Menetekel behind the radiator


Menetekel behind the radiator


Amused Menetekels


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Installation at Galerie B2, Leipzig

August 2007

The consumption of safety suppressed our ability to recognise peril.

The biblical phrase ‘meneh meneh tekel u pharsin’ forms a statistical message, among other things: plenty > little > nothing. A graphic shape in three parts with sweeping, linear and reduced contours – each respectively different – was formed out of a flexible luminary sheet and glued onto the wall. A radiator was mounted in front of it. The light reflections slowly pulsate between the ribs.


The Babylonian king Belshazzar saw the mysterious writing on the wall during one of his popular banquets or bunga bunga parties (Old Testament, Daniel 5). The only one who was able to interpret the polysemy of character series, and to decipher their meaning, was the prophet Daniel. King Belshazzar was murdered the very same night, his kingdom divided up and given to the Medes and the Persians. ‘Meneh meneh tekel u pharsin’ is Aramaic: minae (meneh) and shekels (tekel) were weights or rather monetary units; ‘pharsin’ comes from ‘paras’ = to divide or separate. So the prophet interpreted the phrase in the following way: the Babylonian kingdom was once worth a mina, later only a shekel, and now you – Belshazzar – are a mere secondary coin: in other words, petty cash. Because Aramaic is a consonant script, new words can also be formed with other vowels: counted, weighed, considered too light. The Jewish concept of heavenly judgment foresees that good and evil deeds are weighed out and an appropriate judgement passed. So if someone is ‘missing’ something (in other words, is ‘too light’), then good deeds are lacking and they will (most likely) soon die.

The term ‘menetekel’ – the writing on the wall – is still used today to indicate a sudden (or perceived) warning of a looming catastrophe.

There is no reason why the menetekel should mean less today than back in the day of Belshazzar’s feast. Traces of risk mingle with what seems harmless; they hide behind user interfaces or in the nooks and crannies of life’s complexity, vanish behind safe rules and regulations, strict monitoring, holy seals of approval and the flood of abundance. They become illegible like small print, the mere presence of which is reassuring because everything has apparently been taken care of. Warnings unheeded wander around the home and hearth. At some point, the impossible confidently walks through the door. It might even ask our name. Yet we don’t have to ask who is coming.

The perspective from our position of comfort, an increased consumption of security and the lack of an organically grown relationship to risk all help to avoid reading fateful messages that are meant for us.

We might add that more probable risks – at best those of a ‘force majeure’ – hide behind more exclusive risks. Yes, we could even call them wishful risks. ‘With the exception of 1995 and 2001, more Americans died annually through strokes of lightning, moose, peanut allergies, bee stings and “pyjamas that caught fire and melted” than through terrorist attacks.’ (Steven Pinker, Violence)

Today, as in the past, statistical data are a warning sign for catastrophes that simply have to be read at the right time. Today, like then, interpreting this data relies on polysemy to dismantle apparent coincidences through semantic differences and to determine the true content of statements via scrutiny. (There are animals that can only perceive moving objects. To compensate for this lack of orientation, they themselves move.)

Order is nothing but a striving for order. Nevertheless, the multidimensional ordering of meanings can spontaneously result in a moment of zugzwang that creates surprising action – indeed, zugzwang is the unloved brother of residual risk. All of a sudden, the stock charts reflect events beyond the imaginable; paradisiacal resorts are flooded, survival changes sides and is now on the side of danger. The black swan (Cygnus atratus) stands as a metaphor – not just in financial theory – for such events which cancel out normality. The black swan was not known in Europe before 1697. After its discovery in Australia, the certainty that all swans were white disappeared.




Menetekel as measurements – contours as tendencies
Plenty --- little --- nothing

Rembrandt wasn’t there!


Belshazzar and the small print


Black swan behind the radiator


Room without supervision