The title Guardians of the Secret implies that there is a mystery to be unlocked. Looking at this painting, which element appears to be the most secretive to you?
- The rectangular shape in the middle
- The animal at the bottom
- The hieroglyphic-like shapes rendered throughout
- The figures on either side
Which elements in this painting—many of them hidden—might reveal themselves to be secret symbols?
Choose as many words as you like.
Berman’s work offers three different approaches to deciphering Hebrew text.
The Torah, or five books of Moses, is painstakingly hand-copied by master scribes, even in contemporary times. Tradition teaches that each of the 304,805 letters appears today exactly as it did when Moses received the text on Mount Sinai. The assumption that each Hebrew letter is figuratively set in stone, its shape and meaning inviolable, is evoked in Berman’s use of a rock instead of a canvas as a surface for the letters.
The Torah forms the bedrock of Jewish tradition. But thousands of years of biblical commentary have created another reality: interpretation, even radical interpretation, is valued as a holy endeavor in its own right. Berman takes this idea to an extreme, suggesting in this sculpture that the rearrangement of Hebrew letters—even if they appear to spell out gibberish—is an act of interpretation deserving of attention.
In Jewish tradition, each Hebrew letter is associated with a number; for instance, the first letter, Aleph, stands for the number one. Jewish mysticism takes this a step further, suggesting that there is a meaning to each letter beyond its literal significance. Berman’s decision to create a sequence of Hebrew letters that doesn’t form actual words suggests that these ancient symbols—like aspects of art and spirituality—have meaning beyond the literal.
Hover on the artwork to get a closer view.
Sinxay: Narrative as Dissolution #2, 2008. Ink and gouache on prepared paper. 89 1/2 in. x 59 1/4 in. Collection SFMOMA, Accessions Committee Fund purchase. © Shahzia Sikander. Photo: Ben Blackwell.