Mark Oppenheimer on Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, Holy Bible
Thank God for human forgetfulness: it makes literature out of cliché (itself the son of literature). In several places, the King James Bible records Jesus as having said that a house divided against itself cannot stand (or some variation thereof). When Abraham Lincoln gave his “House Divided” speech in 1858, upon accepting his party’s nomination for U.S. Senate, most of his listeners would have recognized the biblical allusion. Lincoln’s appropriation of the line marked him as a typically literate man of his time, not as some great stylist. Today, however, ignorant of the biblical referent, the modern reader credits Lincoln not with being derivative, but with being profound. For that matter, how many lovers of Faulkner think that the titular cry “Absalom, Absalom!” is an invention of the Mississippi bard, rather than a reworking of the biblical King David’s lament for his son?
So the question is: can the Bible be a cliché if we don’t really know it? Alas for Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, I think the answer is not really. In their work Holy Bible, they have taken photographs from the Archive of Modern Conflict, the London art repository and publisher, and imposed them on scattered pages of a complete, gilt-edged text of the King James Bible, perfect-bound with a sewn red-ribbon bookmark, just like your Victorian ancestors’ family treasure. The photographs—most of them violent, dissonant, or rancorous, from the lynched men to the naked, hunchbacked woman—correspond to passages underlined in red on the same or the facing page. The red underlining is itself an echo of the practice, in kitschier Bible editions, of printing the words of Jesus in red. But the collagists’ real aim is to make us see with fresh eyes many hackneyed phrases from the Bible. So, for example, the oft-repeated phrase “and it came to pass” is always paired with a photograph of something in the realm of legerdemain or masquerade: a circus act in progress, a close-magic practitioner doing a card trick, children in their Halloween costumes. I suppose that we are meant to think anew about the casual assumption that God can just snap his/her/its fingers and, magically, things will come to pass.
But is the audience for this book not the jaded, secular art world, whose members a) do not believe this stuff anyway, and b) would scarcely recognize “and it came to pass” as biblical, in the King James idiom, as opposed to just Renaissance diction of indeterminate origin? The same audience will not be particularly provoked, either, to see Jesus’s dictum, in a parable in Matthew 22:14, that “many are called, but few are chosen” paired with a picture of a white-jacketed official performing a prostate examination—or is it a prison-entry body-cavity search?—on a bent, naked man. I hardly need tell you that passages from Revelation, the last book of the Bible, are illustrated with a color photograph of the World Trade Center in flames. The cliché here is not the underlined passages, “worship the beast and his image,” but the reliance on the too-familiar, if still horrible, image.
Holy Bible is not particularly curious about religion; the basic message, adumbrated by Adi Ophir’s lucid essay, pasted into the back, is that God is violent. But it is visually sumptuous, at times arresting. “[D]elivered my soul from the lowest hell,” in Psalm 86:13, is illustrated, on the recto page, by a lovely Jewess—it’s the right word; address indignant mail to me—with a broad, Breck-Girl smile, seemingly indifferent to the yellow star she has been forced to wear. When the artists choose erotic snapshots, they choose well, favoring the erotically down-market and amateur. Elsewhere they show us black men at (polyester) leisure, scrawny white boys huffing aerosol, and a contemporary white supremacist exhausted, sleeping by his Nazi flag, as if the march has ended and at last he can take a break from Sieg Heil-ing. Nazis claimed to be Christian, but were of course pagan; this volume is supposed to be about God, but it really is about all of us.
*This title also appears as part of the short list for the Paris Photo–Aperture Foundation PhotoBook Awards.
Mark Oppenheimer writes the Beliefs column for the New York Times and is author of the e-book Dan Savage: The First Gay Celebrity (2012).