June 5, 2008
Artists channel Genesis and Kabbalah in new museum’s inaugural exhibit
Well, we all know how that worked out. God, apparently, was on the Do Not Call list.
So rather than speak to God, artist Ben Rubin prefers to listen.
His installation is one of several making up the new Contemporary Jewish Museum's inaugural exhibition, "In the Beginning: Artists Respond to Genesis." Collectively, they examine the biblical book from a variety of artistic perspectives.
The exhibition includes Roman-period mosaics, 14th century haggadahs and even a Chagall canvas depicting creation.
Museum curators are especially excited about the newly commissioned works, among them Rubin's opus, titled, "God's Breath Hovering Over the Waters (His Master's Voice)."
His story begins in New Jersey.
In 1965, radio astronomers Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson were operating the massive Horn Antenna at the Bell Telephone Laboratories in Holmdel, N.J. Ostensibly, they were tracking communications satellites. But they also picked up for the first time the universe's microwave background radiation -- audible proof of the Big Bang.
The story fascinated Rubin, who compares the microwave static to a whisper from God. His installation is a scale model of the original Horn Antenna (at about 14 feet long and 6 feet wide, it's roughly one-third the size), and somewhat resembles a massive, reclining periscope.
Rubin is still working on the "soundtrack" to his installation: "There'll be various actual recordings of the static sound of the cosmic background radiation and also theoretical renderings of what the sound of the Big Bang itself was."
He'll also have two pictures on display: Penzias and Wilson, dwarfed by the city bus-sized antenna and the familiar canine pitchman for RCA Victor, his head cocked to one side as he picks up his master's voice on the phonograph.
"To me, in a flip sense, that's what I'm doing. I'm the dog," Rubin said with a chuckle. "I'm trying to figure out what that sound is. Can I replicate in some way what the origin of the universe sounded like?"
Six other artists completed commissions for the inaugural exhibit, including Kay Rosen, who mixes typology and numerology in her oddly titled piece "063."
Her installation is a series of 20.5-inch letters spelling out "Do No Disturb/It Is So," an environmental warning and the present tense of the oft-repeated phrase in the book of Genesis, "it was so."
On the back of Rosen's work, some of the letters seen from reverse resemble numbers. Adding up each "column," one gets the numerals 0, 6 and 3. These, too, hold a deeper meaning: "Zero is the void of no creation, six is the days of creation and three is the [subsequent] depletion of what was created," Rosen said.
Off in the corner, artist Mierle Ukeles reflects on the entire scene -- literally. Her installation features 189 hand mirrors suspended from chains stretching halfway to the soaring ceilings (180 is 10 times chai, but Ukeles found she had room for nine more).
Those mirrors serve to remind viewers that humans were created in God's image, so they reflect "an image of the divine." Ukeles hopes to slowly give away each mirror over the course of the installation's several-month run, replacing them with "pledges" by the recipients to undertake some sort of charitable or benevolent action.
Ukeles' installation is titled "Tsimtsum." This notion, described in kabbalah, describes a God who once occupied every last morsel of space in the newly created world but voluntarily recedes so other life could thrive in the resultant void.
A shattered glass will represent the vessels that, according to kabbalistic lore, could not hold the light God let there be, even before creating the sun. As Ukeles explained the story of Genesis, a pair of the museum's young workmen hopped aboard a crane and installed the platform that will hold the shattered glass.
Ukeles was caught up enough in her tale that she missed this, so when she turned to explain where the vessel would go -- poof! -- there it was.
Joe Eskenazi is a staff writer for J, the Jewish News Weekly of Northern California.