in Frieze | 05 NOV 93
Featured in
Issue 13

Common Ground

The Cave

in Frieze | 05 NOV 93

The meaning of an artwork can change overnight. When Steve Reich and Beryl Korot were writing The Cave, they could never have expected a possibility of an end to the fighting in the Middle East. In retrospect, their choice of subject seems like a premonition. For the mid-section of this long work of music theatre focuses on one of the sacred sites of two distinct religions: the burial site of the family of Abraham, the 'cave' of the title, where he not only buried his ancestors but, according to certain sources, had a vision of Adam and Eve, confirming an unbroken lineage from the Creation. In a sense, the family of Abraham is the Jewish faith. Having said that, a problem arises as it is also the Muslim faith. ('Ibrahim', a priest chants at the start of part two, was neither Christian nor Jewish but Muslim.) To highlight the repercussions of this claim, Reich and Korot show soldiers patrolling the temple at Hebron, the only spot on earth where the two religions worship side by side. As the camera circles around the interior, revealing a seated soldier, a rabbi adjusting the brim of his hat and a stone structure which is the tomb Abraham purchased, it dawns on the viewer not only that the mythic is unphotographable but also that the site in itself is relatively unimportant. Instead, the fact of its existence is the main concern.

With this site as its physical centre, Reich and Korot designed a complex weave of speech and music, a kind of anti-documentary in which fact is of less account than faith, sympathy, intelligence and sensitivity. The unseen interviewer asks a series of simple questions: 'Who for you is Abraham?', following this with Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac. And these questions are asked three times to Israelis, Palestinians and Americans respectively, each set of answers occupying one of the three acts. Responses to the questions have been edited together to create an intricate tapestry of information - of opinion, interpretation and personal feeling - not that the three are completely separable. Yet it is not information but the treatment of that information - the way it is transmitted, the nuances of the situations surrounding the biblical figures, which change from one speaker to another -that matters most in The Cave. The importance, the vitality of a faith lies in individual responses to simple situations, it seems to suggest, and (since the people we see in the first two sections have so much in common) the inference is that Muslims and Jews should be happy to share their roots. But this assumption is dispelled by the third part, set in the United States. Here awareness of the scriptures is less, and some of the subjects (including a youth of Red Indian extraction) know nothing about them. Is part three a dissipation of the previous argument? Or a lengthy coda which casts doubt on everything said so far, relegating it to the status of ancient history in a country where history might well be bunk?

Yet to talk simply about the dissipation of the argument as The Cave continues means ignoring Reich's music and Korot's videos. Based on Janacek's principle of speech rhythms, it follows certain repeated sentences and phrases extracted from the tapes, matching them with sounds of equal volume from the instruments on-stage, so that often for the first two or three repetitions no sense is gleaned. Only the way of speaking - the lilt of the voice, the emphases, the expressivity and obvious conviction of an interlocutor - registers. The abiding model for Beryl Korot's work is tapestry. In The Cave too, the idea of weaving is fundamental; not independent readings but an entire community of interpretation constitutes the basis of any faith. As the speakers are quoted, the same excerpts crop up time and again. Yet the focus is not simply on the words; it rests on their poetry and the belief registered by those words. Single sentences or phrases can achieve the poetry status of a haiku. Asked about the descendants of Ishmael early in the proceedings, a bearded man in black replies 'You can see them in the street.' The presence of the deep past, the sense of partaking in myth and myth making, impels the interviewees, who use biblical characters as means of testing their own responses and behaviour.

There is plenty to test. While the relationship between Abraham's wife Sarah and Hagar, the woman chosen to bear his child, divides feminists, for example, the role of Ishmael, proto-Existentialist par excellence - inspires a particularly American mythification. Most of all, perhaps, the speakers evoke the empty spaces of the book of Genesis, wanderings from country to country in search for home, roots, family, with only cryptic manifestations from God to help them. In The Cave the sense of exile is also strong, as is the desire for a homeland. The first two acts of The Cave are more positive about this than the concluding sequence, however. This is a collection of lost directions and weakened ties, the most risky and debatable section of all, in which thematic connections and shared knowledge or belief are nowhere to be found. Look at it another way. Look at it another way, regard The Cave as a study not of the Jewish faith but of the transmission of that faith, and it is obvious that just as a river consists of source and delta, a religion is perceptible in its origins and influences alike, however distant those influences may be. Despite the frustration of listening to the interviews in the concluding section, in which free association takes over from knowledge - the philosopher Arthur C. Danto talks about Herman Melville's Ishmael, for example, not his biblical predecessor - it is important to define the limits of the subject.

Indeed, in the non-discussion of the story of Abraham and Isaac (distasteful in Modern-day terms, first because it seem little more than a heartbreaking test of Abraham's love of God, second because it shows a petulant or wilful side of the Almighty) it seems that a limit has been reached: a limit of sympathy and simply of the ability to understand. At this far point, the structure of the Cave moves to conclusion. Three travellers pass by, Abraham invites them in and hurries to kill a calf for them to eat. But the calf runs into a cave, and when Abraham follows, he sees Adam and Eve sleeping on biers. He returns to his guests.'Entertaining angels unawares....'says the renegade monk Daniel Berrigan, and with this small coda instead of a full-scale conclusion, The Cave ends. By this time we have seen these 'caves'. They are just holes in the ground in a far country where everybody fights. 'Is this all?' we are tempted to ask. It is a perilously quiet conclusion. And to some extent it also has to be an arbitrary one, for there is no end to discussion. Yet sheer kindness in daily acts can mark the beginning of rapprochement. And what have Reich and Korot been doing but showing both sides of an argument? Far from wandering off the track, the third section has to be different in tone and breadth from the first two, for the shock of the second is that the level of debate, dedication and perceived relevance are equally high among the Muslims discussing the same topic. Returning to Adam and Eve.... what could be simpler? For we are all their children.

The complex multi-screen video presentation, the rolling written inserts; the exactness of the sound bites, their volume correctly matched by the volume of music that cancels them for the first, second or even third time, so that we have to work to make out what has been said; the small visual cues which the camera picks out as each of the speakers is in action, the inserted film of Hebron; the live singers and writers all working together faultlessly could destroy intimacy and reduce wisdom to a series of soundbites. Yet plotting speech-patterns, making a small leitmotiv for each speaker, turns the whole work into a kind of portrait gallery. And the cross-section of nations, ages and backgrounds turns the event into a kind of summit conference. Sometimes answers to questions do not take a logical route. And sometimes they turn into brief poems of their own. Indeed one function of the tapestry technique is to allow audiences to make up their own minds, or at least situate themselves relative to what is not only a political, but also a family feud. For if the startling change from Jewish to Muslim at the beginning of act two has any meaning at all it is not to contrast but to demonstrate deep connections between two major religions, with followers who would like to pretend they have less in common than is the case. The dangers of taking a long view in this third section are of loss of impact, of diminishing the contributions of specialists and of opening the topic to non-specialists. Certainly the American section seems to take shape more slowly than the previous two, and the sense of intellectual cut-and-thrust is diminished. Yet one advantage is to suggest that everyone has a stake in the outcome of the argument. The peace treaty mooted during the British performances of The Cave showed how true this is.