Jacob Robinson and Kelvin Brown’s The Ten Commandments is currently showing at the Newbridge Project, Newcastle upon Tyne. The work was commissioned by AHRC as part of the Reconfiguring Ruins project, which aims to investigate the influx of contemporary art works that explore ruins as a subject matter.
The installation takes the form of three projection screens, the film sometimes creating a panoramic landscape across them, sometimes splitting into separate images. The soundtrack consists of audio clips from a discussion with two men that Robinson and Brown met in a Mexican Diner whilst working on the project.
Initially Robinson and Brown set out to find the remains of the set from Cecil B. Demille’s 1923 film, The Ten Commandments, which were buried beneath the sand dunes of Guadalupe once filming was finished. These replicas of the architecture of Ancient Egypt have themselves become the subject of archaeological digs. Whilst the majority of Robinson and Brown’s film does not feature these ruins (they are seen in the opening shots) their presence is felt throughout, lurking beneath the sand and creating a lens through which to view the unfolding narrative.
The story of the biblical Ten Commandments, upon which the first third of Demille’s film is based, is reflected in one of the discussions between the two narrators. The enslavement of the Israelites is replaced with a revealing of the dark history of Guadalupe’s Japanese Community being incarcerated after the bombing of Pearl Harbour. The second narrator expands on this through his discussion of the repetition of history; the once great Ancient Egyptian society is reduced to Hollywood artifice, which is in turn buried beneath the sand and the community that currently presides on top of these ruins dwindles as local businesses fail and the population decreases.
Visually all of the narratives are viewed through imagery that pays homage to the cinematography of its source material and in turn questions the nature of artifice and truth. It is the fine details in the work, that nod to these ideas, that make it such a compelling piece, for example the images of the monster trucks, themselves a stand in for the chariots of Demille’s film, which are then themselves replicated by a shot of a young girl driving a toy version in her family’s drive way.
Overall The Ten Commandments makes carefully conceived links between weighty ideas whilst not sacrificing any visual elements. In places the piece is let down by poor audio quality and slightly off projection mapping, which is quite distracting. This is unfortunate because it makes it hard to hear what the narrators are saying and thus it feels parts are lost. The work sits well as a companion piece to the overall discussions evoked as part of Reconfiguring Ruins, but is also solid enough to be viewed as a standalone piece.
The Ten Commandments continues at The Newbridge Project until 7 November 2015