Leviticus, part of Divine Violence by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin

Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin

Leviticus, part of Divine Violence, 2013, King James Bible, Hahnemühle print, brass pins , 101 x 112 x 5 cm, Collection of the artist, Edition of 3, © Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin; Courtesy of the artists and Goodman Gallery

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An Unclean Concentrate

Commentary by

The voice of God dominates Leviticus. It is a voice of great clarity but one which can seem concerned largely with negation. Its preoccupations with the ‘unclean’ (Hebrew: tame) are found in their most concentrated form in chapters 15–18.

Adam Broomberg’s and Oliver Chanarin’s work Holy Bible (2013) incorporates over 500 photographs selected from the Archive of Modern Conflict across a complete Bible, superimposing the images on every double-page spread—except the pages on which Leviticus 15–18 appears. At this point in the text visual images disappear dramatically and, instead, the word ‘unclean’ is underlined in red whenever it occurs.

The striking effect can be seen in this photograph, in which a framed display of the artists’ Leviticus pages becomes suddenly denuded of images in the second row.

The artists have said that they approached the Archive in the spirit of a word–image collaboration, inspired by Bertolt Brecht’s own photograph-plastered Bible. For Broomberg and Chanarin, the expansive reach and witness of photographs of life in its extremes, particularly in suffering and war, was a suitable fit for the Bible’s mode of telling us everything, particularly in Old Testament accounts of conflict and violence. Yet in this section of Leviticus, the almost myopic intensity of focus on individual human uncleanness (as opposed to larger issues like genocide) seems to act as a kind of perceptual cul-de-sac for the artists. They can’t find photographs for it; it seems unvisualizable for them.

If these chapters give an in/out impression of divine judgement evoking a visceral and personal rejection by God (the defiled are ‘cut off’ in Leviticus 17:4, 9 or ‘vomited out’ in Leviticus 18:25) then this may cause us to miss a paradox. For the text also signals God’s desire to draw near to humanity, by making humanity fit for divine contact. God’s words of judgement harbour the possibility of their own inversion. Broomberg’s and Chanarin’s work may do something comparable. When the photographs return with Leviticus 19, it is verse 2’s ‘I am holy’ which is underlined, opposite a photograph of a combat-dressed child, arms raised in a position of surrender.

Humanity’s uncleanness and defiance may find itself both judged and summoned by a holiness that seeks the world’s return in innocence: the child under the battle-dress.

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