Five Easy Pieces: Process in Judaica Today
Abstract: Contemporary Judaica is defined more by process than aesthetic or media. This article surveys five key methods used by artists and designers in the creation of contemporary Judaica. These methods are: chance operations, mash-up, hybrization, repurposing, and inversion. They represent an international approach to ritual today that is evident in Europe, Israel, and the Americas. The subtle transformations that occur within these processes of reinventing Judaicaharbor creativity and connect ancient ritual to contemporary life in a way that is often fresh and unexpected.
Contemporary Judaica is defined more by process than aesthetic or media. This article surveys five key methods used by artists and designers in the creation of contemporaryJudaica. These methods are: chance operations, mash-up, hybrization, repurposing, and inversion. They represent an international approach to ritual today that is evident in Europe, Israel, and the Americas. The subtle transformations that occur within these processes of reinventing Judaica harbor creativity and connect ancient ritual to contemporary life in a way that is often fresh and unexpected.
A number of artists making avant-garde Judaica rely on chance and randomness. Uncertainty is a way for artists to achieve critical distance to turn a ritual object into conceptual art. Good examples of the use of chance are the seder plates by Israeli designers Johnathan Hopp and Sarah Auslander. The plates are made from random dinner plates found in the flea market in Jaffa, where Hopp currently maintains a studio. The assorted plates possess varied abstract, vegetal, and other patterns. Hopp andAuslander baked a decal image of a traditional seder plate directly onto each plate. The artists never knew what the result would look like when they withdrew the piece from the kiln.
Several transformations occur in these plates. First, the decal overlaps the original pattern on the plate. Sometimes the decorations blend unpredictably well, and other times the contrast is jarring. The colors and glaze of the plates also may change in the refiring. Overall, the high degree of chance and uncertainty that the process brings is satisfying for a sensibility that prefers open systems. It’s as if John Cage were to make a ritual object. I also like the punk quality of the decal, which rudely asserts itself against the domestic order of the original plate. Surprisingly, the refiring serves a traditional ritual function as well. Baking at such high temperatures “koshers” the plate for Passover, burning off impurities and any trace of bread or other chametz
Johnathan Hopp (Israeli, b. 1975) and Sarah Auslander (Israeli, b. United States 1973),Passover Plates, black, 2003; and red, 2005 , Plates and ceramic decals, dimensions variable , Courtesy of the artists, Tel Aviv
The look of objects produced through the process of chance can be compared to the mash-up, a term popularized in recent years to refer to the overlaying and unexpected harmonizing of different voice and sound tracks in music (Danger Mouse’s mash-up of Jay Z and the Beatles might be the most famous example). Collage and montage have been a part of modernism from the beginning. But what makes the technique of mash-up novel is that it requires the artist to get into the structure of systems in order to see where part of one can be logically grafted to part of another. Mash-up requires both a high degree of craftsmanship and sophistication. There is a fundamental irony to the process—the surprise of radical juxtaposition—but the visual satisfaction comes not from dissonance but from synchronization. In postmodernism, juxtaposition was used to upset the viewer. In post-postmodernist mash-ups, juxtaposition sooths and assures the viewer that meaning can be created out of the vast complexity of the universe.
The term is not often applied to the visual arts, especially Judaica. Yet the mash-up has become an important graphical strategy employed by a variety of artists interested in fusing Jewish ritual and everyday life to create new hybrid forms. The method is simple: take a Jewish symbol or image and infuse with secular content. The maneuver sheds light on the assumptions that underpin two or more systems of thought. A good example of this is British artist Suzanne Treister’s Alchemy series. Taking alchemical symbols, including theKabbalistic tree of life, Treister maps across them the headlines and thumbnail images from the newspaper she was reading that day, blurring distinctions between high and low, mundane and catastrophic, such as in her piece The Independent, 28 June, 2007. The mash-up can be enacted the other way too. Artists map Jewish ideas and images to a secular organizational structure. Israeli graphic designer Dov Abramson’s print Shoah: ATable of Elements carefully calibrates the relative significance and groupings of Holocaust memory by precisely locating its elements within the periodic table.
Suzanne Treister (British, b. 1958), ALCHEMY/The Independent, 28th June 2007, 2007
Rotring ink on paper, 16 3/4 x 11 3/4 in. (42.6 x 29.9 cm), Courtesy of Annely Juda Fine Art, London, and P.P.O.W. Gallery, New York
The American silversmith Anika Smulovitz works in the hybrid aesthetic of today, whereby artists approach creative problems through functional analysis that results in a crossbred work. She perceives the Torah pointer—the stylus-like implement held by the reader to follow the text without touching the sacred parchment—as full of possibility. At once, the beautifully crafted yads are sleek, minimalist tapered silver tubes of a lovely size and weight that perfectly serve the function of a traditional Torah pointer in respecting the holiness of the book by avoiding directly contact with bare hands. Yet, in addition, each of the pointers possesses a scientific instrument. One yad has a small magnifying glass at the tip that points to the text. The other yad has a compass embedded in the other end. These empirical tools represent the critical historian wishing to deconstruct or otherwise navigate deeper into the text.
Anika Smulovitz (American, b. 1974), Octogenarian, 2002, Silver: hand-worked and pierced; magnifying glass, 7 3/4 x 7/8 in. (19.7 x 2.2 cm), The Jewish Museum, New York, Purchase: Contemporary Judaica Acquisitions Committee Fund, 2008-141
Anika Smulovitz (American, b. 1974), Compass, 2002, Silver: hand-worked; compass; acrylic, 6 1/2 x 5/8 in. (16.5 x 1.6 cm), The Jewish Museum, New York, Purchase: Contemporary Judaica Acquisitions Committee Fund, 2008-142
Smulovitz researched critical debates in Judaism, which she wanted to represent in the typological language of ritual objects. Smulovitz was interested in the historical arguments over who wrote the Torah. Scholars have gathered textual evidence of multiple authors of the holy book. Such a stance directly challenges the point of view that the Torah, every word, was handed directly down from God to Moses to the Jewish people. Smulovitz, in her yads, has reinvented a ritual object that accommodates both sides of the debate. These works possess a strong conceptual and critical content laced with irony, yet at the same time are beautifully crafted functional objects that play by the traditional rules. These pieces are polylingual, speaking in multiple artistic voices. There is a yearning among American Jewish artists who have visceral memories and experiences of Jewish ritual, but no deep understanding of them, to create experiential ritual objects.
To repurpose one type of Jewish ritual object for another Jewish use is an ongoing practice through the centuries. People turned wedding dresses into Torah curtains and Torah shields into Hanukkah lamp backs. Today we are witnessing an efflorescence of this tendency to remix sacred materials. In the last few years artists have reused candlesticks, which normally come in pairs, as the units of seven and nine-branch menorahs.
A variation on the theme occurs in the Mixalabra, a cast silver Hanukkah menorah recently produced by Umbra in their U+ line of higher end design. It was on view front and center in Umbra’s booth at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York City in 2009. Modified casts of nine mismatched candlesticks are arranged in a circle on a tray. A tall stick at the center serves as the shamash. The entire work is in brightly polished silver, and comes off a little blingy for my taste.
Mixalabra by Umbra
The Canadian designer, Matt Carr, said the owners of Umbra felt there was a lack of well-designed Judaica on the market and charged their designers to come up with something, and so Carr gathered a collection of random candlesticks from a thrift store near the Umbra HQ in Toronto for inspiration. With its source materials cast and reworked, the piece does not initially read menorah, but certainly is a bold take on the traditional form, especially for a mainstream company that I associate more with soap dispensers than Jewish ceremonial objects (though hand washing certainly is a key ritual in its own right). Overall, something was lost in translation. Maybe it’s the homogenization of the diverse candlesticks into a single material.
In a similar vein, the Israeli designers Reddish Studio reclaimed orphaned candlesticks in various homes and flea markets and assembled them into a single seven-branch menorah. The sticks seem to float in the air, suspended from their tops by a metal frame. The candlesticks are presented as found objects, so their diverse ages and styles talk to each other. Because the ancient seven-branch menorah is largely symbolic and not used in any popular domestic ceremony like its offspring the Hanukkah lamp, Reddish Studio’s piece reads as more sculpture than functional object, although the holes of the sticks remain open and could hold candles. This menorah is an elegant statement of the nature of a Jewish community as a collection of different people brought together and given form through the continual repurposing of ritual.
Reddish Studio: Naama Steinbock (Israeli, b. 1975) and Idan Friedman (Israeli, b. 1975),Menorah, 2008, Various metals and steel frame, 11 3/8 x 15 3/4 x 4 1/2 in. (29 x 40 x 11.4 cm), Courtesy of the artists, Sitriya, Israel
Central in the contemporary process of creating Judaica is the rethinking of the relationship between the decorative and the functional. The core idea in postmodernism was to invest the decorative and its objects, once dismissed as useless and meaningless, with value and purpose. What’s interesting about the current trend is that a number of contemporary Israeli designers take the decorative a step further and invert the roles of the functional and non-functional, the object and the ornament. Recent works have been inspired by the tablecloths and lace doilies that were part of the interior decoration of Israeli households once aspiring to import Old World sensibility into postwar concrete apartments. In Israeltoday, perhaps aware of the achievement of commercial abundance, industrial designers are reimagining the material culture of past as ritual objects for the present, so that a soft, delicate material can become a rigid and structurally sound form capable of performing the rituals.
Sahar Batsry’s Volcano (2007) turns the idea of a tablecloth into a soft seder plate. A white molded silicone disk serves as a “plate” supporting six etched glass dishes. The elastic properties hold in place the embedded dishes, which when used contain the symbolic foods discussed in the Haggadah. Small perforations around the plate’s perimeter recall the source inspiration in lace. The piece is flexible, so it requires a flat surface to be fully functional as a plate. Thus the piece metaphorically transforms the entire table into a plate by blurring the distinctions between object and furniture. Volcano rethinks the tripartite relationship among furniture, cover, and object: no longer a three-element combination, but all fused into one elegant object.
Sahar Batsry (Israeli, b. 1974), Volcano Seder Plate, 2008, Glass and silicone, 5/8 x 13 in. diameter (1.6 x 33 cm), Courtesy of the artist, Tel Aviv
Talilia Abraham, also a designer in Israel, created a finely worked pierced metal that mimics lace. This type of unexpected hybrid of the hard and the soft can be found in a lot of jewelry and tabletop objects these days. But Abraham’s workshop hand etches the pieces to get an added delicacy, while most other examples in international design rely on laser cutting.
Abraham, as part of her large line of baskets and containers, created a basket to holdmatzoh during the Passover seder. The piece, called Dantela after the type of heirloom lace that inspired it, directly endows the decorative look of lace with a new purpose. Thus the “lower” valued decorative item is “elevated” to status of ritual object to frame unleavened bread, eaten during Passover to recall liberation from slavery in Egypt. The feminist politics resolve clearly in this piece. Abraham reinvests an anonymous craft practiced by women for centuries. While these handicrafts are now largely industrialized, Abraham revives their patterns as tribute to the women of the past, and as a strong statement of her presence and autonomy. Dantela is a feminist ritual object par excellence, literally bringing the history of women’s creativity to the Passover table.
Talila Abraham (Israeli, b. 1965), Dantela, 2004, Stainless steel: etching, 4 3/8 x 15 x 14 3/4 in. (11.1 x 38.1 x 37.5 cm), Courtesy of the artist, Kfar Truman, Israel
The radicalism of contemporary processes of Judaica emerges from an estrangement from the origins of ritual, which the artist seeks to overcome through formalized methods and techniques that embrace the vagaries and transformations of daily life. Artists take an existing ritual object and want to update it, transform it, and make it contemporary. The art historical parallel is perhaps neo-Dada. Rituals and ritual objects and materials themselves are treated as manipulatable found objects. In the words of Jasper Johns “you do something, then do something again.” Formal invention results from the dedication to experimental process.
* Note: This paper is based in part on the author’s posts to the The Jewish Museum blogduring the summer of 2009.
Daniel Belasco manages The Jewish Museum’s program in contemporary Judaica, including acquisitions and commissions, and organized the exhibition “Reinventing Ritual: Contemporary Art and Design for Jewish Life,” which opened at the Jewish Museum in New York in September 2009 and traveled to the Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco, in 2010.