I was lucky to have the opportunity to participate in the Prague Biennial 2006. This is a journal-web project commissioned by the Haudenschild Garage.
We are inside the airplane; I can’t wait to arrive to Germany. It’s been eight hours of sitting and watching too many movies of pop Indian stars dancing seductively. I’m sitting next to an Indian man. At dinnertime, the waitress forgets his water and he turns to Mario to call her. Mario doesn’t know what he is saying. The man believes that Mario can speak to him but is refusing to help him. I keep watching. This is not the first time this has happened. Mario (whose parents are Mexican-American) has dark, unique features that make him look Indian. The waitress finally returns and gives the Indian man his water. I keep silent. Identity, when you begin to travel outside of the United States is more complicated. The way you look, more than language are key in identifying who you are.
Day 1 I begin to think of the Jewish myth of the Golem. How does one forge an identity like the Jewish Golem? When it is controlled by the Rabbis wishes? According to myth, the most famous golem is the golem of Rabbi Yehuda Leow, the famous Maharal of Prague, who created a golem and after using him to prevent a blood feud, hid him in the attic of the synagogue of Prague. Does the absence of something, in this case, the absence of language and rationality in the Golem make him non-human? Is his identity then dependent solely on his social purpose? There are similarities, no doubt between this Golem figure and other cultures. The most common is the Frankenstein figure in American literature and the Zombie character, which typically has no intellect and is driven by his desire to feed on humans. But also, it is like the Santeria spirit who is called upon to bring evil or good in the world. Golem, more than a myth is an idea that according to Ron Jacobs, “is a strategy of self-protection at all costs, regardless of the consequences for others, and often for oneself or one’s own nation.” How many Golems do I know in my life? How many people do not think about the consequences of their actions? How many young people in my neighborhood chose to drop out of school, use drugs and commit senseless murders? Too many to count.
Our flight takes eleven hours to get to Germany. We have a layover of four hours before we take the next plane to Prague. We wait and sleep for an hour in the Frankfurt terminal. I dream my mother. She speaks in broken English, “You” she says softly, “Oldest of my daughters, see the world like I never will.” I wake up with this thought. A Chinese man is speaking German to a woman across from me. The high ceilings of the airport reflect a brisk sunlight, a huge screen shows the flight numbers of planes coming and going. How did I get here? Someone twenty-five years ago saw in me something I didn’t see then. Someone saw in me, the potential and the ability to see things I didn’t. My mother was one of those few people. At the age of fifteen she bought me a typewriter. I knew she had saved for a long time extra money working to buy me that. I couldn’t believe it. It was a gray and white, high-speed-automatic typewriter! I feel so honored to have that opportunity to see what she hasn’t and to see for others, even if it means to only once. Mario and I arrive to Prague and late to our apartment. It is 12:30pm when we go to sleep, tired but happy we arrived.
Day Two–Walking around in the morning light, we can see clearly what we have missed by car last night. The place we are staying at is called Ziskov, the neighborhood predominately inhabited by factory workers during World War II. There is a long tunnel that links the neighborhood with what used to be factories during the war. A dramatic political change in the city that started thirteen years ago has prompted a renovation of very old architecture throughout the city. This means that many apartments in the city are being constantly painted and fixed. Our building included in this, we woke up with a group of construction workers drilling outside our window. They wore blue and red suspenders and listened to Britney Spears songs on a portable radio. The neighborhood is a beautiful mixture of the rawness in broken doors, gray buildings of communism with beautiful architectural patterns and detailed sculptural craftsmanship. It is humid and hot. We walk to the exhibition hall where the biennial will take place. We meet the curator who invited us there, Andrea Bellini. We look inside the building. They tell us that it used to be a factory where weapons were kept during the war. Looking at the space designated for the mural, Mario and I decide to make the larger part of the mural in the brick-wall rather than the white-constructed wall they have given us. Having had the chance to take a couple of street pictures, we use one as an inspiration. It is a picture of a woman dancing on the outside wall of a bar. Apparently, drinking is a part of Czech culture and there are more bars than restaurants in the city.
Mario and I decide to make the mural as if it was painted on a corner of a bar or a store-wall somewhere in Prague. We sweep, gather the ladder, and paint materials. We have only three days to paint the mural before the show opens. The projector we brought from home broke in our luggage and we had to think of a different way to paint the mural. We work all day inside the space. We go to dinner with Bellini, Pepe, an Italian businessman, one of the primary founders of this project and three other artists from L.A. Afterwards, we are invited to go to Alberto and Eugenio’s place a block away from where we are. Alberto and Eugenio own different galleries in Prague and a few years ago bought a castle just outside the city. Slowly they are renovating it, and hope to have art residencies there. They took us to eat dinner there. The castle is amazing, each room filled with art, each room designed differently. The castle has a mote, a river, two barns and one storage facility. People never used the castle during the war only the barns outside were used for storing weapons. We eat dinner at the castle and return home. That night, I begin to write a poem about Golem. It is a poem based on the idea of “Golemness” embodied in young people. It speaks of the need for change to happen and for young people to wake-up from a Golem-mentality. I start with the line that will eventually be the poem’s chorus, “If I rise, you rise, If you rise, I rise”
Day 3—I look into the eyes of the people of Prague to see if I can recognize any traces of the Golem. According to legend, he was a man-like figure made of the earth. What does a Golem look like now? Will I recognize him if I saw him? Will I know him when he speaks? Everywhere I go I look for him. Today I went to a store by the apartment run by an older couple. They sell bread, milk, ice cream, newspapers, magazines and underwear. The older man looks at me, without smiling he charges me for the ice cream and gives me my change. It so hot, the ice cream begins to melt in my hand. His silent, sunken eyes remind me of my grandfather in Mexico. Both of them embodying that insider look of struggle and skepticism. Who is really a Golem? According to Jewish legend, the Golem still lives in Prague, having escaped the fires set up by the Nazis to destroy the Jewish people. It’s interesting to me, this idea that the Golem is embodied in the one that survived because there is still the possibility that he is still living. Mario and I begin drawing and selecting images for our mural. We chose images to represent emblems of survival in Los Angeles. For both of us it has been surviving violence. We choose images that are common iconographies, or images that speak this street-language. The act of painting it is the act of calling the Golem to rise.
During the painting of the mural, other women whisper to me how great it is that I am painting, moving ladders and doing the same thing as the man artists are doing. I don’t quite understand what they mean at that moment, partly because they are speaking in another language. But then I realize what they mean. In the art world, there is a small group of women artists represented in major exhibitions. I realize how important it is for me to be a part of this. I began to think that I have been looking in all the wrong places, accepting a notion of the golem being a man figure. Could the Golem ultimately be a feminist perspective on man and humanity? The golem of Prague seems to be lacking both male and female stereotypical traits, emotion and intellect. Could the Golem of Prague be a representation of woman’s critique on how women are pushed by man to have a non-human existence? To get a clearer perspective on this I interview a young German artist, Christine Wurmell. She is part of a women’s group of artists in the exhibition. I ask her if she thinks women are well represented. She begins to tell me that this is not true. The argument, she says, people tell her is that there are just not good enough women artists. How can women be represented in the arts? How can women and the way they speak about subjectivity be address in an intellectual way that is not deemed predictable, stereotypical of a “woman’s” work? We chat for a while, showing me her work and sharing her thoughts.
Day 4–“If you want to find the Golem,” a young woman tells me in a café “You have to go to the Prague castle, for sure the Jewish Synagogue and the cemetery.” The cemetery? I must admit I got a bit scared when she said this. Today is the opening of the exhibition. Mario and I still need to finish some details on the mural. I have finished my poem. But we still need to finish the mural. We finish the mural on time for the opening at 12pm. After lunch we decide to go in search of the Golem to the Prague castle situated in one of the oldest part of the city. Like the rest of Prague, the castle has been slowly restored. Visually one can tell the difference in the sections that has been renovated which is clean and bright from the older darker sections of the castle. I can’t believe I’m seeing such amazing architecture. Growing up in Hollywood, it looks like a movie studio set. There are contributions of doors and flagpole sculptures by the well-known Czech architect Plecnik. We walk around the Prague castle for a while as our friend Eugenio points out key architectural renovations and tell us the history. Where is Golem? Is he hidden inside that castle? Perhaps he lives on the tallest part of the castle, where he watches everyone coming? Is he in the Garden? Who is Golem? Will I recognize him? We walk further crossing Charles bridge. This was once the longest bridge in the world.
A few blocks away is the old-new Jewish Synagogue. It has been the main synagogue of the Prague Jewish community for more than 700 years, built in the 13th century by stonemasons. We spend time inside reading hundreds, thousands of names of the Jewish people that were killed. It is an overwhelming feeling that leaves us saddened by such tragedy. We walk to the Jewish cemetery. The cemetery was built during medieval times. The Nazis burned the town here, destroyed and killed a large population of Jewish families. Hitler was known said he didn’t destroy the cemetery because it was a memorial as evidence of the extermination of the Jews. Golem, the mythical figure, the one who escape, the one who is said to be living here. Walking around the cemetery it is surely an accurate statement. Golem is always linked with a negative perspective of intellectual absence, of non-human traits, and it has been said that the Golem is one who is controlled by others, subject to fear and destruction. But the Golem survived the fires of violence according to legend. No one ever focuses on this as evidence of strength. Even thought the rabbi hid him in the synagogue, the Golem has been able to allure, to escape the hate and the destruction of a race. He was put here to protect the Jewish people and as that, he remains alive. Alive in the concrete foundation of the Synagogue, in the cemetery, in the people of Prague. The biennial opens at 2pm. After a tour of the synagogue we go back to our apartment, shower and leave for the show. The response to our mural is an interesting response as they say it looks like it doesn’t belong in the exhibition, but on the street. This exactly the response we wanted. We walk around the rest of the show, seeing for the first time some of the other pieces in the exhibition. We go to dinner with other artists and curators from the show. We are so tired by then we go home and sleep.
Day 5–I realize that I am returning home with no concrete evidence I found the Golem in Prague. We can’t take away the mural we have done. Our plane to Germany leaves early morning. We wake up at 4 am. I am hesitant to leave this city without finding him. In one desperate attempt, I ask the Taxi driver that is taking us to the airport, “Where can I find something from the Golem?” He begins to laugh hysterically. “Oprah,” he tells me and keeps silent. “Oprah?” no doubt he thought I was joking with him. But his response was an interesting end to my trip here. My mother had told me that I will see things she never will and I have. But I have also seen a world not so uncommon to my own and to my mothers. I have seen the spirit of a people that despite communism, war and social tragedies survived. I have seen the old and the new remnants of a society, defiant to keep living. And in this I have remembered my own friends and family who live in exile in the United States. I remember friends who survived attempts at erasure of a history. I remember their homes destroyed or taken away. I remember their stories. And perhaps, the Oprah show is where a visual culture engages in an international discussion. The Golem lives because he is the embodiment of a society, of a world and of a future.