For a few weeks this month, a dilapidated old medical clinic on Manhattan’s Lower East Side has been full of life, art and visitors. The structure is still that of a medical clinic; Its current tenants, however, have no medical degrees. And although the option to undress for examination remains open to visitors should they choose to exercise it, the purpose will be artistic rather than medical.
This insouciant spirit is completely in keeping with HomeBase IV, a free exhibition and part of the 14th Street Y LABA Festival, in which a dozen former exam rooms are the stage for artistic contemplations of personal and geopolitical identity. Very much “at home” in its current incarnation on the Lower East Side, the HomeBase project was founded in 2006 by artist and curator Anat Litwin as a follow-up to (B) Longing, which she curated at the former Makor-Steinhardt Center for its artists-in-residence. Litwin envisioned the annual HomeBase exhibitions (previously in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, and in SoHo and Harlem) as an opportunity for artists to interact in and with their settings.
This year’s offering is particularly poignant. After all, the Jewish community’s own “homebase” on the Lower East Side has changed dramatically since its days of pushcart peddlers and Yiddish. On East Broadway, around the Bialystoker Home for the Aged, edifices that housed the vibrant home of turn-of-the-century Jewish life stubbornly fight it out with modernity. The old Forward building, reaching up into the sky as a beacon of community and communication, now sports condos. Even within the clinic, the almost invisible markings where mezuzas once adorned the doorposts are clearly visible as the observer enters the worlds of each respective artist in the exhibition.
HomeBase IV artist Leor Grady, on a walking tour of the exhibition, pointed out that unlike most art exhibits, where artists are selected with the intention of forming a cohesive and coherent whole, HomeBase’s artists are selected for their ability to respond to the theme of home and to produce something meaningful within the chosen space.
Stephen Hazan Arnoff, executive director of the 14th Street Y, noted that the space exemplifies how designed areas, once they have served their purpose, can lose their utility and relevance. “How do we re-inhabit space in a way that is meaningful?” Arnoff asked rhetorically. “That is why this is a meaningful community project. It’s positing a different version of what is meaningful and of what a Jewish space can be.”
Despite the Jewish context, the artists themselves are not necessarily Jewish, nor is their work. Paul Sepuya has never been to Uganda, though his family hails from there. He uses photographs of people in his life who have a Ugandan “connection” of sorts. In the exhibit, he contemplates the irony of never having seen his ancestral “home”: “But I ask myself, what is my day-to-day connection to this place that I inherited? For the child of one or both immigrant parents, ‘homeland’ is often not a tangible place, but one mapped and experienced through storytelling and the transmission of memories from one generation to the next.” This is his particular story, but it reflects the experience of different Jewish and other communities that have come to call the Diaspora home.
Abby Robinson takes the idea of a homebase closer to the bone, contemplating the body as a home for the self. She playfully engages the spirit of the clinic by setting up a waiting room, complete with the requisite crappy old magazines. After filling out a form on a clipboard with attached pen in her exhibit, Home/Body Imaging, visitors can have the body part of their choice photographed and exhibited as part of her work.
Weary journalists can find a home of their own, perhaps, in the clinic room of the dBfoundation, an organization dedicated to “ephemeral edifices and intangible structures,” where the entire room and its furniture — including a fireplace — is constructed from newspapers. In this exhibit, Living in Illusion, everything in the living room was created from residue and leftovers of previous artistic projects.
In Grady’s own exhibition room, tiles scrape against one another in a way that makes the clinic floor seem like brittle ice. A mop, precariously placed in the corner, has a rag in place of a mop head — a rag that, reminiscent of the seminal Israeli punk group Smartut Kahol Lavan, resembles either a tallit or the Israeli flag. On one wall are the Hebrew letters chet and ayin, stitched in gold thread and intended to exemplify the guttural, Arabic-sounding intonations that Yemenite immigrants are required to soften in their speech as part of their new Israeli selves. Attaining a sense of home ultimately involves, as Grady invisibly contends, a degree of self-awareness and, perhaps more often than not, self-sacrifice.
In other words, home, for some, is where we give up some of ourselves in order to feel whole. As Grady explained, “Fragments of separate identity are shed in order to become part of something greater.”
Jordana Horn is a lawyer and writer at work on her first novel.