-day incarnations.
There are medieval instructions explaining how to use incantations, rituals and specific Hebrew letter combinations to bring the golem to life. There are also videos, costumes and installations presenting different interpretations of the golem by 30 contemporary artists from Israel, the United States and elsewhere.
Jorge Gil from Spain created an installation of three creatures in plush, yellow cocoons hanging head down from the ceiling. Only their faces, made of mannequin dolls, are visible, but a fourth empty cocoon lying on the floor suggests that the stiff puppets are about to metamorphose and come to life as well.
The installation “My light is your life” by Czech artist Kristof Kintera is more than four meters (13 feet) tall, made of dozens of bulbs and lamps and endless black cords that in its entirety appear as a “breathing light’ sculpture with arms, legs and a round head topped by a halo.
And then there are comics, cartoons and video game stations. They show how the golem developed over time into a figure of pop culture: both as a superhero and a monster, reminiscent of Superman, King Kong or Minecraft monsters.
Beyond that, the golem has also become a metaphor for modern scientific and political developments that threaten to get out of control.
In one gallery there are photos titled ‘Human Version 2.0″ by French artist Yves Gellis that show robot laboratories around the world depicting creators next to their eerily similar robot doppelgangers.
“The ancient human dream of creating artificial beings connects with today’s world: genetic technology and artificial intelligence, computer and robots,” Schaefer said. “All these are endeavors to create a kind of golem.”