Golem: Objects as Sensations

Golem: Objects as Sensations (1979-82) is a work that asks us to “adopt the analogical habit of interpretation that permitted the Middle Ages to see in the human body a map of the cosmos”. Sterbak’s work, installed at Mercer Union in 1982, started as “an experience of sensory hallucinations – the very real sensations of pain or discomfort in an amputated limb is an extreme example”. The phenomenon of the phantom limbs may represent a pathological disordering of sense experience but also requires us, as viewers, to ask where the boundaries of the body lie and elevates the crucial question of the nature of identity”. Explanations of psychic life were once prevalent as they were channeled through references to organic sensations, “but have been brushed away by psychoanalytic theory”. Yet, at one point in time, organs and limbs were points of reference in a vast “chain of being” that reached from “inert matter to the God-head”.

The word Golem is also part of the Jewish mystical tradition; and signifies an artificially created human. The word appears once in the Bible, where it might mean embryo. According to Jewish mystical tradition, everything that is in a state of incompletion, “not fully formed” is called golem, and it belongs to a long line of automata – artificial humans. What makes golem significant is the human effort to discover the nature of life itself, “to duplicate the act of creation”. Intrinsic in the golem and all his “robotic descendants” is the idea of the double, the uncanny other. Sterbak’s deliverance of the uncanny is in the same field with the Surrealist efforts “to effect revolution in values, a reorganization of the very way the real was conceived”. The revolution was the body, “from the material symbol of the ideal (divine) beauty that the body in art had once presented, it became the sign of a more fluid “convulsive” beauty influenced by psychoanalytic theories whereupon Surrealists preferred the desiring and the desired body to an animal or a machine. 

Golem: Objects as Sensations was exhibited at Toronto’s Mercer Union in 1982. Reviewing the install at that time and place through photographic prints and documentation, the entranceway of the gallery had three little lumpy lead feet, followed further into the space was a trait of thirteen anatomical simulations “struggle towards a doorway: seven hardened hearts, a squarish slice of red metal spleen, a silvery bone-like thing, two small stiffened hands, a puny black rubber stomach and a flabby slice of rubber liver”. In addition to the bronze sculptures, there are two photographic works and the interior walls of the main, specialty-built display are painted “a very serious, mineral blue”. The title, Objects as Sensations, delivers what it holds. Sterbak’s sculptures appear to have tangible qualities; ephemerally, they “could be felt with a finger if only tactile sensitivity were intensified to an extreme, or that metaphysical can be palpated unseen in the physical, the inert quickened through contact with the hand”. It appears that what has been “aroused by the tactile presence” of these organs (outside of the body) is uncertainty as to where subjective experience dissolves and “perceptible substance” launches. 

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