There is something so provocative about a contemporary art museum affiliated with a religion. The idea of a museum already carries with it vaguely religious connotations (words like reflection, transformation, meditation, come to mind) and when you add an overtly religious mandate the question of content can get hairy. I say this with personal knowledge and also slight trepidation, because I used to work at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, and witnessed and participated in many discussions and disagreements about what kinds of exhibitions made sense, who the audience was, and what exactly a religiously affiliated institution could non-dogmatically provide for the general public.
The central premise of Reinventing Ritual—how traditions can be updated in ways that will make them continually relevant—was fundamentally at the core of every discussion. The conversation usually ran along the spectrum of two predictably binary positions: should the focus be on that which continues to make Judaism “unique” or do we abandon our supposed special-ness in favor embracing a hybrid and fluid alternate reality. Indeed, Reinventing Ritual embodies those contradictory positions—for both better and for worse. Organized by the Jewish Museum in New York, 58 artists—mostly Jewish but not all—were commissioned to create new work or showcase an existing piece based on the idea of transforming ritual. The resulting projects range from extremely direct to more tangential relationships to Judaism, and are divided among four broad themes: covering, thinking, absorbing, building. Each theme is arranged not so much as conversation but more as sides of coin.
It’s a mixed bag. On the dull end of the spectrum, many of the works in the show simply attempt to put a modern spin on traditional Judaica objects — the Menorah, the Kiddush cup, the Torah pointer, etc… reworking the vehicle, rather than the ritual itself. Designer Jonathan Adler's Utopia Menorah, 2006, for instance, takes the traditional silver menorah and makes a bulbous, white, ceramic version. According to Adler, the work escapes the “dogma of pottery” by relying on the more “freeform pattern formations…of the reform temple”…
The objects based on Jewish material culture were more interesting when they incorporated puns or contradictions that subverted the meaning of the original source material. Norm Paris’ Rubble Fragment (Mezuzah), 2007, re-envisions the Mezuzah, the scroll of biblical verses traditionally hung in the door-posts of Jewish homes to protect the inhabitants and remind them of their covenant with God. Traditionally housed in a case made from decorative silver, Paris’s version is fashioned from concrete and industrial material—the rubble of a bombed out building that invokes the ravages of the current conflict in the Middle East, as well as the legacy of unrest in Jewish history. It’s a charged object, symptomatic of a home that is not a place of protection, but a deeply contested terrain.
A more direct provocation, and standout in the show, was video artist Oreet Ashery’s Dancing With Men, 2003/2008,. In the short film, Ashery poses as a man in order to participate in Lag b’Omer, the holiday when many Jews make a pilgrimage to Israel to seek spiritual “rebirth” and to commemorate Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a second-century mystic and the author of the Zohar. Although the festivities strictly are divided by gender, Ashery is included in the dancing, chanting, and recitation of scripture normally reserved for men. By transcending the gendered limits of religious solidarity, the film calls attention to the need for religion to evolve, and in the process of doing so, we witness Ashery getting caught in the revelry, deep in the throws of a transformative experience of her own.
Other works examine the ritual of everyday life in much more personal- and accessible- ways. Artist Alexis Canter creates wishbone jewelry: gold pendants cast from chicken bones that she has collected over time from her families chicken farm. According to Canter “the wishbone is an artifact of the chicken, a memento of a dinner, and a symbol of my family’s history of chicken farming and chicken cooking.” Canter’s relationship to food and familial lineage hint at the more universal possibilities of the so called “Jewish sensibility”.
The exhibition is meant for a mixed audience, and although the focus is largely on religious (Jewish) ritual, atheists and agnostics alike might find something of interest. If anything, contemplating the concept of ritual in the abstract and personal sense is a valuable psychological exercise- how do we all rely on different kinds of symbolic and repetitive behaviors and what can those behaviors tell us about ourselves? I recommend seeing it.
- Julia Hamilton
Jonathan Adler (American, b. 1966), Utopia Menorah, 2006, high-fired brown stoneware with white glaze. The Jewish Museum, New York, Purchase: Contemporary Judaica Acquisitions Committee Fund. Norm Paris, Rubble Fragment 1 (Mezuzah) - detail, 2007, concrete, foam, parchment, steel; Oreet Ashery, Dancing With Men, 5 minutes. Mini DV. Colour with sound. Mini DV. Still.
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