Meir Panim’s Tiberias Free Restaurant not only provides warm meals, but the opportunity to socialize as well.
Imagine ritual without symbol. Impossible. The very heart and soul of Jewish ritual, from prayer to matzah, is the symbolic evocation of something else. Kiddush celebrates creation itself, Hanukah lights are symbolic of the miraculous oil, while a seder-plate is a litany of symbolic suffering and liberation. The list goes on and on throughout Jewish practice.
And yet, Tobi Kahn’s traveling exhibition and accompanying book, “Objects Of The Spirit: Ritual And The Art of Tobi Kahn,” has not one Jewish symbol, not one Star of David, Lion of Judah, or inspiring Hebrew phrase to direct our gaze symbolically. Rather, he fashions contemporary symbols deriving from the substance of his largely abstract forms that emphasizes the meaning of the mitzvah itself, evoked in deeply personal shapes and motifs. Eschewing traditional Judaic form and symbol, Tobi Kahn is determined to eke out objects and images that bring each mitzvah into the present modern reality.
Orah (1987) is an Aron Kodesh (Holy Ark) made especially for a mourner’s house. Its simple form bespeaks pure functionality; the shelves to hold siddurim, the painted box to hold the Torah and the crown – like cornice to lead the eye heavenward. And yet, the painted doors use art to address the specifics of the use. A straight road cuts through a blood red field as it approaches two towering gold ochre mountains.
In his time of intense pain and loss, the mourner must cut through his emotions and advance to the mountain of Torah, a mountain that seems almost unassailable. And yet, even in our deepest mourning, we understand that the Torah will return us to the land of the living and to life. Nessa Rapaport’s meditation on this object insists, “Choose life, hear, cleave to Me, beloved, open to Me.”
Tobi Kahn’s work searches out unique metaphors as his means become increasingly transgressive, pushing the boundaries of normative Judaic images. The Aron Kodesh utilizes landscape imagery to evoke a mourner’s consciousness, exactly the kind of depiction that most Torah arks avoid because of the ancient fears of nature worship. The human figure is boldly used in Tokah (1998), the Rosh Hashanah apple and honey set, a joyful miniature sculpture of a figure dancing holding the honey container that expresses the happiness of the New Year with its hopes and aspirations.
Even Kahn’s creation of an Elijah’s Chair for his own son’s circumcision challenges the normative. The tall backed modernist throne is simplicity itself, except that under the seat is a small niche reminiscent of the series of small shrines he made a few years earlier. A small abstract figure rests on a pedestal, reminding all that even as a child enters the covenant, other forces lurk nearby.
This evocation of another side of Judaism, always in context with the very fabric of modern life, is what sets Kahn’s images and objects on edge, challenging our preconceptions of religiosity. Nonetheless, Kahn consistently refers to the fundamentals of Jewish faith as he explores its visual expression. His Hanukah lamp, Quya (1996) utilizes a repeated floral motif that parades across three vegetal supports. The lamps are suspended, miraculously defying gravity, in a physical equivalent of the miracle of the oil. The three tripod supports, perhaps alluding to the three principles that support the world; Torah, worship and kindliness (Avos: 1:2) appear to stand on their toes, as it were, emphasizing the floating nature of the lights themselves. Suspension of disbelief, in art as well as faith, is a precondition to experiencing miracles.
Objects Of The Spirit, curated by Laura Kruger, has been touring the country for the last four and a half years as part of Kahn’s educational project, “Avoda.” In accompanying lectures and workshops, “Avoda” has encouraged thousands of individuals to create personal ritual objects in an expansion of their own spirituality.
The book, published in 2004, adds to the Avoda experience, including trenchant essays that contextualize Kahn’s work within art history and traditional Judaica (Emily D, Bilski); addresses the emerging role of sacred art in public consciousness (Terrence E. Dempsey, S.J.); and explores the resistance to specific context that his mysterious titles and neutral exhibition format espouses (Leora Auslander).
The 27 full-page color reproductions of Kahn’s work are each accompanied by Nessa Rapaport’s poetic meditations. While her sensitivity towards her husband’s work is not surprising, her ability to connect with a Biblical voice and infuse her contemporary poetry with the authority and passion of Tanach is truly moving. I can think of no better supplication at Rosh Hashanah than Nessa’s accompaniment to Tobi’s apple and honey set;
“Awaken to the year as it is born, the Aleph Bet beginning, writing our destiny. Sovereign of sweetness, refute severity, remember us as we return to You, word by word, assemble us, Scribe, let us hear Your call as we summon You into our lives.”
The creative relationship between an individual and mitzvah, mediated by an object that fractures our expectations, is the operative subject of Tobi Kahn’s ritual objects.
Ruth Weisberg’s short essay proposes a slightly subversive understanding of hiddur mitzvah, the principle of beautifying our mitzvos. Beyond adorning the mitzvah, she suggests that, “[Jewish] art is a way of knowing, a different kind of intelligence, and an organizing principle.” Indeed, a kind of midrash.
I believe that Kahn’s ritual objects go considerably further. His best works pour his questioning into the pre-existing vessel of ritual, thereby attempting to repossess his faith. His Objects Of The Spirit deconstruct what we think we know about ritual, and demand that one cannot truly enhance a mitzvah, perhaps not even perform a mitzvah, without reconstructing it.
Objects of the Spirit: Ritual and the Art of Tobi Kahn. Avoda Institute, Ltd. NY & Hudson Hills Press, NY, 2004. “Avoda: Objects of the Spirit” by Tobi Kahn. Exhibitions: Georgetown University Intercultural Center, 37th Street NW & O Street NW, Washington, D.C, (202 777 3208). January 26 to February 18, 2005. University of Southern California, Los Angeles, March 8 to May 31, 2005. ◙
Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at www.richardmcbee.com .
About the Author: Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Today is day six without a phone.
Besides for feeling slightly isolated, it’s not too bad.
I’ve been doing things that I know I would not be doing if my phone was sitting next to me, shiny screen beckoning.
Is anyone else alarmed by the way extended warranties are sold on just about anything and everything? It means one of two things – either someone has found a great way of getting consumers to part with more of their hard earned dollars or manufacturers have no faith in their own products. Neither of those options is particularly heartwarming.
As I described Gaon in a review in June 2001 (“In Search of Ancestors, Sculpture by Simon Gaon” at Yeshiva University Museum), his Bukharian Jewish roots are deeply embedded on both sides of his family, echoed in his early yeshiva education.
Let me begin by congratulating my dear machatunim, Soraya and Jay Nimaroff, on being the recipients of the Community Service Award at the Sderot Hesder Institutions 18th annual anniversary dinner.
Think of your issues this way: due to those different backgrounds, you have a “shovel” to deal with difficulties while he has a “spoon”.
Do you remember the good old days when kids were kids and there was never anything to worry about? Those days never really existed, but today there are issues kids worry about that weren’t issues for some adults. They include fear of bullying, natural disasters, divorce, and violence.
In Part I talked about celebrating 30 years of Regesh Family and Child Services providing services to children, teens and families. I shared the agency’s origin and the many lessons I have learned through this journey. As I mentioned, it is my hope that my experiences will add to your toolbox of life skills.
Unfortunately, a map of the Middle East with no mention of Israel is nothing new… It is surprising however, that the world’s largest publisher of children’s literature, Scholastic Books, has joined in this trend.
About six months ago my parents and I started discussing ideas for a mitzvah project in honor of my bat mitzvah. I wanted to do something unique that would be meaningful to me and also do something that my friends could participate in. Immediately I thought of an organization called Sharsheret.
“I’m disappointed that the agreement reached with Iran leaves our unfulfilled our ultimate objective: a complete dismantling of Iran’s nuclear program and related activities.
Southern NCSY will be holding a leadership training Shabbaton at the Young Israel of Bal Harbour December 6 and December 7. Rabbi Steven Weil, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, will be the special guest speaker.
Is there a beginning and an end to the universe? What role can medical breakthroughs play in conception or genetic engineering? Can science help us pinpoint the end of human life? Does the soul emanate from the brain or vice-versa?
Last month’s column sketched the myriad of social programs in which the Orthodox American communal worker and leader Adolphus S. Solomons (1826-1910) was involved. Adolphus married Rachel Seixas Phillips (1828-1881), a descendant of colonial patriot families and together they had eight daughters and a son.
The fact that the Jewish Museum’s curator Susan Tumarkin Goodman presents these issues as the inescapable core of her exhibition demonstrates the courage to challenge her audience with deeply discomforting images and concepts.
Lynda Caspe’s current exhibition at the Derfner Museum is an extraordinary event. In this show of 12 bronze relief sculptures and 14 cityscape paintings we have the opportunity to see the full scope of her last six years of work that, as least with the sculptures, marked a radical change in subject matter and technique.
The philosopher Theodor Adorno famously wrote in 1949, “cultural criticism finds itself with the final stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” This statement posited that the Holocaust exposed the unredeemable rotten underbelly of Western culture and therefore the very notion of creating beauty and sensitivity was at an insurmountable impasse. Alas, as cultural history has shown, he was wrong. Strikingly, it might be said that one of the few ways still provocatively available to speak about the Holocaust is in fact through poetry.
“Hyman Bloom: Paintings and Drawings (1940 – 2005),” currently at White Box (the cutting edge international art space on Broome Street), is a rare opportunity to observe the creative process of one of the most important practitioners of 20th century Jewish Art in America.
The “book” is a mighty big place these days and the current exhibition at MOBIA, “As Subject and Object: Contemporary Book Artists Explore Sacred Hebrew Texts,” is no exception. Highly mobile ebooks compete with online publications and traditionally bound volumes, scrolls, accordion-style tomes and folios that present equally exciting options for contemporary artists to interact with image and text in one unifying medium.
At the Chassidic Art Institute one artist, Harry McCormick, has rather amazingly fathomed the authentic heartbeat of the individual Jewish life. This exhibition, running until July 25, shows a mere 16 paintings, but six of them reveal a deeply perceptive and sensitive chronicle of Yiddishkeit.
Judaica Auctions and the exhibition that precede them at Kestenbaum & Company are always a cornucopia of aesthetic delights. The sheer variety and overall quality of the ceremonial objects and works of art make the exhibition and catalogue a museum-like experience. The current exhibition is no exception.
Whether it is the disastrous report of the 12 spies or the furious condemnation that doomed an entire generation to die in the wilderness, the Torah narrative in Bamidbar turns terribly grim after the glorious inauguration of the Mishkan in the second year after leaving Egypt. With this in mind, just imagine my surprise at an encounter with two artists who address these (and other Biblical) themes right around the corner.
Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/repossessing-faith-objects-of-the-spirit-by-toby-kahn/2005/02/02/
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