As it were ... So to speak: A Museum Collection in Dialogue
Beginning on March 15, 2013, The Jewish Museum will present As it were ... So to speak: A Museum Collection in Dialogue with Barbara Bloom. Artist Barbara Bloom has devoted her career to questioning the ways we perceive and value objects. With a light touch and subtle wit, she divines the meanings encoded in the things with which we surround ourselves. The Jewish Museum invited Bloom to create an installation drawn from its 25,000 works of ceremonial, decorative, and fine art. Her presentation sets a selection of over 270 pieces in unconventional contexts, and offers visitors new ways to view the Museum and its holdings. As it were ... So to speak: A Museum Collection in Dialogue with Barbara Bloom will be on view through August 4, 2013.
The exhibition Bloom is creating materializes the idea of people in dialogue across time and space, inspired in part by her reflections on Talmudic discourse, which takes place over centuries. Integrating the former Warburg mansion's historic rooms into her concept, the artist envisions the space as both museum and home filled with imagined historical guests from diverse times - Nefertiti, Duke Ellington, Jimi Hendrix, Marcel Proust, Marilyn Monroe, Albert Einstein and others - engaged in discourse and argument. The subjects are wide-ranging and reflect ideas that have long interested the artist: inferring a whole from surviving remnants, navigating the intricacies of bestowing gifts, representing the unspeakable.
Furniture-like display cases contain collection objects that the artist finds intriguing or appealing. For example, Torah pointers with their delicate hands and extended forefingers stand in for strings inside a piano; a cigar box owned by Sigmund Freud is displayed in a psychoanalyst's consultation space; and a Dreyfus Affair game board sits on a table with ancient Roman dice. Each tableau is accompanied by written passages suggesting conversations between people. These evocative juxtapositions of found texts, Bloom's writings, artworks and cases, create unexpected associations and spark dialogue.
While the artist offers clues on how to read these tableaux, it is up to the individual to draw their own connections among the different elements. In Bloom's vision, the objects at the core of the installation often transcend their traditional functions and stimulate new ideas.
As she searched for a metaphorical structure within which to understand the collection, and sought to envision it in the Museum's historic rooms, Bloom became fascinated with the Talmud (a collection of Jewish law and lore) and its unique design. On each page, an original text is framed by centuries of rabbinical debates and commentaries that reach across time and space, as if the writers were conversing in the same room. In choosing works from the collection, the artist passed over familiar masterpieces and instead discovered value and beauty in those that she found peculiar in shape, historically resonant, or marked with traces of past lives. She was inspired by the architecture of the galleries, which still resemble the rooms in which Felix and Frieda Warburg once led a lively family and social life.
Barbara Bloom writes, "What if we were to consider objects not for their symbolic or metaphoric qualities, but as intermediaries, or carriers of meaning. Perhaps they could be considered as ambassadors." She adds, "These rooms are filled with objects. And we are offered an opportunity not only to concentrate on the singular, but to observe the relationships between these many entities, and the meanings implicit in their positioning and combination. The objects are placeholders for thoughts, and when they are situated in proximity to one another, meanings can reverberate and ricochet off of each other."
The exhibition opens with recorded voices engaged in debate and argument. Six pairs of portraits - masked so only the sitters' eyes are visible - are placed at the entrance to each gallery, standing in for the guests in this imagined home. They remind us of the dialogues taking place within.
Highlights include the shell of a piano with Torah pointers in place of strings that explores the friendship of two great composers: George Gershwin and Arnold Schoenberg. Schoenberg enjoyed playing tennis weekly at Gershwin's Beverly Hills home. As composer Albert Sendrey observed: "Two contrasting giants of modern music...united in one common thought: to make a little ball scale the top of a net, as though nothing else mattered."
Another tableau suggests the different stages of romantic relationships. Beginning with the sensuality of courtship, singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen and early twentieth-century psychoanalyst Lou Andreas-Salomé are envisioned singing Solomon's Song of Songs. Love is seen to run its course through legal consummation and dissolution as represented in Jewish marriage and divorce contracts.
A section devoted to ideas of a library includes miniature books, some with microscopic writing, nestled inside hollow books. These evoke the layering of text within text that is an important part of Talmudic discourse. An intricate cycle of gift-giving and its Freudian implications are explored through Sigmund Freud's silver cigar box, a Roman ring from his antiquities collection, and his daughter Anna's ivory letter opener, all donated to The Jewish Museum by an anonymous analyst. Four players - Nefertiti, Émile Zola, Amy Winehouse, and Jesus of Nazareth - are imagined seated at a table filled with games from different eras. Many temporalities are superimposed on each other, collapsed into a single game.