Sunday, September 29, 2013

A Tingle of Memory

Tinguely's 1960 Happening was called Hommage to New York: a giant "self-destroying" machine that flamed out in the old Museum of Modern Art garden. At the exhibit I just saw in New York called Radio Waves at Sperone Westwater Gallery there was a longer video of it.  My memory of staring at a burned up piano in the MoMA garden as a teenager made me think "I was there", a kid who thought "wow, cool."  Amazingly when I was at the exhibit, the curator, David Leiber, happened to be there.  I asked him if there had been a smaller happening, just with a piano.  All I remembered was the piano.  "That was a long time ago" he said.  I needed him to help me understand my memory.  What was it really?

What he wrote in the brochure about the exhibit did help me.  He referred to it as having been derisively described in the press at the time as "Black-tie Dada".  I was not there for a crowded black-tie evening event.  My memory is of sitting in the sunshine in the daytime, in a garden that wasn't crowded at all, looking at a charred burned out piano.  They must have kept the residue for a while after the self-destruct burning.  Was it actually smoking, like embers in a fireplace?  Or did I just see it smoking in my mind?  Did I imagine the whole burning because I read a blurb near the piano that described what had happened?  Or because I saw videos of it years later?  Who knows.  Memory is so slippery.  

All I know is that when New York was transformed in the 1960's by artists using junk, it intersected my teen-age life.  I lived near New York and soaked it up, as star-struck by these artists as I was by Hollywood movie stars.  Now that decades later I am a found-object assemblage artist, a member of the Dumpster Divers of Philadelphia, I can only be grateful that somehow fascination with junk seeped under my skin at a young age.

 This piece by Jean Tinguely called Radio No. 1 was exhibited together with a DVD of it in motion that included the tinny and sweet sounds of its radio.  It was so touching. 

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Gleanings From The Harvest

Pictured above is the lulav, made of palm, myrtle, and willow, and the etrog, which has been called "a lemon on steroids" with its fancy case, used in the ritual of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.  We are currently in the midst of this joyful eight day harvest festival.  Following is a sad/happy story of Sukkot in a facility for people with alzheimers and other dementias where I celebrated it together with my mom in her last year of life.

 “Now we’re going to do a mitzvah” said the young Chabad Rabbi. He had arrived late,  lulav and etrog in hand like the knight on a white horse that he was, rescuing the floundering activities assistant from having to stumble through the Friday 11:00 a.m. ‘Shabbat’ on her own.  She vaguely knew it was a holiday called Sukkot, but didn’t know what to say about it, so he arrived in the nick of time, with the necessary ritual equipment.

The Rabbi spoke about Yom Kippur as Gevurah (judgment), and Sukkot as Hesed (loving kindness), about the three sides of the sukkah (the temporary hut built to dwell in, or at least hang out in, during the eight day holiday) symbolizing God’s sheltering arm.  He explained about the palm, myrtle and willow, how they needed to be perfect to form a kosher lulav.  His words moved me deeply.  I wondered what  the alzheimer’s crowd could possibly understand of his mystical Kabbalistic interpretations.  

Then the real mitzvah (good deed):  going individually to each resident, however seemingly out of it, and getting them to (more or less, mostly less) repeat each line of the traditional blessing, and then having them shake the lulav and etrog together, the customary ritual action. 

 I remembered a commentary I had read about how the three elements of the lulav plus the etrog spell the letters of God’s name in Hebrew:  yud-hey-vav-hey.  Because of which hand they are held in, they only read that way by someone facing the person shaking would read backwards for the person themself who is shaking them.  So it has to be an interactive event, it requires an ‘I’ and a ‘Thou.’   It was one of those moments when I got in touch with the humanity and soul of each person there, regardless of how advanced their dementia, and swallowed back the tears.

When it came to my mother’s turn I said “we’ll do it together”.  I put my hands over hers as you would to teach a child. I repeated the blessing after him on her behalf, since she could barely speak anymore.  We shook them together.  Her eyes widened in amazement as she looked up towards the top of the lulav. Her face came unexpectedly alive. She looked transported to some primal childhood memory.  I could see the distant bell ringing.  Then, plant lady that she is, she looked more closely at the myrtle and lovingly touched the leaves.  The Rabbi panicked, since he had just explained that if the leaves weren’t perfect it wouldn’t be kosher.  I removed her hand.  He tried to remove the entire lulav from the clutch of her other hand.  “I can’t get it out” he said, asking for help.  I pried her fingers loose, her hand having become frozen in a vise, and he quickly pulled it away and went on to the next person.

She uttered a few garbled  words.  I could only make out one of them:  “nice”.  She smiled. We were both happy. For a harvest festival, it was a good harvest. Every year since, every time I shake the lulav and etrog,
I'm right back there.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Kafka under a Full Moon

With a theater company named Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium, how could they not produce Kafka's The Castle!  I got a ticket at the last minute to this Philly Fringe event last Wednesday, at a very intimate venue.  I sat in the fifth of five rows.  As I was driving into center city, I watched the very full moon rising over the skyline in a way that set the surreal mood.  The postcard above, a painting by Otto Dix, perfectly captures the spirit of this adaptation from the story.  

The Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium notes that it is "recognized for its hilarious, well-crafted, accessible productions of complicated works by absurdist-leaning authors.."  Yup.  It was a brilliant production - funny, painful, familiar, haunting - all at the same time.  The music was no small part of it.  I was struck throughout by the choices for music.

In the program notes it only said "Franz Kafka (1883-1924) was a Czechoslovakian-born German language novelist and short story writer, regarded by critics as one of the most influential authors of the 20th century."  Nowhere did it indicate that he was a Jew. 

For some reason I had cut out and pasted in my journal the following quote by Julian Levinson from the September 2008 issue of Sh'ma.  "Franz Kafka wrote his powerful, enigmatic short story "The Judgement" during a single all-night session on the eve of Yom Kippur in 1912.  An acculturated Jew who was not observant in any traditional sense (though drawn to Zionism, the Yiddish theater, modern Hebrew and mysticism), Kafka described the writing session as if it had been his own private ritual of atonement.  In his diary the next day, he wrote that it was like "advancing through a body of water...a complete unfolding of the body and soul."  

At the end of The Castle, the music suddenly shifted into a rousing and familiar klezmer tune from the Eastern European Yiddish folk music tradition.  Kafka's Jewishness was finally being indirectly acknowledged - through music!  As I drove home under the astonishing full moon I realized that it was the first night of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, the holiday where we dwell in temporary open huts (or at least share meals with family and friends in them), and are reminded of joy and community amidst fragility and transience.  It all felt so Kafkaesque...