Friday, January 27, 2017

Esprit Decor

by Susan Weinberg

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

by Susan Weinberg

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.