About half a year ago, my friend Miriam asked if I knew of any artists or architects whose repertoires included sukkahs. My thoughts immediately turned to the gorgeous sukkah my grandfather designed and built every year and to the retractable roof in the dining room at the Bostoner Rebbe’s synagogue, Congregation Beth Pinchas. But for the life of me, I couldn’t think of any artist who had developed an interesting aesthetic approach to the sukkah, which is the only Jewish experience (save mikvah perhaps) that completely surrounds us.
Although I remembered potentially playful fodder for aesthetic sukkahs from the Mishnah and the Talmud – with the pillars from a bed holding up the sch’ach, on the deck of a boat, on a wagon or on the back of a camel – I couldn’t think of a single artist, Jewish or otherwise, who had taken the legal questions of the Mishnah as a design challenge.
I asked myself if artists had decided the sukkah, which commemorates the clouds of glory that protected the Israelites in the wilderness and thus symbolizes impermanence and vulnerability, was an object that one couldn’t beautify without making it too permanent – even though noi sukkah, decorating the sukkah, is one of the rabbinic commandments of the day.
Then I read about Sukkah City. The international contest, sponsored by the non-profit Reboot and author Joshua Foer, called upon contestants to “re-imagine” the “ancient phenomenon” of the sukkah and to “develop new methods of material practice and parametric design, and propose radical possibilities for traditional design constraints in a contemporary urban site.” The 12 finalists exhibited their designs Sept. 19 and 20 in Union Square Park.
The Sukkah City website has a rotating header that reveals that the sukkah: must admit more shade than sunshine, must have a roof that doesn’t obscure views of the stars, needs at least an incomplete third wall, must be 10 handbreadths tall, must not be made of utensils or “anything conventionally functional” when it’s not part of the sukkah and must have a roof made of something that grew in the ground but is currently detached from the earth.
But however halachic the Sukkah City website’s conditions are, many of the finalists opted to take artistic liberties, to say the least.
“Repetition Meets Difference,” by German artist Matthias Karch, is not the sort of sukkah one could ever actually use, and it is not immediately clear that it would satisfy the Mishnaic requirements for walls. Karch modeled the structure on an invention by German-Jewish architect Konrad Wachsmann and the structure is made of a mixture of wood from American walnut and maple trees and olive trees from Israel.
Henry Grosman and Babak Bryan’s “Fractured Bubble” looks a bit like a cross between a haystack and Carrot Top’s hairdo. Though the marsh grass is affixed to plywood and bound in twine in a manner that evokes the lulav, the structure itself, which contains sch’ach which comes from marsh grass harvested from Corona Park in Queens, might require a creative interpretation of the notion of the diagonal wall – dofen akumah - to actually validate it as a kosher sukkah.
SO-IL’s design, “In Tension,” could double as a sukkah and a screened-in tent to repel mosquitoes. The structure gets extra points for its portability – one person can carry it – which would certainly be useful for a desert wanderer, but the minimal foliage on the roof precludes the requirement to have more shade than sun.
“LOG,” by Kyle May and Scott Abrahams, takes the exact opposite approach. Lugging this sukkah through the desert would be like traveling with a suitcase full of rocks. As the name suggests, the sch’ach covering “LOG” is a large log from a cedar tree. The walls of the structure are glass – no stone throwing from this sukkah.
Repetition Meets Difference
Other finalists interpreted the sukkah in even more theoretical ways. Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello’s “Sukkah of the Signs” responds to the artists’ interpretation of the commandment to eat and sleep in the sukkah for a week as a political statement. Rael and Fratello built their submission out of cardboard signs they purchased from homeless people and they see it as a project that relates to homelessness. (Interestingly, there is no specific requirement on Sukkot, as there is on Passover, to invite the needy to a holiday meal.)
“P.YGROS.C” (Passive Hygroscopic Curls), by THEVERYMANY, is sort of the Shabbat-clock of sukkahs. As it gets more humid outside, parts of the wooden structure move and create curly shapes. It’s hard to imagine that such a natural process would be a violation of the spirit of the holiday, but a sukkah that is perpetually in motion could either be an ingenious response to the nomadic experience in the Sinai desert or dangerously close to a violation of the laws of the holiday.
It will always be an uncomfortable aspect of Jewish art criticism to require functionality – that is adherence to halakhic requirements – of ritual objects, particularly because many artistic projects are intentionally resistant to being practically usable. But many of the Sukkah City submissions try to align themselves with halacha.
Sukkah of the Signs
Volkan Alkanoglu’s egg-shaped “Star Cocoon” purports to exhibit the Talmudic minimal requirement of two-and-a-half walls. But the requirement – which can be seen in the typography of the Hebrew word sukkah – is classically formulated with respect to a rectangular sukkah. If the structure is rounded, as “Star Cocoon,” who is to say that it actually has two-and-a-half walls?
Looking through the submissions that didn’t make it to the final round one is struck that most of the artists focused their attention on architecture and only considered halacha as an afterthought – “Adam’s House on Union Square” by Alexander Gorlin and Daniel Schuetz is one of several exceptions. That artists are so publically engaging a holiday like Sukkot is undoubtedly great for Jewish art and for Judaism.
But one wonders if artists who also take the halachic side of their projects seriously couldn’t be impressed upon to tackle this Jewish aesthetic design challenge.
Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.