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Exhibition of Contemporary Art and Design for Jewish Life Opens
Studio Armadillo: Hadas Kruk (Israeli, b. 1970) and Anat Stein (Israeli, b. 1972), Hevruta-Mituta, 2007, plastic chess board, thirty-two knitted skullcaps. Hadas Kruk and Anat Stein, Studio Armadillo.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA.- Rituals are embedded in everyday life, whether established by religion, culture, or family, and are continuously performed and reinvented by each generation. Rituals are personal, and are often created and re-interpreted to provide meaning and sustenance for a fulfilling life. A new exhibition at the Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM) examines a modern hybrid of the prescribed and the personal as 58 contemporary artists tailor Judaic rituals to their own values, identities, and lifestyles.

Reinventing Ritual: Contemporary Art and Design for Jewish Life, on view April 22 – October 3, 2010, is the first international exhibition to explore how artists and designers are transforming traditional practices into opportunities for contemplation and critique. It reflects a growing movement of artists and individuals engaged in ritual innovation and the explosion of new Jewish ritual, art, and objects since the 1990s – a time that has seen the practice of Judaism revolutionized by feminism, environmentalism, and more.

Featured in the exhibition are nearly 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 by leading and emerging artists from America, Israel, and beyond. Notable artists include Oreet Ashery, Jonathan Adler, Helène Aylon, Deborah Grant, Sigalit Landau, Virgil Marti, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Karim Rashid, Galya Rosenfeld, Lella Vignelli, and Allan Wexler.

Reinventing Ritual: Contemporary Art and Design for Jewish Life was organized by The Jewish Museum in New York City. Nearly half of the works on view are from its collection. The show also compliments and builds on the CJM’s longstanding engagement with living artists to examine Jewish material culture and heritage, particularly through its acclaimed Invitational series that asks artists of diverse backgrounds to create new interpretations of Judaica. Past shows have spotlighted individual objects such as seder plates, besamim or spice boxes, kiddush cups, and more. “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.”

The Works
The works on view interpret Judaism as a living, changing experience, rather than one fixed in text or custom. To that end, they are 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.

Many of them can be viewed through the prism of social phenomena as well – 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.”

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.

Studio Armadillo, the Israeli artist team of Hadas Kruk and Anat Stein, created Hevruta-Mituta in 2007. Comprised of thirty-two skullcaps on a white, plastic chessboard, this work derives from a conceptual and visual analogy between hevruta (learning in small groups) and chess competitions. The skullcaps, knit by girls during lessons in religious school, are colorful emblems of women’s increasing access to traditionally male-dominated Orthodox Jewish education and ritual.

Additionally, a potent source of recent ritual exploration centers on gender transition. A video installation entitled Opshernish (2000/2009) by Canadian artist Tobaron Waxman turns the ritual practice of opsherin, a first haircut that initiates three-year-old boys into religious observance and study, into a personal act of agency—causing the viewer to ask what creates gender and how.

Works that redesign ritual objects with a modern eco ethos are also prevalent in the exhibition. In many cases this takes the form of repurposing cast off or industrial materials. Local San Francisco engineer and inventor Joe Grand contributed Galvanized Steel Candelabra (2003), a menorah made from steel pipe fittings. Israeli artists Jonathan Hopp and Sarah Auslander use ceramic decals to turn dishes purchased at the Jaffa flea market into traditional Passover plates.

Past CJM Invitational artist Allan Wexler’s Gardening Sukkah (2000) -- complete with retractable roof, gardening tools, Jewish ritual objects, and dining utensils -- embodies a perpetual cycle of renewal, moving between uses without ever lying fallow. “For seven days Gardening Sukkah shelters the family as they gather for Sukkot meals. For the remaining 358 days it functions as an outbuilding for gardening activities and storage,” he writes.

Although contemporary values and isms surface in many of the works, many also emphasize craft and enhance existing ritual through attention to materials. Israeli artist Bruria Avidan’s Wedding Cup (2004) elegantly blends ritual function and form. The couple unites the two halves of a silver cup, made watertight with a silicone edge and rubber binders. “It concretizes the main idea of Jewish marriage, binding two who come together to form a single whole,” she writes.

Also on View
The exhibition also includes resource area that provides information about traditional and contemporary Jewish ritual and includes listening stations of music associated with ritual. The music stations will include playlists based on various Jewish and vernacular rituals with songs chosen by local artists, musicians, and figureheads. Music provides an additional point of access to thinking about ritual and its reinvention.

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.

The exhibition is also 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?

Visitors will have the opportunity to participate in the exhibition by writing their response to these questions, on a “ritual board” in the gallery and online.

Contemporary Jewish Museum | Reinventing Ritual | Helène Aylon |

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