In tiny towers, artist tries to make sense of Babel

Posted: May 13, 2001

According to Genesis, God gave Adam and Eve dominion over Earth and its creatures. He did so by giving them the power to name all things.

The link between language and power, and language and God, is nowhere more apparent than in the story of the tower of Babel. It is commonly interpreted as a tale of ultimate human folly - an attempt to outdo God by constructing a way to reach Him physically and usurp His power.

Two words we have inherited from the story testify to that: babble, confused or incoherent talk; nimrod - from Nimrod, literally "we will rebel," the hunter-king who is said to be the tower's chief architect - a term of abuse for a babbling idiot.

The question of language is at the heart of "Babel," an exhibit of works on paper on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Jewish Art. The artist, Robin Miller of Savannah, Ga., reconstructed the biblical myth of the tower in a surprisingly literal yet ironic way: He has made five towers of Babel from the actual words in which the narrative is told in Genesis 11:1-9.

The towers, ranging from 2 1/4 to 4 inches in height, were built from photocopied versions of the story - one Hebrew and four different English editions. Miller cut out each letter, punctuation mark, and verse number and glued them one atop another.

The result is oddly compelling. Almost inconspicuous, like a slender finger or tiny white spine, each piece represents the mighty tower in a miniaturized form. And each tower retells the story - to follow it from base to top is to follow the words that construct the narrative.

"What I find interesting is how God dealt with the tower," Miller, 37, said in a phone interview from Savannah College of Art and Design, where he is curator of visual resources and an instructor. "He didn't tear it down. Instead, he confused their language so they couldn't communicate to finish the tower."

According to Jeffrey Tigay, professor of Hebrew and Semitic language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania, the story is most likely based on the early Jews' perceptions of Babylon, which housed an enormous ziggurat, or temple tower.

The physical incarnation of words and the corporeality of books are running obsessions for Miller, according to Heidi Nivling, codirector of Larry Becker Contemporary Art, which has represented Miller since 1991.

"With the towers, he has captured the power of words - especially the Hebrew letter, which contains an immense amount of energy - in a structure that almost looks like a natural object, like a piece of coral," she said. "And their size emphasize their density and energy."

Miller was raised as an evangelical Christian and has a master's degree in fine arts from Penn. His preoccupation with the Babel story extends beyond the text.

He sees the tower, he said, as the first "architectural folly," a term for the nonfunctional ornamental buildings that English nobility erected in the 18th century to mimic ancient ruins. And his towers are accompanied by a series of "Follies," drawings representing fragmented pyramids and other architectural elements. He drew his Follies on the back of old maps, which he then cut into pieces, drew upon again, and reassembled.

"The Babel Follies," he said, "read as architectural drawings by a team of architects who do not speak the same language."

If You Go

"Babel" continues to Aug. 19 at the museum in Congregation Rodeph Shalom, 615 N. Broad St. Hours are 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, 10 a.m.-noon Sundays. It is free. Information:

215-627-747.

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