In the few short months since Tommy Hartung (b. 1979) debuted THE BIBLE at the New York gallery On Stellar Rays, the idea that the video is a contemporary interpretation of the Old Testament has become a rapid orthodoxy, likely because the work is too daunting to approach without a sound bite on which to hang one’s hat. Whether or not this expansive claim truly captures Hartung’s intentions, the theory offers a suggestive thread by which to follow the video’s unruly progress and ask how this could be true, and, if so, what pertinence this might have for a viewer in the 21st century.
Neither synopsis nor ekphrasis are possible in the case of the THE BIBLE. One could agonize for hours over a description of a 10 second passage and still come up with only the most woefully inadequate explanation; to characterize Hartung’s aspirations as interpretive in any conventional sense is a stretch. One could say, however, that the video’s often-oblique relationship to its purported origin text becomes apparent in various, sly senses: through analogy, anecdote, allegory, and even abstraction. The leap of imagination (or faith) required to discern these points of connection may be considerable, but the surprising consequence is a vivid world in which an ancient text is made to live with us in the social and political present, often very uncomfortably. If, as we hear in the video’s opening minutes, “ordinary thought is not very subtle; it’s very coarse and a lot of things slip right through,” THE BIBLE is Tommy Hartung’s wild and unruly call for a much finer net, and it is very persuasive.