Art and Obedience in Berlin and Second Life

Obedience at LEA 1: Abraham dotes on baby Isaac
Obedience, LEA 1: Abraham dotes on baby Isaac

Obedience is a new, mixed-media installation at the Jüdisches Museum, Berlin, created by Saskia Boddeke (Rose Borchovski in Second Life) and Peter Greenaway, which has an interesting cross-over with our virtual world.

The installation takes as its theme the story of Abraham and Isaac; a story which raises questions which are addressed differently by the three major religions – Jewish, Islamic and Christian – in which it can be found.

As the tale goes, Abraham is commanded by God to offer his son in sacrifice as proof of his devotion. Thus, the first question is framed: which is the stronger – devotion to the will of God, or the love of a father for his son? Within this sits a second question, one which holds relevance to us all today regardless of our religious leanings: which is the more important to us – obedience or trust, and where can the balance between the two be found?

Obedience seeks to explore these issues by leading the visitor through fifteen rooms in which Boddeke and Greenaway retell the sorry using a variety of mediums and approaches. In doing so, they offer a means of taking the narrative apart, creating emotionally charged scenes and vignettes which focus the visitor’s eye and thoughts.

The cross-over with Second Life comes via a special installation created by Bryn Oh and Jo Ellesmere at LEA 1, also entitled Obedience.

As with the exhibit at the Jüdisches Museum, visitors to the LEA 1 installation are encouraged to explore a series of “rooms” in which the story of Abraham and Isaac is presented through a set of distinct vignettes, all of which are given a contemporary turn – Abraham, see initially as a doting father, appears to hear the Voice of God through his television, for example, while the mountain range of Moriah from the Book of Genesis becomes a series of tall buildings called Moriah Towers.

Obedience at LEA 1: Abraham obeys the Voice of God, taking his young son out...
Obedience, LEA 1: Abraham obeys the Voice of God, taking his young son out…

“This is a very important exhibition in that it is a high profile use of Second Life as an artistic medium and its mere presence within a museum of this calibre legitimises the virtual space as an art medium for some, who before now may not have associated it in this way,” Bryn states in her own introduction to the LEA 1 installation and its link to the Berlin work. “Credit for this should be given to both Saskia and Peter who are staunch supporters and believers in this medium, they could easily have created the work without using the virtual space yet pushed the idea on the Museum directors and have them interested as well. ”

The link comes not only in the presentation of the Abraham and Isaac story individually in the physical and virtual spaces, but also in fact that the virtual environment we can explore at LEA 1 is being shown on monitors within the Museum, and visitors there have the opportunity to to join us in-world and explore the installation here; through the use of two avatars, isaak001 and ishmael001. So if you see either of them wandering through the LEA 1 space, do keep in mind they are visitors to Second life from the Jüdisches Museum.

Obedience, LEA 1
Obedience, LEA 1

The story of Abraham and Isaac is not an easy read, and by bringing the story into a modern setting, Bryn underlines some of the more uncomfortable elements within it, whilst also drawing attention to the broader question of obedience and trust. It also raises an further uncomfortable questions, which I’ll come to anon. In terms of obedience and trust, the contemporary approach taken here offers potentially broader interpretations than the purely Biblical.

Take Abraham’s hearing the voice of God through his television. Here there seems to be a question lurking as to our relationship with the media upon which we rely; just how far can it be trusted? And what if it – say, as a state apparatus – demanded obedience? There are other possible subtleties here as well, such as the Lovecraftian nature of the chair in which Abraham sits, which seems to open doors into other lines of thought.

Nor does Bryn doesn’t stop short on showing Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, either. This scene takes place atop of the aforementioned Moriah Towers,s and is brutal in its and terrifying in its vivid portrayal, despite God’s intervention, Abraham’s faith and trust having been demonstrated.

However, this is not the most powerful and poignant scene in the series. That comes last of all – providing you take the time to locate the teleport to reach it. Bryn carries the story forward in what, to me, is the most poignant scene of all. Here we see the aftermath of events. Abraham may well have proven his faith in God, but he has betrayed the trust of his son, who cowers against a wall, terrified. “What happens once Gods presence has withdrawn after testing Abraham’s faith?” Bryn asks, “How might the moments go when Abraham and Isaac are now alone and words are needed to explain?”

Obedience, LEA 1
Obedience, LEA 1

In the middle of the LEA 1 installation is a piece which breaks from the Abraham  / Isaac story and moves to the other end of the Bible, depicting scenes from the Book of Revelations. here we see the Throne of God, which although lacking the Seven Spirits of God, does include the six-winged eagle, lion, ox (or cow in this case) and man (or woman again in this case). Again, in a fitting update, these are not covered in eyes but in the lenses of cameras – which seems to bring further allusions to the the power of the state and its demands for obedience.

Near to the throne, rather than surrounding it as per the Bible, sit the 24 gold-crowned elders (Revelations 4:4). These are beautifully animated by Jo Ellsmere and utterly captivating to watch, as one at a time, they rise from their seat, walk to a point before the throne and offer supplication to God in one way or another.

Obedience, LEA 1
Obedience, LEA 1

These figures are truly mesmerizing. each one has a distinct character, and in difference to the Bible, while waiting their turn, they don’t so much appear to be exalted in their positions alongside of God, as bored (and they don’t even sit on thrones; waiting room chairs are all they have). Some appear to be dozing as they sit, others read a book or an iPad, others stare vacantly into space or exchange whispers shielded by a raised hand. Here, perhaps, is a commentary on the way in which religion has been increasingly pushed to one side in a secular world, that it’s all a matter of rote, as demonstrated by the perfunctory nature of the supplications they offer before God?

From time-to-time, one or two colubri* figures enter the mix. Then stand before God and mockingly pay homage, then stalk among the elders as they sit, or slipping down to watch God intervene as Abraham is about to sacrifice his son. The role of these colubri is unclear; but they seem to suggest that as good and evil are human constructs, we cannot have heaven without a hint of hell still being present…

Obedience, LEA 1: What is the price that must be paid for blind obedience, when it comes at the betrayal of trust?
Obedience, LEA 1: What is the price that must be paid for blind obedience, when it comes at the betrayal of trust?

Both elements of Obedience, the physical installation in Berlin and the virtual in Second Life, form a fascinating, if somewhat unsettling, dual installation in terms of their content. The LEA 1 piece in particular again demonstrates just how powerful a medium virtual environments are for artistic expression and interaction. As Bryn states, Saskia and Peter are to be congratulated in continuing to push for recognition of the medium in this way. To this I would add that Bryn and Jo should also be congratulated for bringing such an immersive and emotive piece of art into Second Life.

Obedience at both LEA 1 and the Jüdisches Museum will remain open through until September 13th, 2015. Neither is to be missed – particularly, in the case of those of us in-world, the LEA 1 exhibit.

* In response to a comment below: broadly speaking, Colubri are “serpents”, often used to represent Satan, forces of darkness. In this installation, it’s probably easiest to consider them demon-like (particularly in the case of two of them – the red and blue)

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11 thoughts on “Art and Obedience in Berlin and Second Life

  1. It was fantastic. Thanks for your guidance and interpretation that I used to enrich my experience as I walked through it this morning.


    1. It’s a fabulous installation – one of the few where I’ve found myself not so much wishing as longing for a Rift headset just to experience the level of immersion fully first-hand. Glad you found the article helpful!


  2. hi Inara, what does “colubri” figures mean? I cannot find the word’s definition on the Net.


    1. Essentially, “serpents”, the serpent often being symbolic of Satan / forces of darkness.


  3. hi inara, I’m glad that I read your article and found it very inspiring too. went to see the installation and it was overwhelming ! guess I will have to go there again. I wish more artists would start to use sl for things like this. cool, that visitors of the Berlin museum can walk through sl too !


    1. Glad you enjoyed both the exhibit and the article! Kepp an eye out for both Bryn and Jo’s work – they are exceptional artists 🙂 .


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