San Francisco, CA, December 27, 2011 — From the very first chapters of the Torah where one encounters them in the Garden of Eden, to the commandment Bal Tashchit (do not destroy) found in Deuteronomy forbidding their wanton destruction during wartime, trees occupy a particularly potent and symbolic place in Jewish literature and lore as expressions of paradise, regeneration, shelter, the bounty of the earth, longevity, and even as a precursor to the coming of the Messiah.
A new three-part exhibition at the Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM), Do Not Destroy: Trees, Art, and Jewish Thought, explores the role of the tree in Jewish tradition and beyond through the lens of contemporary artists, offering fresh perspectives on ritual practice and our connection to the natural world.
The companion exhibitions include the continuation of The Dorothy Saxe Invitational, an exhibition series in which artists from diverse backgrounds and working in a range of media are invited to explore Jewish ritual objects (this year focusing on the holiday of Tu B’Shevat, the New Year for the Trees), as well as a selection of work examining the tree more widely in contemporary art practice by international artists including Gabriela Albergaria, Zadok Ben David, Joseph Beuys, April Gornik, Charles Labelle, Rodney Graham, Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba, Yoko Ono, Roxy Paine, Tal Shochat, and more. The third component is the expansion of the exhibition beyond the walls of the Museum on to the Jessie Square Plaza with a commission by the San Francisco-based environmental design firm Rebar.
“While we were inspired to create this exhibition by the particular significance of trees in Judaism, especially now as global environmental concerns have begun to impact contemporary Jewish practice, the tree is a universally potent symbol in many cultures and religions,” says curator Dara Solomon. “Taken together, these exhibitions are an opportunity for everyone to commune with trees through video, photography, sculpture and painting – to be awed by their scale, their longevity, and their ability to encourage deeper thinking about history, the environment, and our place in it. We invite the public to consider the ancient dictum of Do Not Destroy, a commandment to not only protect trees but to dream of a better world.”
Do Not Destroy opens with an exclusive preview and cocktail party on Wednesday, February 15, 2011 at 5:30 PM. Ticket buyers will have a first opportunity to purchase works on view in The Dorothy Saxe Invitational and to meet with artists from all three parts of the Do Not Destroy exhibition. Tickets are $60 for CJM Members and $100 for the general public. Tickets can be purchased online at www.thecjm.org or by calling 415.655.7881. Proceeds will benefit the artists and support ongoing innovative exhibitions and programming at the CJM.
Part One: The Dorothy Saxe Invitational
Building upon the Museum’s long-standing tradition of asking artists from a variety of backgrounds to explore a Jewish ceremonial object, holiday, or concept within the context of their own mediums and artistic philosophy, over 50 contemporary artists from across the United States have created new works of art in response to a broad range of themes inspired by the holiday Tu B’Shevat (the New Year for the Trees).
Tu B’Shevat, a minor holiday that falls in the middle of winter (this year occurring February 7-8), has become increasingly important for many Jews, especially here in the Bay Area, who have integrated faith and concern for the natural environment in a practice of environmental Tikkun Olam (making the world a better place). Originally a 2nd century holiday necessary for tithing crops to the temple, Tu B’Shevat was revived in the 16th century by mystical Kabbalists who observed the holiday with a feast of fruits in a special vegan seder that celebrated the life-giving properties of trees. In the 20th century, the meaning of the holiday shifted again as the planting of trees in Israel became crucial to inhabiting the land and gaining independence. Today, Tu B’Shevat has gained momentum with young Jews in particular who connect with Judaism through environmentalism and social justice.
For the exhibition, each participating artist was asked to incorporate reclaimed wood into their work in some way. San Francisco designer Yves Behar fashioned the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, Aleph, from a piece of bay laurel driftwood found on the beach at Bolinas. Behar’s piece is meant to suggest a reordering of our priorities. “Our awareness of nature needs to be first, like the first letter Aleph,” says Behar.
Colorado sculptor Yoshitomo Saito used a found aspen root as the basis for a work in bronze. Saito discovered that this iconic Colorado tree spreads through a root system that supports a colony of trees. While an individual tree may only live for 40-150 years above ground, the root system can survive for thousands of years. Says Saito, “The aspen root … represents not only the foundation of life but also means of survival and thriving of community.”
Also echoing this idea of endurance and its opposite, fragility, is a piece by Stanford-based artist Gail Wight who has fashioned handmade paper–a delicate and ephemeral medium–on which she has created an image of a cross section from a Devonian tree from over 400 million years ago.
Luke Bartels, a member of the Woodshop collective in San Francisco’s Sunset district, contributed a piece entitled The Wood Standard. The piece, a stack of wood shaped like bars of gold, questions the manner of ascribing value to particular materials over others–in this case positing trees or wood as valuable as gold.
Michigan artist Lynne Avadenka took inspiration from a verse in the Book of Psalms that equates happiness, equanimity, and faith with a tree: “And he shall be like a tree planted by streams of water that brings forth fruit in its season and whose leaf will not wither.” Avadenka used twigs from a fallen elm in front of her house to write out the Hebrew words of this passage, photographing them and fusing the images onto glass tiles.
San Francisco artist Lisa Congdon was most interested in the symbolism associated with the Tu B’Shevat seder, and particularly the progression of four glasses of wine, from white to rose to red, that are part of the ritual feast. Made up of rows of triangles of reclaimed wood, the piece reflects on the layers of meaning she saw in the wine: “feminine to masculine, light to dark, creation and growth.”
Additionally, the Museum is working with Israeli artist/designer Dov Abramson to create an installation exploring how Jewish life and the cycles of trees are intertwined. This graphic wall will take visitors through an orchard of images, ideas, and language that illuminate the Jewish relationship to trees through ancient texts, contemporary rituals, and mystical ideas.
Other participating artists and designers include Gale Antokal, Tor Archer, Helène Aylon, John Bankston, Bennett Bean, Garry Knox Bennett, Terry Berlier, Harriete Estel Berman, Johanna Bresnick + Michael Cloud Hirschfeld, Jeff Canham, Topher Delaney, Kiki Probst & Joel Cammarata of SEAM Studio, Richard Deutsch, Paul Discoe, Josh Duthie, Lauren Elder, David Ellsworth, Tamar Ettun, James Gouldthorpe, Beth Grossman, Grace Hawthorne, Tobi Kahn, Lisa Kokin, Paul Kos, Naomie Kremer, Daniel Libeskind, Deborah Lozier, Ron Lutsko, Liz Mamorsky, Jane Martin, Matthew McCaslin, Tucker Nichols, Josh Owen, Lucy Puls, Amy Klein Reichert, Galya Rosenfeld, Elliot Ross, Ellen Rothenberg, Kay Sekimachi, Nancy Selvin, Cass Calder Smith, Harley Swedler, David Tomb, Merav Tzur, Ursula von Rydingsvard, Lawrence Weiner, Allan Wexler, and David Wiseman.
The Museum’s Dorothy Saxe Invitational exhibition is mounted every two to three years. Previous Invitationals have featured artist interpretations of seder plates, tzedakah boxes, spice boxes, Kiddish cups, and menorahs.
Part Two: An International Survey of Trees in Contemporary Art
Presented in the Do Not Destroy exhibition is a selection of more than 20 works by international artists who have examined the tree–conceptually or formally–in their work in either an ongoing, almost systematic way like Rona Pondick, Roxy Paine, Zadok Ben David, April Gornik, and Gabriela Albergia or those who have investigated the tree in more discrete projects like Rodney Graham, Yuken Teruya, Yoko Ono, and Charles Labelle.
The earliest work in the exhibition is documentation of Joseph Beuys’ 7,000 Eichen (7,000 Oaks). Beuys dedicated much of his artistic career in the 1960s and 70s to broadening the definition of art to include social activism, created a lasting significant public arts project–the realization of the planting of 7,000 oak trees in the city of Kassel, Germany that was inaugurated at the international art fair documenta 7 in 1982. Five years later at the opening of documenta 8 in June 1987, some eighteen months after his father’s death, and five years after Beuys planted the first tree, Beuys’ son Wenzel planted the last tree. The project was a real gesture towards urban renewal as Beuys improved the urban landscape.
Beuys effort is echoed in the work of later artists like Natalie Jeremijenko, documentation of whose One Tree(s) project is on view. In 2003, she engineered a group of cloned trees and planted them in different parts of San Francisco to examine the long-term effect of the different neighborhoods’ environmental conditions on the trees’ size and general health. Kim Abeles, in her 2011 work Enchanted Forest (and City Hall), combines satellite photography with model trees to create miniature landscapes that call attention to the absurdities of urban development in Los Angeles.
Other artists in the exhibition are less activist in their approach, opting rather to create a visceral and immersive aesthetic experience like April Gornik’s Light in the Woods (2011), a dense forest painting of monumental scale and depth. Claire Sherman’s painting Night and Trees II (2011) is unsettling in its ruggedness, indicating the precarious state of nature while Robert Wiens’ meticulously rendered Butternut (2008) is a colossal to-scale drawing of a fallen tree from his property. Marcel Odenbach’s mixed media work You Can’t See the Forest for the Trees (2003) is a meditation on the idea of trees as silent witnesses to history–a birch forest from Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi concentration camp. Jason Lazarus’ video The top of the tree gazed upon by Anne Frank while in hiding (Amsterdam) (2008) also acts as a witness to history–specifically to a young girl in hiding, writing to preserve her memory.
Blackfield (2011) by Zadok Ben David evokes the title of the exhibition Do Not Destroy in its disproportionate scale–the viewer hovers menacingly over a frail but delightful pygmy forest. Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba’s video The Ground, the Root, and the Air: The Passing of the Bodhi Tree (2004-2007) shows how a tree’s spiritual power can emotionally affect the faithful. Yoko Ono’s participatory Wish Tree also elicits belief from its subscribers who are invited to write their wish on a tag to be hung on the tree.
In a departure from traditional landscape photography, both Charles LaBelle and Tal Shochat enhance the drama of the tree through artifice. In his 2000 series Illuminated Trees, LaBelle documents the lone trees that dot the resolutely urban environment of contemporary Los Angeles, illuminating them with a high-powered spotlight. Shochat’s Five Fruit Trees (2010) are idealized images of bountiful fruit trees at the peak of ripeness that are devoid of any real context. Rodney Graham’s photographs of inverted trees defy gravity causing a disorienting rupture of reality. A photograph from his 1998 series Welsh Oaks will be on view.
The sculptors in the exhibition are almost God-like in their approaches, conjuring trees from their imaginations that delight with their super-natural physicality. Roxy Paine’s larger-than-life tree sculptures resemble the formal structure of trees to a point, but eventually evidence of human intervention becomes apparent, as one notices odd growths, unrealistic proportions, and improbable growth directions. Models of his Palimpsest (2004) and Askew (2007) will be on view.
Over the years, Rona Pondick has carefully cast her entire body, which she fuses together with flawlessly cast parts of tree branches. Her Head in Tree (2006-2008) is included in the exhibition.
Yuken Teruya contributes two works: Notice–Forest (2006), a delicate tree cut out that stands firmly in the illuminated interior of a disposable bag, and The Giving Tree Project (2006), in which Teruya has cut into Shel Silverstein’s book to add trees to its pages, perhaps compensating for the protagonist’s neglect in planting for the next generation.
Gabriela Albergaria is creating a site-specific work for the exhibition. Using downed trees and branches collected from Golden Gate Park with the help of San Francisco Recreation and Parks, Albergaria will create a hybrid tree sculpture in the gallery using faux grafting techniques based on traditional methods.
Part Three: Jessie Square Commission by Rebar
Rebar, a San Francisco-based environmental design firm recognized for creating reconfigurable, reprogrammable spaces for changing urban conditions, was invited to create a project on Jessie Square directly in front of the Museum. Rebar’s design principles are very much aligned with the themes of Tu B’Shevat. According to Rebar, “We believe that the human environment—public space in particular—should be infused with ecological knowledge, resilient to changing social conditions, responsive to creative impulses, and filled with opportunities for benevolence, conviviality, and delight. We design to make that happen.”
Recognizing this affinity, the CJM asked Rebar to consider the themes of Tu B’Shevat in designing an installation that would include casual seating for lounging and audience seating for outdoor Museum programming related to the exhibition. In response, Rebar used recycled lumber to create a group of gem-shaped planters with brightly colored edges that can be moved into various configurations, both practical and playful. To fill the planters, Rebar selected trees that resonate symbolically with the holiday of Tu B’Shevat, Mediterranean ecologies, and San Francisco history.
The exhibition catalog, available in the CJM Museum Store and online, provides audiences with a broader understanding of both the art and the Jewish concepts featured in Do Not Destroy. In addition to images of each art work in the exhibition, the catalog includes an introductory essay by CJM curator Dara Solomon as well as contributions from Jeremy Benstein, an environmental anthropologist and deputy director of the Abraham Joshua Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership in Tel Aviv, and Mary Jane Jacob, professor of sculpture and executive director of exhibitions and exhibition studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Do Not Destroy: Trees, Art and Jewish Thought has been organized by the Contemporary Jewish Museum and made possible by a leadership gift from the Dorothy Saxe Invitational Fund. Major support is provided by an anonymous donor, Columbia Foundation, Jim Joseph Foundation, and Dorothy R. Saxe. Additional support has been generously provided by Barbara and Howard Wollner, Marilyn Yolles Waldman and Murry Waldman, Consulate General of Israel to the Pacific Northwest, and San Francisco Recreation and Parks. Essential support for the publication has been provided by Fred Levin & Nancy Livingston, The Shenson Foundation, in memory of Ben and A. Jess Shenson. School and teacher programs for Do Not Destroy are supported by Pacific Gas & Electric Company and The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, and an anonymous donor. Koret and Taube Foundations are the lead supporters of the 2011/12 exhibition season.