The 28th paragraph of Genesis, verses 10-13, reads:
Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Harran. When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. There above it stood the Lord […].
Lots of artists, during the course of art history, have represented this biblical episode. The aforementioned passage has offered to a multitude of image makers a certain anecdotal spirit – the stone-pillow for instance, an exquisitely narrative element that fits particularly with the illustrative nature of Painting – as well as the opportunity to create a memorable, visionary scene – the result of a mix of inventiveness, Christian mysticism and a sort of pre-surrealistic attitude.
My favorite of these pictures is the etching by Rembrandt (1655), representing Jacob asleep at the foot of the divine ladder. His figure is crushed under the weight of a nebulous matter, within which a few angels’ wings can be distinguished. I find funny the poses and expressions of the cherubs, who seem to interrupt the prophet’s rest like profanely naughty kids.
In his new work for the Whitechapel Gallery in London, Kader Attia (the French-Algerian artist-author of the stunning installation The repair from occident or extra-occidental cultures, 2012, presented two years ago at Documenta 13) explores the same Old Testament subject. The work’s title is unmistakable – Continuum of Repair: the Light of Jacob’s Ladder (2013). The large installation, placed in the reading room of the former Whitechapel library, consists of a cabinet of curiosities surrounded by a high-rise steel structure filled with books; above the Wunderkammer in the middle, a beam of light shines up to a mirrored ceiling, which is connected to the floor through a small wooden stairway.
Through this work, Attia has transfigured a few topics addressed in the biblical passage – the three below – into a dramatic, imaginative visual architecture. The final product is a secular parable about the human condition.
“I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south […]” – with these words Yahweh reveals himself to the sleeping Jacob. That is when the prophet becomes aware of his own leading role for Jewish people. Knowledge – or rather, enlightenment – is the driving force of action and history.
The core of Attia’s installation is an encyclopedic wonder-room. It contains scientific measuring instruments, books and an array of curious objects: in the vitrines are gathered scientific essays, treatises on magic (for example, The Story of Paracelsus by Henry M. Patcher), a telescope, a portrait of René Descartes, an 18th century engraving depicting the scene of Jacob’s dream, and geological illustrations of stones (may those be a reference to the stone used by Jacob as a pillow?). Visitors are allowed to climb the little stairway incorporated in the wooden cabinet: like Jacob, they can confidently admire from the top the well-explored region of human knowledge.
What the Bible calls “dream” is actually an ecstatic vision—one among the many that inform Christian iconography, like the vision of Ezekiel or that of Saint Jerome. The light reverberating on the roof-mirror symbolizes Jacob’s celestial mirage. The beam shines above the wonder-room—Faith dominates Reason, religious enlightenment overcomes knowledge and rational thinking. But what would happen to Man if the light of mystic devotion made him blind?
In Jacob’s dream, the stairway populated by angels is a metaphor for the Infinite. Not measurable nor accessible to humans, it rises towards the sky, reminding us how limited is our terrestrial existence.
Attia’s installation amazingly evokes the infinity of the afterlife by making the nearby space reflect on the mirrored ceiling. The steel bookshelf that encircles the installation repeats endlessly on the roof’s polished surface. If you look upwards, you have the feeling of finding yourself under a Baroque dome’s magnificent fresco. The reflected walls filled with books gravitate over the visitor’s head, while the beam of light above the wonder-room – the flash of Revelation – multiplies into a number of dazzling splinters. The visitor loses his bearings inside this never-ending, fictitious space – he can’t avail himself anymore of the support of rational understanding. As in Borges’ labyrinthine library of Babel, he wanders uselessly in search of the only Book containing the Truth, among other millions. The mirror – a material particularly dear to the French artist, who used it to cover African masks (Mirror Masks, 2013) or create two-dimensional graves pointing at the sky (Holy Land, 2006-10) – fragments the viewer’s image in the reflection: as the dreaming Jacob, we see ourselves broken, dismembered and bewildered—needing to be repaired.
(All Images: Kader Attia, Continuum of Repair: The Light of Jacob's Ladder, Installation View , 2013; © Photo: Stephen White.)