O Brave New Judaica

O Brave New Judaica

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Mierle Laderman Ukeles and Steven N. Handel, "I'm Talking to You": A Scent Garden, 2009, scientific vessels, natural materials. Commissioned by the Jewish Museum.

The exhibition reflects how deeply the practice of Judaism has been affected by recent social issues as well as by a persistent Jewish concern with injustice.

The Jewish Museum
Reinventing Ritual: Contemporary 
Art and Design for Jewish Life
New York, NY
Sept. 13 - Feb. 7, 2010

The premise of this provocative survey is that in Jewish life, presumably in reaction to consumer culture, there is a thirst for authenticity and meaning that only ritual, with its power to bring the sacred into the everyday, can satisfy. Curator Daniel Belasco of the Jewish Museum has assembled works by 57 artists, designers and architects, who over the past decade have rethought the rituals of Judaism, whether practiced inside or outside the synagogue. The works are organized into four sections-covering, absorbing, thinking, building-within which the objects relate to such actions as eating, drinking, counting and praying. For each piece a wall text describes the ritual that has been "reinvented" by the artist.

The exhibition reflects how deeply the practice of Judaism has been affected by recent social issues as well as by a persistent Jewish concern with injustice. Feminism, a fertile source of new rituals, has helped to bring women from the margins to more active roles in study and worship. Among the works representing women’s attempts to appropriate what have been male religious prerogatives is Rachel Kanter's Fringed Garment, referring to the striped prayer shawl, each of its four corners bearing the fringes required by law and traditionally worn by men. Creating a tallit for herself, Kanter combined an apron and a prayer shawl, fusing the female (domestic) and male (public) roles. A similar combination of seriousness and playfulness informs a work by Hadas Kruk and Anat Stein of Studio Armadillo, a take on the traditional learning of texts in the house of study. The plastic chessboard bearing 32 knitted skullcaps (worn by modern Orthodox boys), in red and green, is an analogy between this learning, done in pairs, and a chess game. That the skullcaps were knitted by female students at a yeshiva is a reminder of women’s growing access to religious education.

The impact of environmentalism is evident in works that champion sustainability through the use of recycled or humble materials, enunciating the Jewish ethical principles of “do not destroy” and “repair the world.” These include Ross Barney Architects’ totally green Jewish Reconstructionist synagogue in Evanston, il, represented by a model and photographs, Joe Grand’s candelabra constructed of galvanized steel pipe fittings from Home Depot, and Galya Rosenfeld’s light-reflecting Torah curtain and ark cover, woven of polyester IKEA curtains cut into Star of David shapes. And anyone with a backyard interested in combining joyous observance with practicality might find irresistible the sukkah by Allan Wexler, who works at the intersection of architecture, design, craft and conceptual art. This sturdy cabin is equipped with eating utensils in which to celebrate the seven-day fall harvest festival of Succoth, and, the rest of the year, it's a nifty gardening shed.

One of the most potent comments on injustice is Tamara Kostianovsky’s Unearthed, a cloth sculpture of a haunch of meat hanging from a hook. While the artist refers to the kosher slaughter of animals, a practice meant to be humane, her intention is to raise awareness of the moral responsibility involved in killing. In cool contrast to the visceral, as it were, intensity of the meat piece are the many design objects offering up-to-the-minute interpretations of conventional Judaica, such as Karim Rashid’s Menorahmorph, an undulating landscape of tutti-frutti colored silicone, and Leila Vignelli's ruffled silver Sabbath candlesticks, though they hardly seem a reinvention. Talila Abraham’s Dantela, of stainless steel etched to mimic lace, is intriguing in its inversion of the ritual of covering the matzo with a cloth at the Passover Seder.

Two works stand out as art capable of radiating spirituality in concrete forms. One is Mierle Laderman Ukeles and Steven N. Handel’s Scent Garden, meant to enact the havdalah ritual, marking the end of the Sabbath and the return to the quotidian. This grouping of laboratory vessels filled with spices, herbs, fragrant oils, seeds, flowers and grasses invites participants to use all the senses, especially the olfactory, to partake of the natural world. The other is Saphyr, an omer counter by Tobi Kahn, an artist of deep Jewish learning whose oeuvre has focused on the delineation of sacred space. This painted wood wall sculpture, a grid set with stonelike removable forms that is continually changing, relates to the counting of the 49 days between Passover and Shavuoth.

To respond to these and other works in “Reinventing Ritual,” familiarity with Judaism doesn’t hurt, though in the words of a much-quoted ad for rye bread, “you don't have to be Jewish” to be moved by them.

The exhibition travels to the Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco, Apr. 22-Sept. 28. The catalog is $39.95 from the museum and yalepress.yale.edu.