The aluminum chairs — off-kilter and whimsically rugged, as if Chagall had ventured into furniture-making — soar above the women’s balcony, held aloft by two golden birds. Sunlight, softened through stained glass, bounces off the pair’s upturned legs. The sculpture, by Kiki Smith, a renowned sculptor and printmaker, is called “Homecoming.”
It’s easy to think, mistakenly, that “Homecoming” must have been crafted specifically for the Museum at Eldridge Street, where it’s installed as part of the concise, moving exhibition “Kiki Smith: Below the Horizon,” on through October 10. The Museum is built around the Eldridge Street Synagogue, originally constructed in 1887 and, as its congregation dwindled, left decrepit between the 1940s and mid-1980s. The restoration of the synagogue, completed in 2007, was a sort of homecoming, a reclamation of an era of American Jewish history and American Jewish craftsmanship at risk of being left with few physical markers. Immigrants like those who founded the Eldridge Street Synagogue built synagogues in their new countries in pursuit of a different, more bittersweet kind of homecoming, the kind in which you must create your own home before you can return to it.
Even the birds have, in their own way, arrived home, unmessy memorials to the birds that made their homes in the Eldridge sanctuary in the time of its disrepair. And the empty chairs themselves are rife with potential meaning: The chairs left empty in the declining Eldridge Street Synagogue as American Jews spread out across the country and assimilated, the chairs the current Eldridge congregation might hope to one day fill, the chairs left empty after the Holocaust.
Yet despite the melancholic associations that empty space so often has for Jews, the ever-present sense of loss, “Homecoming” is a hopeful work. The birds might do anything with the chairs: Fly them out the window, set them gently on the ground, leave them in a new and nonsensical but not dangerous position, as in “Present,” a companion work to “Homecoming” in which a bird leaves one chair precariously half-stacked — or more correctly, mid-topple — on top of another, grounded one. Both works are about possibility. The toppling chair in “Present” will never hit the ground, but even if it did, no one would be hurt.
There is more to “Below the Horizon” than “Homecoming,” “Present” and “Welcome,” the third item in the chair series. Glass cases populated by whimsically painted wooden sculptures of cats, women, hearts and yes, birds, line the sanctuary’s ground floor, resting on the pews. In a lower-floor gallery, a set of wall-bound works represent the four elements; one large, rusted blue sculpture of a moon is surrounded by petite stars; a single bird, kin to those mixed up in the chairs, is pegged to the wall. (Another wall bears a helpful explanation the process by which Smith, in the late aughts, crafted a stained glass rose window that occupies pride of place in the Eldridge sanctuary.)
Yet what stuck with me was the genius of those birds and chairs, positioned, as it happens, directly across from Smith’s cosmically swirling, artistically liberated blue glass window. The window was a gesture at the future rooted in an acknowledgement of the past; it replaced several columns of ugly thick glass blocks, which themselves had replaced an original rose window of which no visual record exists. Possibility: A loss turns into exuberant gain.
And so with the chairs and the birds. A loss is swept up in the arbitrary, joyful coursing of something larger than itself, the very movement of life. It is rare for an exhibit — or for that matter, a synagogue — to so unabashedly celebrate freedom, and look, with such a happy lack of expectations, to the future.
The same day I saw Smith’s exhibit at Eldridge Street, I saw the corpse of a bird, so young it had not yet grown feathers, splayed on a Brooklyn sidewalk. The light was bright on its translucent skin; I could see the veins beneath. For some time I stood and stared at its overlarge head, its undeveloped beak, the wings it never got to use. The whole tiny creature’s prone self, a gesture at possibility missed. I was grateful for my liberty. I kept walking in the sun.