The Power of Words (Then and Now) at the ROM
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The Power of Words (Then and Now) at the ROM

Photo of Joshua Neustein’s Margins courtesy of the ROM.

In the basement of the Royal Ontario Museum, the crowds marvel at the ancient Dead Sea Scrolls. They peer at the tiny Hebrew words, which form excerpts from the Bible and the Psalms. Upstairs on the museum’s third floor, an art installation explores the power of the word in a modern context.
The Koffler Gallery and the Institute for Contemporary Culture commissioned New York–based artist Joshua Neustein to create work inspired by the Dead Sea Scrolls. In response, Neustein unveiled Margins, an installation that meditates on the importance of the written word and the yet-to-be-written word.
The installation conveys that written words don’t just exist on the page. Throughout the installation, Neustein references the Jewish philosopher and poet Edmond Jabès, who believed that words exist in a different plane of reality altogether, independent of the page.
But step into the exhibition space, and it isn’t words the viewer notices first. It’s the giant crystal chandelier embedded in the wall.

Parts of the chandelier are buried beneath the plaster. “The way the chandelier emerges from the wall refers to the archaeological nature of texts that were discovered and dug out of the earth,” says Francisco Alvarez, managing director of the Institute for Contemporary Culture. At the same time, Alvarez says, the lights on the chandelier represent “how knowledge is transmitted through writing.”
The power of words to move beyond the page is underlined by how Neustein presents a variety of quotes from Jabès. “Does writing mean undertaking an ultimate reading, first in our mind, then through our own vocabulary, of a book whose necessity is our reason to be,” Jabès asks.
Neustein doesn’t just print the philosopher’s words in black ink. Instead, Jabès’s statements about writing, God, and silence are printed in a type of vinyl material that reflects the light. This suggests that “it is words that enlighten…but also light being shed on the words, on the story, on the narrative,” says the Koffler Gallery’s Mona Filip, who co-curated the exhibit with Alvarez.

Photos by Isaac Applebaum, courtesy of the Koffler Gallery.

Some quotes from Jabès appear on transparent sheets of acrylic, which represent once-empty pages. But several quotations have slipped off the pages and wound up on the museum’s floor, suggesting that the words have a life of their own.
In one area of the room, Neustein has drawn a sketch with graphite and then attempted to erase a portion of the sketch “to return to the blank, to the potential, to the empty page,” Filip says. But in the process, the original drawing only becomes more present. This, says Filip, illustrates that once something is written it cannot be entirely erased because it already exists in the world.
As for the title of the installation, Margins comes from The Book of Margins, a book by Jabès, which Neustein quotes several times in the installation. One quotation appears on an acrylic sheet on the floor. The philosopher states, “it is not in the margin that you can find me, but in the yet whiter one that separates the word-strewn sheet from the transparent, the written page from the one to be written…”
The title also references the Jewish tradition of rabbinic discussion. Known as the Talmud, these written volumes of debate follow a certain format on the page. In the centre is the text up for discussion. All around that text are interpretations and discussions from various rabbis. “That commentary space is actually surrounded by more margins,” Filip says, “where new commentary is supposed to happen, where your own interpretation comes in.”
Margins continues at the ROM until January 3, 2010.