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December 19, 2014 / 27 Kislev, 5775
 
At a Glance

Posts Tagged ‘Big Bang’

Falling Trees And Exploding Pomegranates: Ori Gersht’s Beautiful Yet Tragic Metaphors

Wednesday, February 18th, 2009

Black Box: Ori GershtDecember 22, 2008 – April 12, 2009Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture GardenIndependence Avenue at Seventh Street, SW, Washington, DChttp://hirshhorn.si.edu/

 

The young couple sitting behind me in the small black box theater at the Hirshhorn Museum could not stop giggling at Ori Gersht’s film, “The Forest.” With each boom that broke the silence as another tree fell in the forest, the two young people mocked the posted sign outside the room, which offered context for the 13-minute film: “The well-known Zen koan ‘if a tree falls in a forest, and there is no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?’” The viewers apparently did not read the entire posted note or they would have seen a completely different and less humorous side to the film by the Tel Aviv-born artist.

The plot of “Forest” might sound boring at first – sort of like Dr. Seuss’ “Lorax” minus the characters. Gersht focuses his camera on a series of falling trees set to a soundtrack that oscillates between bangs and utter silence. The film is almost exclusively shown from a high vantage point, and the falling trees often appear in an optical illusion to fall straight down as if a hole suddenly opened up beneath their roots.

 

 

Still from Ori Gersht’s “The Forest” (2006). Courtesy of the artist.

 

Several of the trees are so close to the camera that they become abstracted and could pass for giant human legs, and when Gersht does show the forest floor, the branches of the fallen trees reaching for the sky resemble writhing people or overturned bugs attempting to right themselves. Throughout the film, a stunning, almost supernatural, light lends the forest a mystical or magical atmosphere, which furthers a paradoxical blend of beauty and destruction.

The Hirshhorn note raises a number of questions about “Forest”: “Who or what is causing these trees to fall? Is this a statement about nature and inevitability, about proverbially missing the forest for the trees, a commentary about deforestation, or a metaphor for loss? Or is it perhaps an exercise in anticipation?”

No matter how “soothing” the forest seems, it is also “mysterious,” the note continues, and it draws from the artist’s own life. The 100-foot trees in “Forest” are deep in the Moskalova woods between Poland and Ukraine, where Gersht’s in-laws witnessed the Nazis killing their friends and neighbors while they were in hiding.

In that light, each tree that falls could be a person, and each severed small branch a child. After watching the film through several loops, I began to notice more and more variety in the trees. Some seemed to dive majestically while others toppled unawares. There were also many variations in the bark of the trees, almost like human skin, with hills and valleys and imperfections in the coloration. It is hard for me to imagine whether I would have so personified the trees in my head had I not known they were Holocaust references.

The other two viewers in the theater were either unaware or unimpressed by the interpretation, and this is hardly the first time audiences responded differently to the same work of art. Gersht might have even intended for the mixed metaphors.

 

 

Still from Ori Gersht’s “Pomegranate” (2006). Courtesy of the artist.

 

But the companion piece at the Hirshhorn, from the collection of The Jewish Museum, is much harder to interpret comically, though it is also a bit absurd. “Pomegranate” (2006) is a three-minute film, entirely set on a gray windowsill. A gourd and a cut-up cantaloupe sit on the sill, and a head of lettuce and a pomegranate dangle above tied by strings. The backdrop behind the lynched fruits is dark black, which evokes Dutch and Spanish “vanitas” or “memento mori” still-life paintings, meant to lead viewers to project themselves onto the fruit, which would surely decay and to meditate on their own emptiness and meaninglessness.

Gersht helps viewers out by hitting them over the head with his metaphor. After a few seconds, a bullet emerges from the right side of the frame and pierces the pomegranate. The fruit explodes dripping blood-like juice and seeds all over the other fruits and on the windowsill. Another film, in the Hirshhorn’s own collection, shows another explosion. The nearly four-and-a-half minute “Big Bang II” (2006) uses an annoying shrill sound to warn viewers something ominous is about to happen to the vase of flowers. Sure enough, a bullet pierces the vase, and the entire centerpiece explodes.

 

 

Still from Ori Gersht’s “Big Bang II” (2006).

 

In a great podcast interview with Hirshhorn staff, Gersht explained that the sound in “Big Bang” was a mixture of recordings of Israeli air raid and Holocaust memorial sirens. In fact, shortly after he got the recordings from a sound library, the second Lebanon war broke out, and the sirens could again be heard in Israel. The Hirshhorn website also credits the violence of the bullets piercing the vase and the pomegranate to “the experiences of the artist’s fear-filled childhood in Israel.”

It is refreshing to see such a major museum as the Hirshhorn acknowledge Israeli and religious aspects to artwork in its exhibits, especially as it downplayed any Jewish aspects to its show of Morris Louis’ works late in 2007. Gersht has also tackled Holocaust imagery in several others series, including “White Noise” (2000, not featured at the Hirshhorn), where he photographed a train journey from Krakow to Auschwitz, the same trip victims took in cattle cars.

Gersht explained in the podcast that he was struck by his ability to look out the windows, while the Holocaust victims had no such luxury, so he felt a desire to “somehow outlive the historical events.” He grew increasingly frustrated that he could not capture scenes that were passing by so quickly, but when he developed the photos he realized the abstraction made sense. He had been “dealing with a desperate attempt to capture the past,” though cameras can only capture the present.

 

 

Ori Gersht. “Ghost, Olive 17″ (2007). C-print mounted on aluminum. 100 x 80 cm. Edition of 6.

 

Another series “Ghost” (2004), which also does not appear in the Hirshhorn show, featured photo shoots of ancient olive trees in Israel and Gaza. Gersht chose to take the pictures in the high heat of the middle of the day – when photographers are not advised to shoot because the contrast is so low – and he used very long exposures. The resulting images of the symbol of peace are eerily ghost-like and elusive.

Gersht’s theme of “tension between a disaster and tranquility” permeates many of his works. It is not insensitive to show beauty in forests that oversaw concentration camps. Gersht also sees themes of “registering and erasing, remembering and forgetting” in the forest’s ability to absorb collapsed trees and to fill in the gaps with new ones. The couple that giggled at the film might note that the trees were not falling for tragic reasons; they were all marked to be cut down by foresters, who merely sped up the process from a couple of years to a matter of days.

But Gersht manipulates the banality of the materials and the content, and in his hands they become symbols for much larger and much more personal issues and events. And that might be Gersht’s greatest achievement. Some artists feel they need to address tragedy in grandiose ways. Gersht sees microcosms of those events in everyday objects: flowers, trees, and pomegranates. Watching those objects explode as they are pierced by bullets, it is hard not to imagine with him.

Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He is a painter and writer, and resides in Washington, D.C.

For more information on Ori Gersht and his work, visit the websites of his galleries: Mummery + Schnellle, Angles Gallery, and Noga Gallery.

Atheist Chic

Wednesday, August 29th, 2007

I suppose I should begin by explaining why I bothered to read the book The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins (Bantam, 2006). Dawkins is Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, and a zealot with a mission: to wipe out religious belief of all sorts. The God Delusion is his call to arms.

My reading of the book was largely in response to a triple dare made by a friend, Dr. M., a true Zionist Israeli, an outspoken Jewish patriot, and someone who describes himself as a militant agnostic. Dr. M. has long found it incomprehensible – indeed, a downright insult to his intelligence – that a nice educated fella like myself does not share his staunch agnosticism.

With a mixture of pity and annoyance, Dr. M. has been trying to enlighten me. Convinced that no one could read Dawkins and come away unpersuaded, he sent me the book and challenged me to read it.

The God Delusion – not to be confused with The Dawkins Delusion, an attack on Dawkins co-written by Alistair McGrath, a molecular biologist also from Oxford University – is one of a growing genre of books designed to market militant atheism to the reading public. (A recent entry that has sold rather briskly is God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens, who used to be a left-wing Israel basher and is now a quasi-right-wing Israel basher.)

“Promulgating atheism,” the Wall Street Journal reports, “has become a lucrative business.” Los Angeles-based radio host and popular columnist Dennis Prager recently wrote, “In my opinion the arguments put forth [in such books] are far more emotional than intellectual, and even secular liberal journals have written devastating reviews of the Hitchens and Dawkins books. The secular indoctrination of a generation that has grown into adulthood is bearing fruit.”

* * * * *

What exactly is Dawkins’s thesis and why is his book a bestseller?

Dawkins pushes his atheist arguments by setting up the weakest straw men he can find and then toppling them over. He briefly argues with Thomas Aquinas, but chooses most of his other sparring partners from among the dullest, most evil, and least sophisticated he can find. This is all a bit like claiming that if some foolish or unscrupulous people happen to believe the world is round, that in itself proves it is flat.

A more serious book would deal with the subject in a deeper manner, rather than with caricatures of its theological/ideological opponents. Dawkins often resorts to crude mockery of “believers.” His writing style is hysterical, demagogic and at times juvenile. He tends to respond to claims he dislikes by barking out “That’s an argument?”

Dawkins’s general theme is that God’s existence cannot be scientifically “proved” or even probabilistically established by using mathematical rules of likelihood. He then leaps to the “inference” that if one cannot prove scientifically that God exists, well, then, He must not exist. Much of the book is an attempt to establish as a given that belief in God is delusional, often by discrediting individual believers and specific religious groups or organizations.

Before he became arguably the leading academic advocate of atheism, Dawkins was best known for his books on popularized genetics. Dawkins invented the rather silly concept of “memes,” which holds that pop tunes and cultural fads spread in similar fashion to genetic traits, via a process of mutation and “natural selection.” I guess that explains hip-hop music, something no one would attribute to any Deity.

As it turns out, when Dawkins writes about “religion,” he, like many similar writers, really means Western Christianity. He has at most a shallow passing familiarity with Islam and Judaism, and knows virtually nothing at all about other religions. His ideas about “Bible believers” are really all about fundamentalist Christians; he seems to have never met a Jewish biblical authority or scholar.

(Hitchens is little better; he spends a significant amount of time attacking the biblical pronouncement of an eye for an eye, apparently unaware that Judaism has always interpreted that as meaning the monetary value of losing an eye.)

Dawkins is at his best when he attacks the “scientific gaps” arguments made by some who argue that God must exist because humans cannot explain various mysteries of the universe, first and foremost the Big Bang itself. Dawkins argues that if scientists have been unable to explain this or that scientific mystery, one should be cautious about leaping to the conclusion that they will never be scientifically explained.

Many rabbis would agree: Insisting that acknowledgment of God’s existence depends upon unsolved “gaps” in science is to make God a hostage to the pace of scientific advance. Too many things previously believed to be unsolvable have by now been solved, starting with genetics. But Dawkins’s real problem appears when he claims that if scientists have indeedexplained many scientific mysteries, it somehow proves that God is a delusion.

To sum up his overly long and at times tedious book, these are Dawkins’s main points:

·  The existence of God is a scientific hypothesis like all others and must be subject to scientific testing. If God cannot be proven to exist, no proof that He does not exist is even needed. It just follows.

·  Religion has nothing useful to teach about science (though one must not conclude the inverse). Creationists and those who have conducted experiments seeking empirical demonstration of the power of prayer are to be scorned.

·  Religious scientists really are not so; they are really atheists for whom God and nature are synonyms. (Never mind that many of them wouldcompletely disagree.)

·  Religious believers are too easily offended when people challenge their beliefs. (Hardly a serious argument against belief itself, especially from someone who takes offense at any criticism of atheism).

·  Groups of religious believers are involved in bad things, like violence and political suppression. Some clergymen have engaged in sexual misconduct. Therefore God must not exist.

·  The “God of the Old Testament” (or, more correctly, the caricature of that God with which Dawkins is familiar) is nasty and hysterical and ultimately a petty invention. All religions (especially monotheism) foster fanaticism. Therefore God must not exist.

Dawkins pooh-poohs the “primary cause” arguments (“everything must have a cause and so the first cause must be God”), but is left with little besides “things just get caused” in a natural world that is full of random noise.

The entire universe just popped out of a space the size of a pinhead for no reason at all (which is the Big Bang theory as science now understand it), certainly no thanks to God. Multiple or sequential universes, for which no evidence actually exists, would neither prove nor disprove God, but Dawkins keeps insisting they disprove God’s existence.

While Dawkins properly dismisses those who say “If you cannot explain something, God must be the explanation,” he is infatuated with the no less fatuous idea that if you cannot explain God’s agenda/behavior/character, He must not exist.

Dawkins often contradicts himself. Lots of eminent scientists do not believe in God, writes Dawkins, somewhat mysteriously counting Einstein among them. Atheism is legitimate because the U.S. founding fathers were atheists, he adds. (Actually, not one of them was.)

At the same time, however, he goes to great lengths to dismiss those who argue for God’s existence on the grounds that nearly all humans in all countries believe in at least one. That proves nothing, he insists – it’s just an “anthropic principle” argument. In other words, sometimes “theological proof by straw poll” is acceptable and sometimes it is not.

Dawkins wants moral principles to be based on something other than religion or the Bible, but is not sure what should replace them other than his own personal moral preferences. His “atheists are moral too” mantra would not hold up well to empirical testing (there would be too many communists in the sample). His social science pronouncements are surprisingly thin (indeed, he seems never to have studied social science). He uses dime-store anthropology in his chapter – the book’s weakest – on the development of religion among humans.

To “prove” his point that theology is not needed to foster morality, he cites some secular alternatives to the Ten Commandments taken from an atheist website: “Do not overlook evil or shrink from administering justice”; “Always be ready to forgive wrongdoing freely admitted and honestly regretted.” Yawn.

He then adds some original “commandments” of his own, like “Enjoy your own sex life (so long as it damages nobody else)”; “Value the future on a timescale longer than your own” and “Do not indoctrinate your children.” No shofar blowing or mountain in flames here. We can just envision the little Dawkins children, if there are any, asking their anti-indoctrination daddy why he forbids them to read the Bible.

* * * * *

I suspect Dawkins and his copycats have been induced to turn out these Three Cheers for Atheism books by the growing popularity of the Intelligent Design school of thought: In recent years, a minority set of thinkers about evolution has emerged, including some serious scientists. Intelligent Design’s main argument is that there are holes in the theory of evolution, things that cannot be explained by classical Darwinian biology. Commentary magazine has run several articles promoting their point of view.

The conclusion of Intelligent Design advocates is that only some form of “intelligence” imposed on random evolution can explain life on earth. Most biologists dismiss the argument, and opponents have filed a series of court petitions to prohibit its being mentioned in schools, even as a minority, dissident point of view.

The more zealous opponents of Intelligent Design unfairly denounce it as “creationism,” or academic window dressing to biblical literalism, and as an unconstitutional attempt to impose religious fundamentalism on schoolchildren. Attacks on Intelligent Design often are hysterical and ad hominem in nature, and attempts to recruit the courts as classroom censors sometimes seem like Scopes monkey trials in reverse.

While liberal Jewish organizations have generally denounced Intelligent Design and have backed and aided attempts to ban it from the classroom, the Orthodox response has been less than uniform. Rabbi Avi Shafran, for example, while affirming that Jews respect science and scientific inquiry, sees the attempt to use the courts to suppress Intelligent Design as anti-scientific, amounting to an attempt to impose a pseudo-religion of Randomness.

Israeli Rabbi Natan Slifkin, who writes about science and theology, has been critical of Intelligent Design because it attempts to prove God’s presence through the existence of the “scientific gaps” mentioned earlier. Slifkin argues instead that Judaism more properly should see proof of God and His presence in the parts of the universe that have been understood and explained; that is, in the miracles of mundane and ordinary life.

While some haredi rabbis have denounced Slifkin’s writings – mainly for his suggesting that the Talmudic sages were not infallible on matters of science – a number of Modern and Centrist Orthodox rabbis have praised his work.

Meanwhile, like so many other haters of religion, Dawkins repeatedly tries to set up an artificial contest between theology and science, demanding that readers concede that each and every scientific discovery amounts to an additional nail in the coffin of religious belief (or religious “superstition,” in his terminology).

Dawkins would have problems with a recent survey which found that nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of professors at American colleges confirm they believe in God. I recently attended a lecture at the Technion by Nobel Prize winner Robert Aumann. His entire lecture consisted of citations from Maimonides and the Talmud.

All of which leaves me wondering how Dawkins would deal with Sir Isaac Newton, the father of modern physics. With the arguable exception of Einstein, Newton contributed more to science than any other human. But Newton had a deep belief in a personal God and even something of an affinity for Hebrew scholarship.

Incidentally, if Dawkins and some of his more zealous followers were to have their way, Sir Isaac himself would today be prohibited from teaching science in any public school.

In an exhibit of some of his scientific papers now on display at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, there is one on which Newton had evidently written in his own hand the Hebrew phrase “Baruch shem kavod malchuto l’olam va’ed” – the verse from Ezekiel we repeat during the recitation of the Shema prayer. (The page can be viewed at www.haaretz.co.il/hasite/spages/871781.html.)

The English translation of the verse transcribed by the giant of science reads: “Blessed is the name of His glorious kingdom for all eternity.”

Dawkins and his ilk must pity the poor, primitive, deluded Isaac Newton.

Steven Plaut, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press, is a professor at Haifa University. His book “The Scout” is available at Amazon.com. He can be contacted at steveneplaut@yahoo.com.

Title: Modern Physics And Ancient Faith

Wednesday, April 14th, 2004

Title: Modern Physics And Ancient Faith
Author: Stephen M. Barr
Publisher: University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, IN

 

 

Although he lived his life devoid of traditional religious observance, Albert Einstein very famously stated: “I shall never believe that G-d plays dice with the world.”

So it is with many scientists and philosophers for whom study and research into the intricacies of the universe develops into admiration and understanding that there actually appears to be meaning in the universe.

Stephen Barr is professor of physics at the University of Delaware, and this tome expresses his unique ability to explain very complex scientific theories in a very enlightening manner that has value even for those not immersed in the religion-versus-science debate. Barr’s clarity and logic is invaluable in his description of physical processes and scientific theories to help us all get from point “A” to point “B”.

Is it true that quantum theory, or now string theory, is at the bottom of all reality? Must one truly understand complex mathematics and philosophical theories to envision a 10-dimensional world, or a universe in which our free will results in many “almost” duplicate parallel universes as a result of the myriad choices we make in our lives every day?

Using the insights of modern physics, Barr reveals that recent scientific discoveries and religious faith are actually deeply consonant. Written in a style that laypeople will understand, the rigorous and concise text explains modern physics without oversimplification.

The book uses five of the 20th-century’s revolutionary discoveries - the Big Bang theory, the Unified Field theories, Anthropic Coincidences, Gödel’s Theorem in mathematics, and
Quantum Theory - to cast serious doubt on the materialistic view of the universe and to provide greater credence to theistic claims about G-d and the universe.

Modern Physics and Ancient Faith is published by the university press of a noted Christian university. It provides both philosophical and scientific evidence that challenge the notion that G-d does not exist – a concept the devout usually have no need for. It could also been published by one of many Judaic publishing houses, and is additional evidence that fences are
coming down and that valuable intellectual exchanges are happening on the American publishing scene.

Barr and other thoughtful scientific thinkers don’t believe the universe lacks cause of purpose, or that the human race is an accidental by-product of blind material forces. He insists that
the great discoveries of modern physics are more compatible with the central teachings of the monotheistic religions about G-d, the cosmos and the human soul than with the atheistic
viewpoint of scientific materialism.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/title-modern-physics-and-ancient-faith/2004/04/14/

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