Friday, April 23, 2010

Reinventing Ritual: Contemporary Art and Design for Jewish Life, on view April 22 – October 3, 2010

 Jonathan Adler. Utopian Menorah. 2006 (Theme: Building)

For most of us, the morning ritual consists of falling out of bed, stumbling to the bathroom, putting on the water for coffee and reading the paper - or the Internet. Some of us check our e-mail first thing. Some have to walk the dog. But the current exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum takes the idea of routine, thoughtless ritual into a more spiritual dimension and links objects made by contemporary artists and designers with the ancient rituals of Judaism.  It is designed to invite visitors to consider their own rituals and create dialogue through a series of questions asked through the exhibition like: What are the rituals that you perform as you wake up in the morning? Are rituals different from a habit or routine? What do you remember about rituals you participated in as a child?  Have you continued or modified those rituals for your family?  Do you have a sacred space in your home? How did you make it sacred?

Judaism is one of the oldest, if not the oldest surviving monotheistic religion. Jewish rituals, customs and scholarly traditions have allowed it to survive centuries of persecution so the ritual items in the exhibit take on an importance beyond their design - they are a spiritual link with the past. The objects presented in the show reflect contemporary concerns and artistic viewpoints.

The show is arranged in four thematic nodes: Thinking, Covering, Absorbing, and Building. These themes focus on ritual as physical action related to specific acts such as eating, drinking, counting, smelling, lighting candles, and praying, essentially grounding them in things shared by all people -- food, clothes, the environment.

Studio Armadillo. Hevruta Minuta. 32 knitted skullcaps. 2007 (Covering)

Ritual is central to Jewish lived experience and practice. Rituals are performed to celebrate or mark life’s passages, to bless the food that that they eat, and to sanctify the space in which they pray. Jewish texts and laws require rituals, although specific customs and practices vary in different parts of the world and have evolved and transformed over the centuries. Contemporary Jews seeking renewed relevance in their relationship to Judaism have expanded and invented new ritual practices. Rituals can be celebratory and raucous or somber and meditative, solitary activities or group experiences. The impact of a ritual on those engaged in it is not easily articulated, but it transforms and changes the participants in the process.

Martin Wilner. Sephirot III, 2007 (Thinking)

The exhibit features 60 innovative works in diverse media including installation art, video, drawing, metalwork, jewelry, ceramics, comics, sculpture, textiles, industrial design and architecture created between 1999 and 2009.  Since the 1990's, Judaism has been revolutionized by feminism, environmentalism and much more and the current exhibit reflects that reality. “The Museum has really been at the forefront of thinking about ritual objects and their contemporary significance,” says Connie Wolf, Executive Director of the CJM. “Reinventing Ritual builds on what we’ve created – looking across the spectrum at traditional objects and rites and bringing in both new and familiar artists to think in fresh ways about the role of ritual in our everyday lives.”

Helène Aylon, All Rise (2007) (Thinking)

Many of the objects can be viewed through the prism of social phenomena  – feminism for example being one of the greatest sources of new ritual practices. With Fringed Garment (2005), American fiber artist Rachel Kanter pushes the boundaries of traditional sex roles by combining a kitchen apron and a prayer shawl (until recently worn only by Jewish men) in a more practical form designed for a woman. Kanter writes, “If I wanted to wear a tallit, it should be made for me and speak of my experiences as a spiritual Jew, a woman and a mother.”

Rachel Kanter. Fringed Garment. 2005 (Covering)

A sculptural installation by past CJM Invitational artist Helène Aylon, All Rise (2007), addresses the patriarchal tradition that allows three males to pass judgment in the Jewish Court but forbids women to judge. Aylon’s installation is an egalitarian vision of the future: a courtroom that administers feminist halakha (Jewish law). “I think of my work as a ‘rescue’ of the Earth and G–d and Women—all stuck in patriarchal designations,” she writes.

Alan Wexler. Gardening Sukkah.(Building)

The exhibition also includes a resource area that provides information about traditional and contemporary Jewish ritual. Several works in the exhibition also have an accompanying video-label that provides further insight into the process, ritual, and concept behind these works. These video-labels are portions of a commissioned video featuring commentary by rabbis, artists and the exhibition’s curator. The excerpts provide insight into the show’s themes and an explanation of the highly symbolic rituals of Judaism and more.

All images courtesy of the Contemporary Jewish Museum. Check their website for hours and a list of accompanying programs:
or call 415.655.7800. The Contemporary Jewish Museum is located at 736 Mission Street (between 3rd & 4th streets), San Francisco.  

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