It’s not often that one visits a contemporary art installation, opens up the comment book, and reads the following: “First of all, I am a broken vessel, a victim of abuse, and I am in the process of healing.” Or: “Today, June 8, makes 7 years since I lost my wife.” Other entries include promises to help woman held in sexual bondage, or work with local schools to improve the quality of education.
If anyone has doubts that contemporary art has relevance to people outside certain cultural circles, Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ piece “Birthing Tikkun Olam,” at San Francisco’s new Contemporary Jewish Museum, puts them to rest.
Ukeles’ installation, whose full title is “Tsimtsum/Shevirat Ha-Kelim: Contraction/The Shattering of the Perfect Vessels: Birthing Tikkun
Jewish Theological Seminary
Olam,” is part of the museum’s first major exhibition called “In the Beginning: Artists Respond to Genesis.”
What is so interesting about Ukeles’ piece is that people seem to come away from it with a different understanding both the possibilities of contemporary art, and the ethical values of Judaism.
“I had never thought to connect art with [Jewish] public service before I came to the gallery,” explained Emily Kaufman, who was visiting the Museum from Chicago.
The goal of the installation — provoking social action — is as simple as a biblical injunction. But the context, including wall panels exploring the first chapter of Genesis, the kabbalistic idea of tikkun olam and an invitation to collaborate with the artist, is Talmudic in complexity.
The visitor experience is this: One walks into a corner of the larger gallery, where two walls of small, hand-held mirrors hang in rows. Wall texts reference the phrase in Genesis which explains how humans are made “in the image” of God. At the same time speakers play three different voices chanting the first chapter of Genesis, in Hebrew. Ukeles has also poetically paraphrased the kabbalistic idea of God contracting to make room for humanity, with the unexpected shattering of God’s “perfect vessels.”
In response, visitors are obligated to collaborate with God to repair these vessels — the classic meaning of tikkun olam — which in popular parlance has come to mean something more like “helping the world.”
The first step in this collaboration is for visitors to see God, and themselves, in the reflections of the mirrors. The second is to duck behind a veil, into a small, enclosed space, where one can write out (or draw) a personal agreement with the artist, which includes a promise to make a difference with a public act of tikkun olam. These promises are collected in a binder and placed on view, in essence making the promise public.
Finally, visitors are invited back on specified days, during which the installation’s mirrors will be given out freely, in exchange for a visitor’s commitment to make the world a better place. Visitors replace the mirrors with their personal “covenants,” in essence changing the installation from a wall of mirrors into a wall of ethical and spiritual promises. In a way, one can imagine this exchange as a gloss on the experience of placing notes on Jerusalem’s Western Wall. But instead of leaving a request, one offers a promise; and instead of taking away a memory of the wall’s pregnant silence, one leaves with a tangible gift.
“Birthing Tikkun Olam” is part of Ukeles’ 30-year-old project of creating public and participatory art. She became well known in the 1970s for her artistic residency with the New York City Department of Sanitation, and her yearlong performance piece “Touch Sanitation,” in which she personally thanked all 8,500 of the city’s sanitation workers for their work. The idea of an artistic residency with the NYC garbage department sounds like a joke. But Ukeles, in word and image, has excelled at taking what seems, well, “not art,” and forcing people to rethink the goals and value of artistic creation.
In some sense contemporary art, with its anti-religious bias, might suggest a continuing disconnect between Jewish ideas and artistic trends. But the success of “Birthing Tikkun Olam” suggests that contemporary art may offer the opportunity for more rigorous and specific Jewish thinking — not less.
Is Ukeles, with her mystical texts and insistence on tikkun olam, asking too much of visitors? Apparently not. In the ten days since the Museum opened, more than 1,000 people have taken the time to prepare an ethical agreement, based on the demands of both Jewish values and contemporary art. That’s good news for art, and good news for Jewish life.
Daniel Schifrin is director of public programs and writer in residence at the Contemporary Jewish Museum.
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