Academic journal article The Jewish Quarterly Review

The Contested Ownership of Yosef Trumpeldor's Arm-Reliquary: A View from a Christian Perspective

Academic journal article The Jewish Quarterly Review

The Contested Ownership of Yosef Trumpeldor's Arm-Reliquary: A View from a Christian Perspective

Article excerpt

Let ME BEGIN with A TEASER. In 1964, after two years in Rome, the American artist Paul Thek (1933-88, New York) returned to New York. Inspired by a visit to the Capuchin catacombs near Palermo, he created "Technological Reliquaries" (1964-67), a series of wax sculptures of meat and human body parts set inside Plexiglas vitrines.1 One of these, Warrior's Arm (1967), today in the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, represents a Roman gladiator's arm covered with leather straps and resting on a wooden panel (fig. I).2 It is a cast of Thek's own upper limb provocatively dislocated by ancient-looking straps and displayed in a case of modern material and design. It is not only set apart from the human body and away from the (Roman) period it is supposedly designed to represent; it is also set far from the arena in which the games took place, where the performing gladiators found their deaths. Thek's gladiator's leather straps imply that the arm belonged to a man who died young in bloody entertainment; the transparent case designates it as spolia, the reuse of older material or objects outside of their original place and order.3 Moreover, the vitrine turns the item called "arm" into a particular object of spectacle; it provides the inanimate body part with a new social life and environment.4

The innovative combination of the gladiator's hand, the modern case, and the artist's body as the mock-up model was unexpected in the 1960s, roughly two decades before the installation of vitrines made by Joseph Beuys and Damian Hirst.5 Thek's overwhelming series stimulated discussions ranging from the boundary between pop art and minimalism to the escalation of U.S. involvement in Vietnam at the time. The arm may call to mind associations of wounded soldiers and battlefields; however, when the arm is displayed in a museum or gallery, the viewer is expected to associate the vitrine containing the upper limb with anthropomorphic reliquaries, especially arm-reliquaries-particularly in light of the series' title. Thanks to the contemporary viewer's education and cultural knowl- edge, the inanimate object is updated with constantly shifting contexts and associations, and thus is always a relevant Thing in the sense of Bill Brown's theory.6

Hundreds of medieval arm-reliquaries are found today in church treasuries or museum collections around the world-including New York, where the public Erst encountered Thek's modern reliquaries.7 They are often made of precious metals and decorated with gems (fig. 2). The association between these reliquaries and Thek's work is even more obvious when viewing another of Thek's modulated arms, today in the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, this one made of wax and covered on its upper part with a fragile armor of real butterfly wings (fig. 3).8 The forearm wears the gladiator's straps with a corset rail and a touch of paint in different colors. The color of the wings and the paint classify the arm as a precious object. The wooden panel seen in the first arm is absent, but the leather straps and corset give the impression of a mechanical support to the valuable arm. It seems more a prosthetic arm than a fleshy one.

THE MARTYR, THE GLADIATOR, AND THE SOLDIER-SAINT

Thek's enshrined arms can serve to introduce the prosthetic arm of Jewish war hero and pioneer Yosef Trumpeldor (1880-1920) in a new context. Made of metal and leather, the arm was installed within a glass and wood vitrine, most likely in the 1940s or 1950s (fig. 4), and kept in Trumpeldor's House (Beit Trumpeldor), a museum and archive at Kibbutz Tel Yosef in the Jezreel Valley (northeastern Israel). Like Thek's gladiator arms, this prosthetic arm is a spoil of body, dislocated from its original context as relics usually are. The transparent framed container indicates that this material thing of the past is meant to be seen and esteemed by the viewer and to activate his or her conscience. Unfortunately, hardly any visitors come to Tel Yosef to view Trumpeldor's personal belongings, including the artificial arm. …

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