INTERVIEW- Artist Joshua Neustein on responding to the Dead Sea Scrolls

The Institute for Contemporary Culture (ICC) at the Royal Ontario Museum, the Koffler Centre for the Arts and the Julie M Gallery are presenting works by New York based abstract artist Joshua Neustein. His exhibition of works explores the themes and ideas mentioned in the scrolls.

There was a time when biblical themes dominated western art. Indeed modern day galleries are full of renaissance and medieval European art that focussed on the stories presented in the Old and New Testaments.

With a rich cultural context of religious art behind us, how do modern artists respond to a biblical brief? I sat down with artist Joshua Neustein (JN)to find out.

OJ: What do the Dead Sea Scrolls mean for you personally?

JN: Before I answer that question – I want to say if we’re going to have a conversation I want you hear what Im saying rather than memorize the questions that you have prepared, so we can have a real conversation, so lets include what i said now in your blog.

What the Dead Sea Scrolls meant to me is I wasnt there as a spectator butI was part of the packaging of the Dead Sea Scrolls. If you went to the shop downstairs you saw they had dolls from the Dead Sea Scrolls, they had t-shirts from the Dead Sea Scrolls, they had many, many books on the Dead Sea Scrolls.

I reacted to my agenda. I was asked to respond to the Dead Sea Scrolls; instead I responded to the Dead Sea Scrolls show.

Did you ever see the Truman show?

OJ: Quite a few years back, its a little vague.

JN: Okay its about a guy who lives a normal life and slowly it dawns on him that he is actually living in a television show. What was the name of this actor?

Most art that relates to the bible today is kitsch – it’s schlock, it’s tourist art.

OJ: Jim Carey?

JN: Yeah, Jim Carey, hes beginning to try to get behind the scenes, trying to find out what the production crew is, where is it? How did they manage to film him? He lives his whole life (but) at some point he realizes hes a TV show – hes not living a life.

I was responding to the Dead Sea Scroll show not to the Dead Sea Scrolls which is very much in line with what you said that we want to look at the contemporary perspective on antiquities. Not what they might have thought then, we dont know what they thought then anyway.

OJ: You have a lot of experience doing a lot of artwork in Israel. Do you find that other artists, when they do their work, that they relate to things like the Dead Sea Scrolls or do they relate to more contemporary sort of things?

JN: Israeli artists relate to contemporary art as much as Canadian artists or Lebanese artists or Spanish or French or German artists today.

I was asked to relate to the Dead Sea Scrolls – its not whatI do normally. In fact I think most art that relates to the bible today is kitsch, it’s schlock, it’s tourist art.

Artists today dont relate to biblical stories. That was done wonderfully and unsurpassed in the era of the Renaissance. I dont think we can do better than Piero della Francesca. I dont think we can do better than Michelangelo in illustrating the bible. So I think we have to let that one go and relate to our own era.

OJ: When I was at the media preview, I was looking at the letters (in the scrolls). When I looked at the art (the) first thing that came to mind was those letters. I was kind of imagining them in different kinds of shapes.

JN: The letters of the scrolls themselves?

OJ: Yeah, my mind was on the Aramaic and Hebrew – is that something that should come to mind?

JN: Whatever should come to your mind should come to mind. Yours is as an authentic a response as anybody else’s. Youre not an archaeologist – neither am I. We respond to our environment in a major reflex. The text themselves are in Hebrew. I can read it. There isnt much there – its all smoke and mirrors. Its architectural instruction; big jukeboxes.

Its a tiny little scrap of fragment from the scroll. I like fragment. If you look at the drawings here you see a lot of fragmenting; taking it out of context; putting it into context. I guess they invited me to do the show vis a vis the Dead Sea Scrolls because of the way I work. Not because I relate to the bible. This is the first time Ive ever related to the bible.

Joshua Neustein’s work will be exhibited in two exhibitions: Margins, at the ROM, and Drawings from Qumran at the Julie M. gallery.

Later in July another exhibition will open at the ICC, called Read, which will show artist Hamra Abbas response to the biblical texts.