An Experiment Becomes a Showpiece


By Wayne Hoffman

Published July 14, 2006, issue of July 14, 2006.
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Something big is happening in the smallest room of the Judah L. Magnes Museum.

When Alla Efimova was hired as chief curator of the Jewish art museum in 2003 — overseeing a venerable Judaica collection she calls “encyclopedic and global” — she first asked herself: “How can we renew the collection and make it relevant again?” As an answer, Efimova created the “Revisions” exhibition series — an experiment so unusual that even the docents were unable to explain the installations. Three years later, “Revisions” has become the museum’s signature creation. As the Magnes prepares this month to mount the fourth installment of “Revisions” in its intimate, single-room East Gallery, the series is making an impression in the museum’s other exhibits, in the contemporary art world at large and even in outer space.

Founded in 1962, the Magnes is located in a modest house on a tree-lined street in a residential section of Berkeley, Calif. Its mission, Efimova said in a recent interview, is to present “a contemporary interpretation of history.” The bulk of its gallery space is devoted to three elements: rotating selections from the permanent collection of more than 30,000 books, manuscripts, works of art and religious objects; temporary traveling exhibits about Jews in modernity, and a sampling of archival items from the Magnes-affiliated Western Jewish History Center.

“Revisions” is different, a collaborative effort between the Magnes and Jewish artists who create new, site-specific work inspired by the museum’s collection. “Who is better positioned to find a new language to talk about historical objects than contemporary artists?” Efimova asked.

The first show, in 2004, featured Ann Chamberlain, whose public art commissions have graced the California Supreme Courthouse and the San Francisco Public Library. Intrigued by “pioneer Jewish cemeteries” dating back to California’s 1840s Gold Rush — graveyards that the Magnes is involved in preserving — Chamberlain created a photographic exhibit called “Fragments From the Travels to the Gold Country,” exploring the links between museums and cemeteries, and focusing on the concept of gold as San Francisco’s cultural capital.

This premiere show “brought in a whole new crowd,” Efimova said. Contemporary artists who hadn’t taken note of the Jewish museum started paying attention: “We’ve developed a following since then in those circles,” she said.

Collaboration seems to be the key to the project’s success: Efimova chooses the artists, but then allows each one to decide what part of the collection inspires them, and what to do with the material.

Larry Abramson’s show “Searching for the Ideal City,” which is on display until July 16, took collaboration to another level. An Israeli artist who taught at the San Francisco Art Institute, Abramson is best known as a painter, but he wanted to do something different for “Revisions”: He wanted to build Jerusalem out of Jewish ritual objects. Abramson asked Magnes staffers to choose ceremonial items from the permanent collection that reminded them of “the ideal city,” and then he built a miniature Jerusalem in the East Gallery’s showcase using the chosen objects. Silver Kiddush cups and brass menorahs became architectural structures, while filigree spice boxes and wooden Torah finials became the city’s spires. Looming behind this miniature “ideal city” as a backdrop was one very real detail: a photograph of the separation wall that cuts through East Jerusalem.

“The result was a model of the complex relationship we maintain between reality and its representations,” Abramson said in an e-mail from his home in Israel.

Perhaps less obviously Jewish in context but equally intriguing is “The First Intergalactic Art Exposition,” premiering July 31 as the fourth “Revisions” show. Conceptual artist Jonathon Keats created abstract images using radio signals picked up by astronomers at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. Keats started with the idea that these signals, discounted by scientists as meaningless electronic static, were actually “repeating patterns of engagement,” or communications from extraterrestrial beings. Mapping the signals’ frequencies and wavelengths on a variety of graphs, and then using colors to depict the data in the form of bars, or radiating lines, or concentric circles, he crafted 4-foot-square canvases that he calls the ultimate “outsider art.”

“I was more receptive to extraterrestrials as a Jew,” Keats told the Forward. “In a Jewish museum, it was more likely that people would understand. A Jewish museum seems more receptive to different ways of looking at the world.”

Elayne Grossbard, Judaica curator at the Magnes, echoed this notion: “Jews are outsiders almost by definition, so they naturally gravitate to unorthodox ways of expressing themselves.”

Keats will also draw on the museum’s permanent collection, initiating a cultural exchange with other worlds. He is taking iconic images from Magnes’s archival pictures and, reversing his earlier procedure, translating these shapes and colors into electronic signals, which he will transmit into space from the museum’s grounds, using electronic equipment.

If the “Revisions” shows seem broad in their execution — some more obviously Jewish than others, some more abstract — they are bound together by a sense of experimentation and by the museum’s willingness to let artists view historic objects in new ways.

“The ‘Revisions’ series offers an introspection and self-critical awareness that most museums and exhibitions prefer to ignore,” Abramson said. “The Magnes has willingly surrendered its absolute hold over interpretation, and has recognized the existence of alternative readings.”

The impact can be felt in the museum’s larger galleries, too, where a greater sense of experimentation has taken hold. “The impulse at the heart of ‘Revisions’ carries over to our other shows — changing the interpretation [of our permanent collection] or what we seek out in traveling exhibitions,” Efimova noted.

“I want to be open to what ideas are brewing in Jewish artists’ minds,” she added. “Part of modern Jewish culture is its commitment to radical thought and experimentation, to be open to it at every stage.”

Wayne Hoffman is the managing editor of the Forward.

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