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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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