Art review: ‘Reinventing Ritual’

   Posted by: admin   in Art News Updates

“Reinventing Ritual: Contemporary Art and Design for Jewish Life” at the Contemporary Jewish Museum works better as a vehicle for explaining Jewish custom than as an art exhibition.

The show’s organizer, the Jewish Museum in New York, collected or commissioned many of the works presented. Each project responds to some facet of Judaic ritual. The show surveys contemporary artists’ ingenuity in responding creatively to aspects of non-artistic tradition.

To that extent, “Reinventing Ritual” enframes a special case of our expectation, or hope, that current art will clarify the impact or significance of widely shared experiences we regard as characteristic of our era.

The era in question here may reach back millennia, and the cultural tradition may be quite strictly defined, but every visitor can sense the pressure on the represented artists and designers to contrive timely responses.

A few examples stand out physically and might easily find a place in other surveys of contemporary art. Matthew McCaslin’s “Being the Light” (2000), a tangle of electrical conduit and switches powering nine porcelain-socketed bulbs, looks like a post-minimalist light sculpture. But McCaslin conceived it as a menorah, an updating of the nine-branched candelabrum used during Hanukkah to commemorate the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem, following the second century B.C. Jewish revolt against Seleucid rule.

Jewish rituals concern the order and stability of both the individual’s life and that of a community of belief. In this respect, they have something in common with the secular uses of art. Affinity groups form around art production and institutions. Artworks offer themselves as devices for renewing contact with ideas and feelings that might seldom come to a focus elsewhere in daily life.

“Reinventing Ritual” is organized under four categories: Absorbing, Thinking, Covering and Building, concepts general enough to bridge Jews’ and other visitors’ grasp of the customs involved.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles and Steven Handel silently dominate the entry area of the show with ” ‘I’m Talking to You’: A Scent Garden: Three Different Voices from Nature, Version II” (2009).

This cluster of flasks, beakers and petri dishes filled with seeds, spices, roots and other fragrant matter expands on the ritual known as havdalah: the sniffing of a spice box at the end of the Sabbath, as a foretaste of the sweetness of earthly creation that the worshiper is about to rejoin.

The flasks and olfactory sensations summon associations to other conceptual artworks, from Dieter Roth to Ernesto Neto, while involving every visitor tacitly in a havdalah observance.

Israeli artists Ami Drach and Dov Ganchrow present “+/- Hotplate” (2003), an electrified ceramic plate on which a Hebrew inscription silk-screened in conductive gold serves to warm food placed upon it as part of a dietary ritual.

Several artists included here have made rather labored efforts to criticize Jewish tradition from within.

Helène Aylon constructed an elaborate simulation of a Beit Din, a rabbinic court of the sort before which, under religious law, a Jewish woman must petition for divorce.

Any woman who has been subjected to this patriarchal ordeal might find Aylon’s piece very affecting. Others may find in it the preponderance of didactics over aesthetics from which much installation art suffers.

Tamara Kostianovsky’s “Unearthed” (2007), a flayed beef carcass made of clothing, ventures an analogy – somewhat muddled – between the ethos of kosher butchery and moral reflection on violence among people.

In some ways the most remarkable project on view is Tobaron Waxman’s “Opshernish” (2000), in which the Canadian artist incorporated an ancient rite of passage into his process of transsexual identity change. “Opshernish” names the ceremony in which a 3-year-old boy has his head shaved – except for side locks – signifying first entry into masculinity.

Waxman had this done as an adult, as a video documentary here attests. The shorn locks hang as part of a disquieting installation that intends to question the ritual’s symbolism and notions of how masculinity is attained.

“Reinventing Ritual” inevitably relies heavily on explanatory material, so the immediacy of the art, where immediacy matters, may be available only to visitors already conversant with Jewish tradition.

This entry was posted on Friday, April 30th, 2010 at 11:52 pm and is filed under Art News Updates. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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  1. Jordan    Jan 21 2015 / 8am:


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