What's the first thing you think of when you hear the name Babylon?
That reggae phase you went through in high school? Steel Pulse irie! A bad science fiction series? You'll never get those hours of your life spent in front of the TV back. Or perhaps traumatic moments as a kid during bible study?
Babylon has a strange hold on contemporary culture. In the film “Ghostbusters,” an ancient Sumerian spirit takes the form of huge marshmallow man and tries to conquer New York. In the seminal cyberpunk book “Snow Crash” – which inspired virtual reality worlds like “Second Life” – Babylonian spirits attempt to invade the internet.
Playing on the cliché of a corrupt Babylonian society, the US film industry has been labelled Hollywood Babylon and a film about rebuilding post-reunification Berlin plays off the ancient city's supposed hubris. The uncompromising American feminist writer Camille Paglia once even suggested that “popular cultural is the new Babylon... our imperial sex theatre, supreme temple of the western eye.”
The strength of our fixation on Babylon is one of the two topics addressed in the gigantic “Babylon: Myth and Truth” exhibition currently on show at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. Heavily promoted across the city over the last few weeks, the exhibition is really two shows in one. Each section occupies a separate part of the building and each is put together by a different curator.
The juxtaposition is significant. Whereas the “Truth” section is an exercise in archaeology taking in ancient relics from all over the world, the "Myth" section is a diverse and eclectic art exhibition.
Among the artists represented are the Weimar expressionist George Grosz, the apocalyptic Victorian etcher John Martin, and the hyped-up contemporary art star Dash Show. A clip from D.W. Griffith's historical epic Intolerance plays in one room, while a disturbing sound installation by Timm Ulrich jars visitors in another. It seems fair to say that there surely aren't many art exhibitions in which a beautifully-illustrated fifteenth century edition of Saint Augustine's “City of God” and Snow's semen-stained copies of the New York Post are able jostle happily for the attention of visitors.
A Babylonian moment
Unconcerned that it might be some type of museum Rorschach test, I headed for the “Myth” section located on the top floor of the Pergamon first.
“Myth” begins with piece of video art entitled “Zid/Wall” by the Sarajevo-born artist Danica Dakic. The piece shows sixty-four close-up shots of lips moving feverishly, recounting different stories in different languages. The cumulative, and fitting, result was inchoate babble. “The talking wall,” the caption noted helpfully, “reflects the linguistic condition of our time.”
The two big ideas of the Babylon show are that our civilization is currently going through a Babylonian moment, and that our civilization is haunted by Babylonian themes. Dakic's piece turned on this first idea, while the second came across strongly in a video installation entitled “Black and White (Babylon)” by Douglas Gordon, who is famous from his film about Zinedine Zidane. Gordon's piece depicts a buxom nineteen-fifties stripper, hypnotically swaying in black and white slow-motion in the guise of the ubiquitous Babylonian whore.
While “Myth” was mainly do with ideas, “Truth” was visceral, and instilled a sheer sense of awe. Featuring as its centrepiece is the Pergamon's reconstruction of Babylon's stunning blue-glazed Ishtar Gate. The sheer scale of the subject matter reduced me to silence. After a while I stopped taking notes, unsure as to what I could meaningfully say about an exhibition, built on two centuries of scholarly research about an entire civilization.
Despite the provocative tone of the posters dotted around Berlin, the "Truth" show was more concerned with clarifying the extent of our Babylonian influences then with refuting them. We don't discover that there a Tower of Babel never existed, but rather that the actual structure was sharper and more ziggurat-like then the famous painting by Brueghel. Elsewhere, we learn of the finer points of Babylonian government, law, science and economy, as well as the intriguing tale of the rise of Marduk from a small-time local deity to the king of gods.
Most of the actual exhibits on show in “Truth” are, in truth, weird lumps of rock. But the presence of huge numbers of sweating visitors bustling through the rooms, and talking in dozens of languages, cast an interesting light on them.
The last piece in the show is a fictional time capsule from the future, cast from the perspective of the fast-coming day when our own civilization turned to dust, and explaining our downfall through Babylonian terms. I suppose it's up to us whether that becomes truth or myth.