Lipstick on a Torah Scroll: A Review of the Zimmun Show

  • Email
  • Print
  • Share
January 28, 2011
  • Image 1
  • Image 2
  • Image 3
  • Image 4
  • Image 5
  • Image 6
  • Image 7
  • Image 8
  • Image 9

It is commonly believed that the Jewish world of the past was devoid of aesthetics, and that visual creation was not an integral part of it, at least until the modern period. While this claim is partially true, its persistence in the West must be credited to nineteenth century European anti-Semitism. Richard Wagner, for example, in his essay “Judaism in Music,” claimed that Jews lack the strength to create art because they are defective human beings, living in bondage to their books. This perception was internalized by early Zionist thinkers like the philosopher Martin Buber.

Clearing away the dark brush of anti-Semitism, however, reveals that Jewish culture has always created richly aesthetic ritual objects. Although these are usually categorized as Judaica craft rather than fine art, these designs in fact prominently manifest aesthetic principles grounded in the spirit of a given time and place. In modern times, artists have used these Judaica motifs as the basis for their art. Refusing, as Kalman Bland notes to succumb to modernist constructs of art as a religion unto itself, contemporary Jewish artists in Israel and abroad have instead defamiliarized and then integrated ritual objects to create an entirely new aesthetic. These objects often suggest subversive motives intertwined with important theoretical issues.

Judaica Twist

The “Judaica turn,” as this move has been termed by art historian Yael Guilat, challenges the very notion of high culture by presenting popular culture as art. Objects customarily regarded as folkloristic or sacred (or both) are subjected to critical representation. In this turn, a poetics of visual representation is inseparable from politics of cultural and gender identity.

The practice of integrating motifs from traditional Judaica into contemporary artworks creates new objects, which then enter into a dialogue with the traditional object and displace it from its original ritual function to the domain of art. Alongside enriching canonical discourse by illuminating aspects of popular culture and relocating them to the center, this practice ensures visibility for what, by its very nature, is not defined: that which remains in flux between different fields and demands redefinition time after time.

As contemporary artists explore the boundary between ritual and aesthetic, it becomes clear that the acknowledged dichotomy of practical object / art object had never been absolute. Jewish visual creativity has always engaged in questioning symbolic and aesthetic taboos and assumptions. New ritual objects and visual fields have come into being from such questioning; halakhic discussions of problems raised by an ever-changing reality have yielded a variety of halakhic solutions that are also visual solutions – from the Shabbat clock to the eruv (circumscribing the area in which carrying is permitted on the Sabbath). Today’s Judaica Twist then is less revolution than a continuation of existing practices, as contemporary works are often set up as a postmodernist, practical alternative to the traditional object. The new approach creates new ritual objects suited to contemporary culture, flirts with the boundaries of halakhic rulings, or explicitly provokes and challenges the tradition in relation to the visual.

613 Candles In this spirit, the three artists whose work is displayed in the Zimmun exhibition were trained as graphic artists or industrial designers, yet are active on the art scene.

For a long time, graphic design was perceived in Israel as having no bearing whatsoever on fine art; critics often gave artists a slap on the wrist for borrowing principles from graphics and applying them to their artwork. The works of Dov Abramson deconstruct this dichotomy: Abramson works in graphic design and is also an artist. His visual expression is not merely illustrative; it is also directed towards an utterance that does not pretend to illustrate, explain or reify a topic. His work seeks, rather, to maintain an independent discussion about essence and experience.

Abramson’s work often tests the boundaries between sacred and mundane, especially in the multi-layered world of halakhah. His engagement with the body of Jewish law touches upon the very essence of Judaism: the centrality of “the yoke of the commandments” in any discussion of Jewish culture. This kind of artistic activity integrates critical study with a profound cultural commitment: Judaism is scrutinized with tools deriving from general postmodernist theory; hence, this art raises acute general cultural issues too. Abramson’s confrontation of art and halakhah poses questions about daily commitment, its limitations and beauty, and about freedom of choice in the world of Jewish observance. Dilemmas are raised as to the relevance of halakhah and appropriate personal halakhic observance. Abramson frequently employs the technique of fragmentation, that is, breaking up the whole into its parts, thereby emphasizing certain segments and enhancing visibility of those pieces which, although they make up the whole, usually remain transparent.

In his communicative installation “Mitzvah Candle,” courtesy of the Jewish Museum in New York, Abramson presents a visual alternative to the numerical total of the biblical commandments. On a table stand 613 memorial candles, each marked with one commandment. On each candle is a sticker bearing symbols related to the ritual associated with that particular commandment. The artistic act has transformed the medium of the written word that served in medieval times to calculate the sum total of biblical injunctions into a visual medium. Reifying the commandments as tangible objects, i.e. the candles, awakens a desire to touch, arrange and classify the candle-commandments. This mode of presentation also evokes a sense of fragmentation, since each individual injunction stands on its own. This conflicts with the very aim of classical halakhists, who collected the individual commandments into a comprehensive, binding codex.

“Confession,” also by Abramson, is a xylophone with 22 keys, each engraved with one word from the alphabetical list of sins making up the confessional prayer recited daily in the synagogue, but much better known as one of the high points in the liturgy for the Day of Atonement, when it is recited to a special tune. The physical aspect of confession – symbolized by the custom of lightly tapping one’s breast with a fist while reciting the prayer – is replaced in the piece by tapping the xylophone keys, thereby creating a new tune of joy and repair.

Abramson’s works stem from an essentially pluralistic artistic approach, and draw upon the notion of the death of the creator and the author. By assuming an ostensibly neutral perspective, the works open an expanse for challenging a subject, either positively or negatively, depending on the viewer’s judgment. Creator, artwork and viewer’s gaze thus all become planes joined together to make a single entity – the conceptual work itself and its meaning. This tactic is grounded in the insight that tension between sacred and mundane, religious and secular, obtains not just between external entities but is an internal, immanent tension, with power to inspire believers and non-believers alike.

Well-versed yet Subversive

It is interesting to observe how the “Judaica Twist” draws contemporary Jewish art closer to themes and patterns of thought already familiar to us from modern Jewish literature, cinema and theater. Scholars have pointed out that modern Jewish creativity – from “Mendele Mokher Seforim” to Sholem Aleichem, Isaac Bashevis Singer to Woody Allen and the Coen brothers – is often critical and even subversive, frequently employing comic elements and self-humor.

Use of humor can also be found in Jewish sources from the more distant past: the Babylonian Talmud tells us that the sage Rabba would begin his lectures in the academy with “words of levity.” Kabbalah scholar Yehuda Liebes has demonstrated the function of humor and comedy in the Zohar literature as well; the task of the Levites in the Temple was not limited to the singing of psalms. According to the Zohar, they were also “the king’s jester,” that is, they were charged with amusing God, King of the Universe. Even the Binding of Isaac, that deathly serious episode in the Jewish constitutive myth, has a grain of humor in it, in the Zohar’s reading, according to Liebes’s interpretation: “In the Binding of Isaac, Abraham had to prove that he possessed a sense of humor. Anyone with a sense of humor would have understood immediately that all would end well. The tragic, terrible Binding, when awe and trembling reach a climax […[ therefore becomes in the Zohar a kind of gag, a prank of decidedly macabre humor […].”

The works of Ken Goldman, an industrial designer who is also an artist, makes manifest this approach. His pieces connect various ends not usually perceived as constituting a harmonious whole. His lighthearted approach trains an amused gaze on the subjects treated and, at the same time, maintains a running dialogue with the multilayered world of Jewish tradition. The critical gaze doesn’t hold back: it is inquisitive, subversive and irreverent. In this way, issues of identity, gender, and ritual are all subjected to renewed scrutiny.

Goldman’s Torah mantle imprinted with kisses of red lipstick alludes to the custom of kissing the Torah scroll in the synagogue as it is carried from the pulpit, past the congregants, and back again. The comic aspect of the artistic act is clear, but beyond that, it also recalls to us that in the traditional synagogue, women’s yearning for the Torah scroll remains permanently unsatisfied, since they are permitted only to peek at it, from behind the partition. The erotic aspect of imprinting lipstick kisses, while evoking the familiar metaphor of the love-relationship between the Torah and the Jewish people, refers also to traditional realia in which ceremonial textiles for the synagogue (ark cover curtains, Torah scroll mantles, etc.) were made by women, often from the women’s own worn-out garments. This very issue was addressed in a responsum by one of the most prominent Ashkenazi halakhic authorities in the sixteenth century: “A woman’s colored garments inflame men’s imagination and provoke carnal thoughts; therefore, they are not appropriate for use in ceremonial objects.” Goldman thus introduces the latent eroticism of ceremonial objects into halakhic discourse.

Adherence and Yearning

Photographs showing what looks like a mummy or golem wrapped all around with white masking tape, and a photograph of a hand similarly wrapped with the same white tape, reminiscent of phylactery thongs, are typical of Arik Weiss’ illustrative gaze. The tape is imprinted with the biblical phrase (Deut.10:20) “thou shalt adhere to Him” as it appears in the standard printed Hebrew Bible, that is, marked with diacritics and the symbols indicating the tune for reading the weekly Biblical portion in the synagogue. Another work by Weiss pursues the same idea: a Torah case, from the collection of the Museum of Art, Ein Harod, bound all around with masking tape and bearing the biblical quote “thou shalt adhere to Him.”

The roll of tape – a prosaic article in daily life – has been attached to the sacred text, binding the Torah scroll and creating a metaphor for adherence (in both senses: “devotion” and “sticking,” as in “adhesive”) and yearning, which can also lead to shrinking away, withdrawal and even strangulation.

Weiss’ works are discussed at length in an article by art scholar Gal Ventura and archaeologist and art historian Roni Amir, in the online journal History&Theory: The Protocols. The two scholars compare Weiss’ work first to the making of mummies in ancient Egypt and, later, to Christian art; they go on to situate his work in relation to feminist theories and their respective iconographies. They noted the underlying conceptual differences between the ancient practice of mummification and the one inspiring Weiss’ work: “While the Egyptians sanctified compulsive repetition as protection against annihilation, many contemporary artists try somewhat dizzyingly to gain their fifteen minutes of glory by unceasing innovation.” According to them, the “life-in-death” theme in Weiss’ work, despite his attempt to demonstrate the repair inherent in Jewish religious adherence, in fact undermines the result of adherence “which binds the believer to the altar, as a sacrifice, by sheer strength of belief, and seems to kill off the believer instead of giving life.”

Zimmun is exhibited alongside the Museum’s permanent Judaica collection. Although the pieces in Zimmun are essentially conceptual, they nevertheless relate directly to the Jewish visual world preoccupied for many generations, as mentioned, with product design in the form of ceremonial objects and culture-adapted utensils. These works enter into dialogue with the aesthetics and poetics of contemporary Jewish halakhah and thought. Alongside their humor and flirting with the boundaries of the law, the exhibits often reveal a deeply engaged interest in halakhic concepts and requirements, as well as insights into the essence of Jewish custom, practice and law. The trend exemplified in the exhibition is often affiliated with neo-traditional discourse, and nearly always with post-secular discourse. The result succeeds in capturing complex hybrids of religion and secularism, without seeking to replace one by another. The nexus of the exhibition, then, is a world of imagery subjecting Judaism to critical scrutiny yet with profound attachment to it: “A love which does not get out of hand”.

The “Zimmun” show appears at the Museum of Art, Ein Harod, 2010-2011, curator: Dvora Liss.

ZEEK is presented by The Jewish Daily Forward | Maintained by