Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Hidden in Haggadot

With Passover fast approaching, our lab turned its attention to this important holiday. Noam Sienna joined the Artists' Lab to share his knowledge on the meaning hidden in medieval illuminated Haggadot. A talented calligrapher and illuminator, Noam pointed to his parents as a significant influence in his chosen direction.  His mother Rabbi Elyse Goldstein is an active feminist rabbi and writer. His father Baruch Browns-Sienna is a calligrapher who now works digitally. Noam grew up in a home filled with words and image.

Noam also was influenced by his professor Max Michael Epstein whose approach he supports and follows.  The approach says two things: 1) The makers of Jewish art were intentional in the choice of the images they used and 2) We need to bring an attitude of humility towards the art and consider what the original audience knew or saw that we might not know.

Most Haggadot have Biblical themed illustrations focused on the story of Exodus, often on full pages.  There are also images of the celebration of the Seder and the preparations for it. The third visual element often relates to the parts of the text, the four children or maror next to the blessing for it.  The Medieval Haggadot from before 1500 were luxury products, but were actively used as evidenced by wine stains and candle wax.

The Haggadot were written in Hebrew.  There were no translations until later and images were important as many did not read Hebrew.  Women were not educated as broadly so Haggadot for women were often heavy on the imagery. The Golden Haggadah was likely commissioned for a woman as it repeats an image of a woman throughout the Haggadah even when it is unexpected.

Noam pointed out a couple of interesting features in Haggadah images, some with meaning that we don't fully understand.  He showed one image of a seder with cats or dogs under the table. Both animals carry symbolism.

He also shared a image of the 1320 Golden Haggadah with the plague of frogs. This image is of Moses with his rod tapping a frog who in turn shoots out smaller frogs at the stand -in for Pharoah, the King of Spain.  Whomever was tormenting the Jews at that time became Pharoah in the Haggadah.  A little humor is hidden in this image.  The first frog is turned around, actually shooting frogs out of his behind.

There were often battles being waged with competing religious imagery. He first showed us an image of Mary, her infant and her older husband Joseph seated behind her on a donkey.  Contrasting with that is a similar image with a young Moses with his staff and a tree of life sprouting behind him. It is an image of potency. Behind him on a donkey is Zipporah with two infants. The subtext is this is a fruitful story unlike that of of Mary and Joseph.  There may have also been an element of masking, showing something familiar to Christian authorities who checked the manuscripts and had to approve them.

 Easter and Passover have visual links and the subtext in some Haggadot was that Easter is a mockery and perversion of Passover.  The process of making matzo is often shown to underscore there is no blood involved, an old trope often put forth by Christians of the time.

The more interesting elements are often hidden in the margins quite literally.  There Jews are often represented by hares, the subject of hare hunts, while inversions occur which show pigs or dogs serving the hares. The images above are from the Barcelona Haggadah at the British Museum.

The frequency of hare hunts in the Haggadah is attributed to the convergence of the German word for hare hunt with a mnemonic designed to remind us of the proper sequence of events when Pesach falls on a Saturday and Havdallah must be performed. The mneumonic YaKNeHaZ is an acronym  of the initial letters of five Hebrew words: yayin, kiddush, ner, havdalah, zeman.  It is a bit of whimsy that carries over to contemporary times, reflected in David Moss's Haggadah.

Moss used the eagle, a symbol for many countries, and in its claws places a rabbit. It is only in the last frame that the rabbit hops to safety.

Following Noam's presentation, Meryll led us in an exercise to think about how we would bring our creativity to our Seders this year.

We then welcomed several of the MCAD students from The People's Library.  The group began as a reading group and morphed into a student organized artist collective.  Their objective is to use art and education to address oppression in its many forms.

 They make use of exhibitions, community building, information sharing and knowledge building to accomplish their goals.

They have used screen prints to create signs for protests and put these skills to work with the eight words Robyn asked us to contribute on our work for our upcoming exhibition.  They took those words and made posters for each of us in a unique idea piece, personalized to our own community.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Always at Least Two

In these times of political turmoil, museums are faced with a question. How do they acknowledge that turmoil and the environment which many of us find disturbing, yet do it in a way that is appropriate and encourages dialogue. I recently returned from the conference of the Council of American Jewish Museums, where this question occupied center stage. Our local MIA has found a creative way to respond with their exhibit Resistance, Protest, Resilience.  The exhibit presents 60 photographs of protests and their accompanying movements both nationally and internationally.

The Artists' Lab met at the exhibition where Krista Pearson and Paige Dansinger led us through a series of thoughtful exercises as we digested the content and responded to it from our own experience. The exercises are based on Global Thinking Strategies and Project Zero.  We were asked to break into small groups, explore the gallery and select a photograph to which we responded.  We were then asked to consider the 3 Ys, 1) Why this topic matters to me? 2) Why might it matter to people around me? and 3) Why might it matter to the world?

A photo nearby caught my eye and I motioned to my group to join me.  In the center was a woman, obviously expressing displeasure to a group of men who appeared to be trying to figure out how to respond to her.  Some were laughing, others had their arms crossed over their bodies protectively. Most were young men, but one older gentleman out of Central Casting was looking askance.  I read the nearby text which reported that the photograph by Danny Lyon was in downtown Atlanta in 1963. Demonstrators were protesting segregation and unfair hiring practices while a mob began to abuse them with kicks and burning cigarettes. Note the young man in front holding a cigarette. Was he one of the attackers? A woman was walking by with a box of typing paper and bravely chose to confront the mob. Someone yelled, "If you feel that way, why don't you marry one of them?" She sat down and joined the demonstrators.

The question that confronted us was "Would we speak out?"  I thought about when I was preparing to attend the DC Women's March and read that you should record a phone number on your skin with a pen in case you got arrested.  My first thought was, "I'm not going to get arrested!" That was quickly followed by the thought, "What if I did? How would I feel about that?"  We live in our safe bubbles, but protest is not always safe.  At what point do we put ourselves at risk to support something in which we believe?

The woman in this picture had clearly made that choice. Her physical safety was somewhat protected by the snide "little lady" attitudes expressed by the smirks of some of the men. They were ill at ease with a woman confronting them, but hemmed in by society's expectations of how one treats a lady.  She was a white woman confronting white men, whether that restraint would be true for a black woman is more questionable. I liked her hand on her hip and the way she leaned forward, occupying her space. I would hope that I would be that brave, but am not sure if I would.  The men felt disempowered by her confrontation and tried to attack her verbally, but she was having none of that.  This image is about the power that one person can exert.

We also spoke of the photographer as witness. He was standing in the same spot we now stood when he took the picture. I wondered if the young man in the center smiling was responding to the camera. The photographer chose what to photograph and the perspective he wished to reflect.

When we looked at the broader world, we talked of the recent photograph of the Republican legislators around a conference table. This roomful of men were discussing the exclusion of  women's health care as a requirement in the recently defeated health care bill.  We noted that in many ways it hasn't changed much since the 1963 photo was taken. Men continue to hold the power and women need to continue to challenge.

We gathered as a group and shared our responses to the different selections. Jonathan  offered this pithy reminder courtesy of Ansel Adams who was asked why he never had people in his photographs. He responded that there are always at least two people, the photographer and the viewer.

Our second exercise was about beauty and truth.  We were asked to select a photograph and respond to these questions: 1) Can you find beauty in this story? 2. Can you find truth in it? 3) How might beauty reveal truth? 4) How might beauty conceal truth?

We found this one more difficult and struggled with how to define beauty. Was it a well constructed photograph? We were drawn to a photograph that was quite strong in terms of composition, but also puzzling.  We soon abandoned the questions, and instead considered how we evaluate it when we don't know the context.

The photo was titled "Demonstration Against War in Vietnam," seemingly straightforward, but less so when you realize it was taken in Beijing by French photographer Marc Riboud in the 1960s.

On the placards are images of Ho Chi Minh and Mao.  We assumed these were anti-American demonstrations. The partially cut off man in the corner, the man with the Mao hat in the middle echoing the image of Mao and the raised hand and open mouth of the third were powerful. The image rose in stair steps with a clear upward arc.  We spent a lot of time trying to figure out the story behind the image, only recalling bits and pieces of the history we had lived through.

It made me consider the fact that for each of these photographs, my first assessment was who were the good guys? Who were the bad guys? Often it was an assessment of who had power and who didn't. Race and gender were visual clues. Without a firm knowledge of the context, we were sometimes unsure in that assessment. Not knowing how to frame the image was unsettling. In these times of political turmoil we make much the same assessment, dividing the world into good guys and bad guys.

As we regrouped and discussed the different images selected, some talked of another photograph by Marc Riboud with a young woman holding a flower before soldiers. They asked the question of what if the woman was black or wearing a burkah. Just as in our original photograph, it would alter the perception of danger, the power dynamic.  Sometimes the story is not just about who is there, but who isn't and how that would change the story.

The process by which we interacted with the photographs added a dimension that we would not have experienced had we just walked through the show. The show runs through April 2nd.  Stop by, find a photo to consider and try these questions. 

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Transgressing the Law

Haleluyahs filled the room as our session began with a song. Drawn from  Psalm 148:1-6, these lyrics ended with an unusual line Chok natan v'lo ya'avor.   Chok natan means the law as given. V'la ya'avor, but it can't be transgressed.

Or as the link translates: He hath also established them for ever and ever; He hath made a decree which shall not be transgressed.  "What does that mean?" asked the rabbi.  In each of our sessions, I always look for the connection to our theme, my personal search for "find Outside-Inside", the "find Waldo" equivalent. Sometimes I have to dig a bit with the ah-ha only coming as I write. This seemed to address it up front, a discussion on boundary transgressions.

Rabbi Davis reminisced about when he was interviewed for his current post.  He was asked,"What is your Chok ya'avor." What is your bottom line?  What won't you do?

"Is there a time when it is OK to transgress the law?" he asked.

We replied...
   To save a life
   An issue of conscience
   When the law is wrong (eg. Jim Crow laws)
   To survive

He noted that there is a hierarchy of laws and Torah law has priority over rabbis' laws.  Additionally it is possible to violate a law intentionally, by accident, or because one didn't know that there was such a law. Circumstances can matter.

Having established that some transgressions may be acceptable despite Chok ya'avor, we moved into a discussion of Ruth, both her genealogy and geography. In the handout (Ruth1) we turned to Ruth 1:1-6.  In brief, Elimelech married Naomi and they had two sons, the sons married and then all of the men died leaving Naomi with her two daughters-in-law
Ruth and Orpah. Now the salient part of this is that both Ruth
and Orpah were Moabite women.

The Moabites, as their name implies, are descendants of Moab who was a child of Lot and his eldest daughter.  The Ammonites descended from Lot's incest with his younger daughter. We turned to Genesis 19:30-38 where we find that after Lot's wife turned to a pillar of salt and Sodom and  Gomorrah were destroyed, Lot and his daughters became cave dwellers, certain that they were the only ones left on earth. Out of that fear, his daughters sought to perpetuate the human race by laying with their father. You can find both the lands associated with the two sons, Moab and Ammon, on the maps of the region.

Where else do the Moabites appear? Well as the children of Israel traveled to Moab, the king of Moab was frightened of their large numbers.  He sought to have a curse put upon them Numbers 22:7.

God had cautioned the Israelites not to mess with either the Moabites (Deut: 2: 8-9) or the Ammonites as their land was to go to the descendants of Lot.

And then we come to Deut 23:4-7 
which instructs us that the Moabites and Ammonites cannot be admitted to the congregation of the Lord.  And why is this?  They weren't good hosts.  They failed to offer the Israelites food and drink when they traversed their land.  Even though the Israelites had plenty of manna, the test is not want, but hosting generously. In addition they went so far as to curse them which turned into a bit of a boomerang with God turning it into a blessing instead.  The punishment is quite harsh with ten generations suffering under this restriction.  And then lo and behold, along comes Ruth, a Moabite.  Not only is she a Moabite, but she ultimately becomes the great-grandmother of David. How does this come to pass after the Moabites are persona non-grata?

Rashi notes while a Moabite and Ammonite are banned, it says nothing of a Moabitess or an Ammonitess.  A more contemporary view is proposed by Lesleigh Stahlberg (Ruth2 handout) in which he considers this story as supporting the embrace of same-sex marriage over strict law abidance. The marriage of Ruth and Boaz, celebrated by the community and God, may mean that this is a biblical precedent for  "communal transgression of a law in the name of love."

The upshot of this discussion is that not all rules are written in stone, despite those two tablets that were. When they are and when they aren't was not always apparent.

Kathe Kollwitz - Woman With Dead Child 1903 (PD-Art-70)
Following this discussion Jan Rubenstein took us into an exploration of work by Kathe Kollwitz and Roger Shimomura.  Kollwitz focused on themes of hunger, poverty and war.  She was an expressionist and the first woman admitted to the Prussian Academy of Arts. Under the Nazis her work was banned and she was unable to exhibit.  War was a central experience in her life and her art, losing both a child and a grandchild to it.  She served as the moral conscience to Germany. Jan shared many of her woodcuts with several from her war series as well as etchings like the very powerful Woman With Dead Child where the woman's body merges with her child.  A museum of Kollwitz's work now exists in Berlin.

Roger Shimomura was born in 1939.  His family was moved from Seattle to the Japanese internment camps in Washington and Idaho and were there from 1941-43.  He was influenced by Warhol and a show recently ended at Augsburg College titled Mistaken Identity.  The name references the identity that was placed upon him, perceived as a non-American, despite being born an American.  A large assortment of his work can be found at the Greg Kucera Gallery. Some is cartoon-like while other work reflects traditional Japanese imagery with a twist that speaks to his experience.  I especially liked one of a young child on a tricycle, the age that he would have been during his internment. that says through barbed wire "Our American eyes, aslant like Kamikazi, blink in disbelief as barbed wire encircles and machine guns take aim."

Jan closed by offering us a source at MOMA if we would like more information on printmaking.

The last part of our session was led by Aaron Greenberg/Silver who currently has a show of papercuts that make use of words at the Tychman Shapiro Gallery.  Aaron grew up in New Jersey and lived in New York, but has been in Minneapolis for the past eight years. He has worked in watercolor, clay, prints, metal sculpture and for the past five years, papercuts. He prefers the ease and accessibility of this medium. Aaron shared a number of his works with us.  Often his inspiration comes from words that he hears in synagogue.  The show is up through March 26th.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

A Prophet's Life

An appalling and horrible thing has come to pass in the land. There is prophesy in the service of falsehood.Wicked men have become rich and powerful and have grown fat and sleek.
Their evil deeds have no limit... they do not seek justice. They do not defend the just cause of the poor.

Hmm,  lies, fat cats and a blind eye to the poor.  "Is this modern day commentary?" some mused. In fact it dates back to 625 CE and our friend the prophet Jeremiah (5:27-31) as he tried to get the people of Judah to pay attention. Some things never go out of style.

Our discussion focused on this prophet who was first selected by God when he was a child.  God promised that he would put his words in Jeremiah's mouth and sent him out to convince the people of Judah to mend their ways. (Jeremiah 1:1-19) He offered to spare them if he could find a man who sought truth, an unsuccessful effort.  The people who survived were exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon. Jeremiah then wrote a letter to their new abode offering some hope and encouraging them to live their lives, build houses, marry and have children in peace and prosperity. If all goes well in seventy years God will bring you back. And by the way, don't believe those lying diviners. (Jeremiah 29:1-14)

We turned our attention to the poetry and allegory found in Jeremiah's language. His language is simple, clear and direct with easily understood symbolism. (As a cistern welleth with her waters, so she welleth with her wickedness) He makes use of opposites, the rhetorical question and parallel structure. It resembles what we would call spoken word poetry today and stays with you like an ear worm.(Jeremiah Ch 5,6)

Allegory is found in several sections, but let's take a look at one of them, the potter (Jeremiah 18:1-12) who marring a pot merely remakes it to another one. God notes that he is the potter, we are the clay and we best hope we aren't flawed or some remaking will occur. Jeremiah also makes use of a bit of performance art. At the behest of God, he wears a yoke around his neck as he urges rulers to submit to the yoke of the Babylon ruler. (Jeremiah Ch 27, Ch 28) It made me recall the female college student who carried a mattress around campus to protest a sexual assault.

Jeremiah didn't fare well with his message. The people decided to ignore him and "smite him with the tongue"  (Jeremiah 18:18-23) then he was whipped and placed in the stocks (Jeremiah 20:1-2).  Finally he was placed in a cistern to die only to be saved by the ultimate outsider, a black eunuch (Jeremiah 38:1-28).

Being Jeremiah was not easy.  He never married, had no children and saw something that nobody else seemed to think was wrong. He was often turned upon as that unpleasant messenger. Speaking up brings him abuse and yet not speaking up is challenging also.  In Jeremiah 20:7-18 he begins by bemoaning this dilemma and then once again allies himself with God.

A prophet's life is not an easy one.  He is always the outsider. (Jeremiah Handout)

Meryll concluded by asking if we as artists express our anger, dismay, moral outrage and visions of the future in our art.  This was an appropriate lead-in to the second half of our session which was led by Phil Rosenbloom and focused on an artist who did just that. Phil had recently attended a show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art of work by Emily Jacir, a Palestinian artist. Her documentary work Where We Come From asks Palestinians around the world to answer a question.  " If I could do anything for you anywhere in Palestine, what would it be?"     The responses are often poignant, even more so the more mundane the activity that is now not available to them. 

Her responses included:

Climb Mount Carmel in Haifa and look at the Mediterranean

Go to Haifa and play soccer with the first Palestinian boy you find.

Plant some pomegranate tree seeds in Palestine. My parents came from a village called Dhinebeh near Tulkarm. When I was growing up we would spend the spend the summertime at my grandparents' house there (when we could get visas). I remember the orchards all around the house, the orange trees and the pomeganate trees.

Jacir then performs their request for them providing a photograph of this effort, an actual crossing of boundaries as part of her concept.  In doing this she completes the circuit, making a human connection.  Her project was inspired by the question asked at airports, "Are you carrying anything that someone has given you?"

As I researched her work after the lab I ran across an interesting discussion about a sign that the museum posted (see below). Some objected to their posting of it.  It struck me as fairly innocent and an acknowledgement that there were competing views, perhaps a disclaimer that the views of the artist do not necessarily represent those of the museum.

SFMOMA is committed to exhibiting and acquiring works by local, national and international artists that represent a diversity of viewpoints and positions. Works of art can engender valuable discussion about a range of topics including those that are difficult and contested, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Additional information about Emily Jacir’s Where We Come From, including a list of frequently asked questions, is available at the information desk in the Haas Atrium.

We each read one of the selections and then discussed our reactions.  Many were touched by the human aspect of the project, some disturbed. There were also those who felt manipulated.  We all respond to the lives and stories of individuals, but these were presented without context, designed to sway public opinion without presenting facts.  The use of the word exile felt charged when used by those who were not born there.  Some felt that this was more documentation than artistic. 

As I listened to this discussion I found myself thinking of a contrasting narrative, when I first learned of the 800,000-1,000,000 Jews who were forced to leave Arab lands leaving everything behind.  I had attended a film on their experience and was confused and shocked. How did this fact escape the narrative?  Since then I have read of the individual experiences of Arab Jews forced from their home, no less poignant than Jacir's work. A contrasting narrative of their memories of their one-time home would have caused this to present a fuller picture on the experience of relocations driven by political upheaval, two sides of the same coin, but presumably not the message the artist was going for. Because they were absorbed within the Israeli population, rather than used as a political football, they receive far less copy.

We concluded by noting that this can best be extrapolated to reflect the experience of those who are other, regardless of the source or politics.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Bridges, not Walls

Have you ever built a wall?  Many of us have, erecting walls  built of judgments, layering on the thick mortar of preconceptions.  Our recent lab discussion was particularly timely.  Many of us are challenged today by how to reach out to others who often seem to live in a different world. Assisting us in that effort, Sarah Routman led an exploration of "judging favorably," an examination of how to  suspend judgment as we explore differences in a way that builds bridges rather than walls.

In small groups we discussed feelings around judgment. We considered the fact that being public and visible exposes us to judgment, a territory that goes with being an artist.  In addition to our fear of judgment from others we are often our harshest judge.

The Critic by Hanan Harchol
We began our exploration with a video titled the Critic from Jewish Food for Thought.  Animated in the style of a graphic novel by Hanan Harchol, this video is a dialogue between Hanan and his mother about relationships and the difficult interactions they often require, offering us the option of really connecting or walling ourselves off.  Our friends at the Covenant Foundation funded this effort as well as a guide that links the discussion to Jewish thought.

If you missed the discussion, you will want to first watch the video.

So what did you think?  In our discussion we identified a number of takeaways...

How we frame something makes a big difference in our response.  Judgment is often embedded in our word choice as we talk of "faults".  In fact a "fault" may just be the flip side of a positive quality carried to an extreme.  Our perspective is colored by whose shoes we are standing in.  Often the flaws we see in other people are the same flaws we struggle with in ourselves. When we focus on what we appreciate in someone else and give them the benefit of the doubt, we allow for the creation of a new understanding together.  Frequently we think of differences as win-lose when in fact it is in our interest to give the benefit of the doubt and seek more information before coming to any conclusion.  By not framing the discussion as adversarial we minimize defensiveness and allow for real dialogue.

In The Critic we noted that Hanan's mother modeled "judging favorably" in her response to her son.  She leads by the power of example, listening, seeking information, clarifying and using her own experience as a teaching point.

Jewish tradition realizes that judging is a natural part of human interactions so it doesn't exhort us not to judge, rather it urges us to give others the benefit of the doubt.  The Pirke Avot 1:6  tells us "make for yourself a teacher, acquire for yourself a friend/study companion and judge every person positively."  In fact the Talmud speaks of giving the benefit of the doubt as one of the six behaviors that will benefit us not only in this world, but in the world to come.

Jewish thought goes on to say that "one who judges his friend favorably will be judged (by God) favorably."  Psalm 121:5 refers to God as our shadow. So what does that mean?  It was proposed that we create God by our actions. Perhaps our shadow is another way of speaking of karma, meaning that when we do good things it comes back to us. Conversely if we put out harsh judgment we receive bitterness.

Judging favorably requires us to really listent and put ourselves in someone else's shoes. Proverbs 10:19 reminds us that "closing one's lips makes a person wise."

We concluded our discussion with a brief video from Denmark titled All That We Share.  It's message: So often we live in our boxes, interacting with others who think like we do. In fact we actually have much in common with others outside of our box.

The latter part of our session was devoted to laughter. So what does laughter have to do with judging?  Judgment comes from a tight place, laughter from an easy place.  Perhaps to let go of judgment we need to lighten up.  In fact research shows that we cannot physiologically be both angry and laugh at the same time.  Laughter alleviates fear, boredom and anger, those qualities that are so critical to the art of wall building. Sarah specializes in Laughter Yoga (handout- Laughter Yoga) and led us through some exercises geared at activating the physiological response of laughter and joyousness. We clapped and chanted, smiles flowed into laughter, soon our laughter was deeper and wider, we wrinkled our noses as laughter enlarged, laugh lines 'bout our eyes as we reached to the sky.

And so we ended our session with play, and a judgment-free zone concluded our day.  Which leads me to add a recommendation from Sarah, Dr Seuss'  Star-Bellied Sneetches discover, a truth that they quite wisely uncover, that differences really don't at all matter, as they tell us their story in Seussian patter.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Esprit Decor

We arrived at the Walker Art Institute for a gathering of the Artists' Lab. As we entered through a passageway from the garage, I stopped in confusion, startled by the changed space which still had an odd sense of familiarity.  It was not unlike visiting a home I once lived in under new ownership. As I surveyed the newly renovated space, I first noticed a new restaurant to my left with a wall filled with colorful small images. Through the darkened glass front I saw activity and heard the low buzz of people visiting over drinks.  A small shop was in the entry to the right and I fought the urge to check it out as it called out to me with its eclectic curated goods. In the front of the space, the image on a large screen moved fluidly, dissolving from one colorful image into the next. Before it was a seating area that evoked grey cushioned stones. The interior was new and I examined it with interest, yet the bones of the old Walker remained, an odd juxtaposition of past and present. Mentally I placed Frank Geary’s large glass fish in its one-time location thirty years earlier, anchoring past to present.

We were here to view a show titled Question the Wall Itself (see handout). What does that mean I wondered? It is hard to think of walls these days without politics attached. The show includes work by 23 artists with a focus on how walls define space and what we put within our space, an exercise the Walker no doubt went through in their redesign. The artists bring an international perspective, representing Europe, the Middle East, South America and the US. Fortunately for us we had Walker Educator Ilene Krug Mojsilov to guide us through what would have been a bewildering exhibition without some context.

The focus was on what Belgian artist and poet, Marcel Broodthaers, termed esprit décor, a play on words as the focus was in fact décor and its significance.  The number of artists was overwhelming so it was useful to break them down into clusters.  We broke into three groups and were each assigned four artists to consider. My group examined the work of Theaster Gates, Akraam Zaatari, Park MacArthur and Lucy MacKenzie. We were asked to consider what issues (religious, geo, sociopolitical) were addressed in their work. What were the similarities or differences in how they presented and investigated content? What does the viewer need to bring to the experience? 

We began our exploration with Theaster Gates, an activist artist who creates conceptual art and is also a potter. Gates makes something out of nothing. When he sees buildings being demolished he rescues fragments and preserves them as art. A crumpled poster of Martin Luther King was locked behind glass in a case that likely once contained a bulletin board in a school. His focus is on salvaging fragments of history. Two slabs of stone, much like crypt covers, lay on the ground. One was engraved with House Nation, the other with Founders. Sharon Zweigbaum offered some context when she advised us that House Nation refers to house music within the African American community. We considered whether Founders related to Gates’ focus on found art.  

We moved into an adjoining room where we found the work of Akraam Zaatari, two corner walls filled with images of prisoners and their postcards to friends and family from the Israeli prisons where they were held.  An English translation accompanied them.  Zaatari calls his practice field work.  Some found the postcards disturbing as several of them implied a focus on martyrdom.  "One person's Lebanese freedom fighter is another person's terrorist," commented one within our group. Zaatari's piece is titled All is well on the border. Untold.  

As we rounded the corner we found metal poles draped with worn pajamas. At first I responded to the comfort of the fabric, then we learned that their creator, Park MacArthur, spends much of her time in a wheelchair. Surrounding the clothing were several bumpers affixed to the wall.  We talked of how much of her life was spent in squeezing into a wheelchair, clothing, spaces.  The intimacy of the clothing invited us into her experience and the work spoke to the challenges of both architecture and being confined to a wheelchair and dependent on others.

We moved into another room where we found the work of Lucy MacKenzie which filled the central part of the room. The piece was based on the Loos House and mimicked the layout with partial walls all covered in trompe l’oeil to reflect green marble. The space supported gender behavior where the lady of the house was in an elevated room from which she monitored the needs of those in the room below.

The work that we viewed addressed specific spaces through the lens of history, politics, disability and gender. Each artist had a viewpoint that was expressed through their work. Many were researchers and gathered  elements from culture within their artwork. An overriding theme seemed to be limitations, those of lost history, a jail cell, physical limitations and gender limitations. We agreed that we need to bring an open mind, open eyes and curiosity as well as seeking explanation and context to fully appreciate this work.

Now that leaves nineteen artists and I am not going to attempt to address them all, but I wanted to make mention of some that I found particularly engaging. I found the work of Walid Raad interesting on a visual level, but was also intrigued by his underlying thoughts.

His work consisted of multiple wall segments within a museum setting as he addresses the expansion of museums in the Arab world. There is no artwork on the walls, but a carved shape that outlined their frame. The suggestion of a parquet floor is at the foot of the wall. It was suggested that this might have added significance since prayer is done on the floor. Raad noted that there were no shadows in the museums he observed so he lights his walls so shadows become part of the exhibition. The title of the piece is Letters to the Reader and many of the carved forms resemble letters. His work brought to mind that of Lucio Fontana who created art by slashing his canvases. 

Many of the works that we viewed made use of mirrors to bring us into the space, Jannette Laverriere did a homage to Gustav Courbet, suggesting his piece Origin of the World with a mirrored sliver.

Nick Mauss uses mirrors as the backdrop for his work that echoes the work of Florine Stettheimer.

As we concluded Robyn left us with the question...What do our walls and decor say about us? As I reflected on that question, I considered the fact that I have always been drawn to  sight lines and light. It is a constant choice between inviting in the outside and walls for artwork, balancing interiors and exteriors. I love to be able to sit in one room and view another room's contents. I also enjoy the interaction between artwork and objects. I like to think of them having a conversation. Artwork needs to engage not only with the viewer, but also with its surroundings. Seemingly my choice of artwork and objects advocates for interaction and dialogue. What does yours advocate for?

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Softening the Sharp Divides

We began our lab with one of my favorite activities, word analysis.  The rabbi fired words at us, one after another, asking if we knew what they meant.

Maariv -evening service
        Maarav -from the west
                 Arov  -wild beasts
                      Erev rav - the mixed multitude
                            Erev - woof (as in weaving)
                                     and finally to our theme...

Eruv - a boundary

"What do they have in common?" he asked.

All share the same root. Each contains these three letters:  ayin raish vet.

What an odd mixture of words, and rather appropriate. The word from which they are derived actually means "mixture."

So let's take a look at what an Eruv is and how it relates to this common root.  The rabbi beckoned us to the window with a view outside of Beth El.  "There is the Eruv, " he said, pointing.  I looked around trying to figure out what I should be looking at.  Barely visible, a thin string blended into the grey sky.  

The rabbi directed our attention to Exodus 16:29-30, that first instruction to rest and "let no man go out of his place" on Shabbat.  We are told that we are not supposed to do any malachot, any kind of creative work on Shabbat.  The rabbis spell out 39 categories of work that fall within this. We get a few more specifics in Jeremiah 17:21-23 where we are told not to carry burdens through the gates or from our homes on Shabbat (see Eruv handout).

Hence the Eruv.

The Eruv is a device that allows Jews to observe Shabbat more freely.  If we are not supposed to leave our homes carrying something on our person, transferring it from one place to the other, then why can't we just expand our homes? And so we did.  We created a boundary, a string or perhaps a wall, that makes a public domain a larger private domain.  There are some rules that govern the Eruv.  You can't have more than 6000 people passing through the area for it to qualify. Now it isn't the string that is the Eruv. It is a shared meal, what could be more Jewish? To define an Eruv you must set aside food for a public meal.  The rabbi reminded us that in a synagogue some of us visited in Israel, the Eruv was defined by a container holding matzo. There is a blessing that is said by the rabbi to establish the Eruv.

The Eruv is composed of two poles and a lintel over a figurative doorway. It is a permeable border which allows the light of holiness to flow forth to the larger community. (Besht 18th century Poland).

The concept of the Eruv is linked by King Salomon to Netilat Yadaim, handwashing.  Together these two concepts mean conjoined, but spiritually clean.  When we grasp our hands for hand washing the right hand is above representing loving kindness.

So how does the Eruv relate to the concept of a mixture?  By expanding our private space to include our neighbors, we are joined with them, an inclusion, rather than an exclusion.  How do some of those words similarly derived relate to this concept? Well evening conjoins day and night.  It is that space in between.  The sun sets in the west so that also links to evening.  We conjoin to form a weaving. Mixed multitudes speak for themselves, in many voices no doubt and wild beasts, well let's assume we have quite a mixture of them.

Jonathan Sacks speaks of the Eruv as softening the sharp divides of boundaries.

Now the Eruv is somewhat controversial in the real world. The modern Orthodox want the Eruv, the Lubavitchers feel it creates confusion as to where they can carry on Shabbat.  This division has become so heated that it broke out in Seussian rhyme.  Even Jon Stewart joined in on the divide over the Eruv in Long Island.

The second part of our session was led by Simone Williams. Simone had purple dreadlocks and an energy that immediately filled the room and pulled us into their orbit.  Oh, the pronouns Simone goes by include they, them, theirs.Simone is a spoken word poet, organizer, educator, artist, actor, playwright, queer, trans, black, white, Jew.   There are a lot of people in there doing a lot of interesting things. The boundaries that most of us use to define ourselves are much broader for Simone. They shared some of their visual artwork with us, collages with text and image.  They also read some spoken word poems which were exceptional in both content and delivery. 

Simone Williams
Simone took us through some interesting exercises in movement.  We were asked to walk as if we were late for something, through peanut butter, as if we were in love and as if we dreaded where we were going. The differences were fascinating, from pulling our feet out of peanut butter up to our knees to being frozen in dread.  I was a bit concerned that the late for something movement felt so familiar, not so the peanut butter.

by Simone Williams
Simone then broke us into groups of two where we took turns mirroring the movements of our partner, ultimately with neither leading.  That exercise actually felt natural with movement flowing from one to the other. Boundaries began to blur. Then it got a bit more complicated with groups of three.  We realized we had to pay much closer attention that we were used to doing.

If you'd like to continue to follow Simone's work you can find them performing at Intermedia Arts Open Mic 5:30-8 bi-monthly.