Published in “Museum Musings,” in the journal Images 10 (2017) relates to the exhibition Alchemy of Words: Abraham Abulalfia, Dada Lettrism (Tel Aviv Museum of Art, 2016).
The Aramaic phrase “simana milta hi” (“a [visual] signifier is real”) (Babylonian Talmud, Horayot 12a) carries crucial implications for the study of art. For me, it means to begin, as Abbaye suggests, by seeing: “le’mehazei” – “to behold” and in its German equivalent, “Ding an sich” (“the thing in itself”). The phrase was used by Immanuel Kant to distinguish between the noumenon – the “thing per se” – and the phenomenon – its perception. For Yvan Goll, the Dadaists, as well as for the Lettrist artists, “poetry must emanate the thing in itself, the ‘Ding an sich.’” These artists chose to override rationality and present random words and letters as well as hyper- or metagraphics to convey an immediate experience; in Isidore Isou’s terminology, a sense of immanence.
Abulafia went so far as to equate certain permutations with body organs, affecting them directly. Umberto Eco reiterated the concept in his novel Foucault’s Pendulum (1988):
"For months, like devout rabbis, we uttered different combinations of the letters of the Book. GCC, CGC, GCG, CGG. What our lips said, our cells learned. What did my cells do? They invented a different Plan, and now they are proceeding on their own, creating a history, a unique, private history. … And they have learned to do this now with my body. They invert, transpose, alternate, transform themselves into cells unheard of, new cells without meaning, or with meaning contrary to the right meaning. …. It’s the temurah. [permutation]."
Abraham Pincas Untitled (Abulafia, "Light of the Intellect"), ca. 1980, gall-nut ink, water-based pigments, varnish on parchment, 41.5x32 cm. Courtesy of Shoshana and Moshe Idel, Jerusalem