Osiris as Method: the Work of Esper Postma
Osiris was the ancient Egyptian god of vegetation, afterlife and the dead. Green-skinned and often represented with a pharaoh’s beard and crown, his legs bound with mummy wrap. The etymology of his name refers to the ‘seat of the eye.’ Quoting Plutarch in The Golden Bough, James George Frazer gives a detailed description of Osiris’ faith. Son of the Earth-god Queb, Osiris introduces the Egyptians, “who forthwith abandoned cannibalism,” to the cultivation of grains. In an act of revenge his brother, Set, kills Osiris. His body is dissected into pieces and scattered along the Nile river. Mourning her brother and husband, Isis collects each fragment and buries it, leaving an effigy in every city of Egypt for the memory and worship of Osiris. According to other sources, Isis reassembles Osiris’ dissected body. As a result, Osiris comes alive and henceforth reigns over the dead in the underworld.
Dissections, cuts, fragmentations, tearing bodies apart: these are essential operations of a large number of religious sacrifices, cults and myths. Moreover, bodily dissections constitute a cultural technique, a fundamental element of the epistemic instruments in histories of Western and non-Western culture. They served as living allegories mediating the relation between complex natural phenomena and their cultural transformations. Emphasizing this, Frazer alludes to a structural resemblance between Osiris and the tragic divinities of Greek and Roman mythology, such as Adonis, Attis and Dionysus, leading some historians to assume that Dionysus was merely a disguised Osiris coming directly from Egypt to Greece. “Like the other gods of vegetation […] Dionysus was believed to have died a violent death, but to have been brought to life again; and his sufferings, death, and resurrection were enacted in his sacred rites.”
The work of Esper Postma can be seen as an exploration of this crucial gesture of dissection, one which is undertaken on the level of form and its historical, symbolic and cultural dimensions. Involving both the sensuous and the rational, the pathic and the epistemic effects of dissection, Postma’s gesture not only reflects its efficiency in the visual history of longue durée, but also performs and reinvents it in his practice. Subjecting public and imaginary architectures, iconographic and political representations, biblical stories and their cinematic reincarnations to a fundamental operation of a cut, his works reveal the complex temporality of surviving and hidden meanings. Dissections can effect various transformations. In the case of architecture, they can produce sudden relationships between previously isolated spaces, like in his installation Expressions of Guilt in Animal Behaviour (Gerrit Rietveld Academy, 2011), which is a dissection of a hypothetical museum of Natural History. Meticulously cutting through the building’s walls and its direct exterior, the work shifts the attention from the objects on display to the conditions that constitute their status as showpiece: knowledge production, the politics of archiving and museum display, as well as institutional architecture. Postma’s most recent project in collaboration with the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florence translates this ambition into a series of scale models. In his ongoing research, Postma applies the principle of dissection to a range of institutional and domestic spaces to interrogate the ideology inherent in their architecture and interior design.
Another form of dissection in Postma’s work involves the transposition of biblical figures into a new context. The comparisons this gesture invites reveal an afterlife of pagan motives as a driving force behind Christian systems of representation. Consequently, Postma’s works articulate various fractures and gaps in collective identity and the power of their symbolic representations. In this sense it would not be an exaggeration to state that Postma’s exhibition Salome (Westfälischer Kunstverein, 2019) invents its own Osiris-method in order to comprehend dissections and cuts not only as motives in the biblical story of Salome, but also as a formal and epistemological device. On the basis of case studies, the exhibition reflects on figurations of John the Baptist’s death and the way they have been interpreted over many centuries. Salome’s dance traverses medieval painting and sculpture as well as recent theatre and cinema; it offers a screen of projection and profanation to contemporary ideas about religion, gender and sexuality. The exhibition brings three elements into a constellation: a porcelain sculpture, Glossolalia; a video installation, Dance of the Seven Veils; and a historical object: a medieval wooden head of John the Baptist from the 15th century. The video installation consists of a montage of seven different films from cinema history featuring Salome’s dance in front of King Herod. Phantom-like figures emerge from Postma’s subtle superimposition of images from these films. This effect goes beyond merely echoing different ways that the dance and its protagonists have been interpreted throughout the history of cinema. Addressing the history of the medium itself, which enabled these manifold figurations, Postma’s installation liberates cinema’s most persistent phantasms and desires: its being an imagination and memory machine. Close to Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas, Dance of the Seven Veils invokes the visual memory of gestures through the juxtaposition of heterogeneous sources, animated by a dance. Just as for Warburg the method of montage enables a juxtaposition—a dance of affinities and conflicts—in which pagan and Christian elements are subjected to a crucial gesture of inversion and profanation. In alignment with the cinematic practice of Sergei Eisenstein, who saw montage as a prolific reincarnation of the Dionysus myth, Postma’s Salome makes these phantoms dance. Eisenstein thought of Dionysus as a figure at the threshold between ritual and art, and the montage as an instrument enabling the myth’s afterlife. He located its power less in its symbolic dimension, but rather in its operational logic: he regarded the film sequence as Dionysus’ dance of dissected limbs, cinematic movement as emerging from a dance of static frames. The gesture of cutting, which isolates and brings together various figurations of Salome, becomes even more manifest in Postma’s Glossolalia. The uncanny sculpture consists of porcelain casts of a male neck, isolated, reproduced, and extended into a long row. Shifting attention to the neck’s double function—support for the head and source of vocalization—‘glossolalia,’ or speaking in tongues, refers to the phenomenon of speaking a language without having previously learned it. In biblical stories it served as a sign of a divine gift. With the visceral impression given by the plastic naturalism of its pieces, Glossolalia itself becomes a proper body that morphs, redoubles and regenerates itself. Revealing Osiris’ afterlife through a double operation of dissection—the cut as a bodily fraction and epistemic device—Postma’s works put into question any progressive or teleological model of history. Rather, history appears as an eternal return: a ceaseless recomposition of fragments, disintegrating a supposed or imposed totality. In doing so, these dissections enable a revaluation of the myth in the age of global image circulation and the digital.
 James George Frazer, The Golden Bough (New York-London: Macmillan and Co., 1894) pp. 301-302.
 Ibid., p. 322.
 Sergei Eisenstein, Montaž [Montage], ed. Naum Kleiman (Moscow: Muzei Kino, 2000) p. 223.