Emma Kay

The Bible from Memory


Not on display

Emma Kay born 1961
Lithograph on paper mounted onto board
Image: 315 × 195 mm
frame: 438 × 314 × 39 mm
Purchased 1999


The Bible from Memory is a text work in which Kay rewrote the Bible from memory in her own words, without recourse to the original. Her text, consisting of around 7,500 words, is set out in six columns resembling a page from an authorised version of the Bible (the ‘Authorised’ or ‘King’s’ version was translated under the commission of King James I of England and published in 1611). Kay designed the typeface to match the original text. As in older versions of the Bible, the first letter of every paragraph is enlarged to fill two lines. ‘God’ is cited throughout the text in capitals. Other capitalisations throughout the text (such as ‘the Floodgates of Heaven’, ‘a Dove’, ‘an Olive Branch’, ‘a Virgin’) imitate archaic English. The entire Bible, as retold by Kay, is presented on a single page only slightly bigger than A4. The text is printed in tiny 5.6-point type and requires great effort on the viewer’s part to read it. From a distance it looks like abstracted blocks of lined patterning. It was printed by offset lithography, which involves the transfer of an inked image onto an intermediary roller and then to the paper. This is the technique most commonly used in the commercial printing world. The Bible from Memory was created in an edition of twenty-five of which this is number nine. It was printed by Archer Press, London and published by the artist.

The text begins with a compressed version of the original words of the book of Genesis: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was GOD, and GOD was the Word. And GOD created the Earth and the seven seas in seven days, and on the seventh day he rested, and was pleased with what he had done.’ However, Kay’s convincingly authoritative tone quickly turns to satire as she switches to the voice and language someone might use telling a story to children and undermines the apparent authority of her text with wit and comedy. She describes Adam and Eve in blissful Eden, ‘discovering what was around them, eating fruit and stroking the other creatures who were their friends.’ The text recounts and explains key Bible stories from a late 20th century perspective, providing a contemporary version of the moral logic behind the ancient tales of retribution and forgiveness. In this way Kay notes an ‘unfortunate postscript’ to the story of Noah and the ark: ‘Noah abused one of his granddaughters, and was found out. He was confronted by the rest of the family and had to repent.’ Similarly of Jesus, she wrote: ‘what really got people excited and increased his following was his ability to achieve the impossible’. God, in Kay’s account, is an ambiguously cruel and vengeful, unforgiving and rather grumpy killjoy who is also occasionally merciful towards the faithful. She uses idiomatic terms and expressions in common usage, such as ‘the Fear of GOD’ [sic] to subvert the traditional stories. She has said of this work: ‘I didn’t have a religious upbringing, so I’m sure some of my sources came from school plays, musicals; Jesus Christ Superstar was very helpful ... What really shocked me when I was writing the stories was that they are so familiar. Everything has a moral dilemma and this was my morality. So I had a Christian morality. My Bible represents my knowledge of Christianity.’ (Quoted in Alison Nichols, ‘The Persistence of Memory’, black & white, March 18, 1999.) Although she recounts her Bible in a tone of innocent sincerity, Kay manipulates her material deliberately and skillfully. A wink to art history is provided by her reference to Eden as ‘also known as the Garden of Earthly Delights’, referring to the famous triptych by Flemish artist Hieronymous Bosch (c.1450-1516), which depicts the history of the world from creation, through the progression of sin to the torments of hell. The Garden of Earthly Delights is the central panel illustrating a world of sinful, carnal pleasure.

The framing of text as art began in the Conceptual movement of the 1960s. Kay studied art at Goldsmith’s College, London in the early 1980s and focussed on performance-related work. She returned to Goldsmith’s in the mid 1990s to do an MA (after having worked as a copy editor) and began compiling index-like lists of inanimate objects from a selection of novels, ranging from well known classics War and Peace (Leo Tolstoy, 1894) and The Diary of Anne Frank (Anne Frank, 1947), to pulp pornography. The Bible from Memory is her first ‘memory’ text. It was followed by Shakespeare from Memory 1998 (courtesy The Approach, London), three drawings The World from Memory I, II and III 1998 (I, II private collection, III Arts Council Collection) and Worldview 1999 (Tate P78340), an attempt to write down the history of the whole world from memory. Recalling facts and writing them down constitutes a performance, even though it takes place in private and is highly edited. Memory is specific to individuals, like a fingerprint. Although we may have memories of the same things, the detail will be personal. Kay’s memory of the Bible provides an impetus for the viewer to examine his or her own memories of the same common cultural ground. Like Tracey Emin in her handwritten CV 1995 (Tate T07632), Kay has used the framework of an established cultural entity to create a form of self-portrait.

Further reading:
Catherine Grenier, Catherine Kinley, Abracadabra: International Contemporary Art, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1999, pp.52-5, reproduced p.53
David Musgrave, ‘A to Z’, Art Monthly, May 1998, pp.29-30
Deborah Schultz, ‘Profile: Telling Tales’, Art Monthly, March 2001, pp.22-3, reproduced p.23
British Art Show 5, South Bank Centre, London 2000, pp.76-7, reproduced p.77, (detail) p.76

Elizabeth Manchester
October 2002

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