(Latex, Textile, & Mother of Pearl) Architectural Skins (Heidi Bucher)

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(Heidi Bucher, Elfenbornhaut, 1982)

 

 

[clockwise from top left: Borg, 1976; Fenster mit Läden und Schindeln, Bellevue, 1988; Elfenbornhaut, 1982; Bett (Bed), 1975; Untitled (Door to the Herrenzimmer), 1978

The Site of Memory, an exhibition of works by Heidi Bucher (1926-1993) caught my attention this past week. Active in the 1970s and 1980s, Bucher created weird architectural skins. The press release from Lehman Maupin where I saw these works refers to them as sculptures, but they also look like paintings, particularly given their flat shape. The works are an index to physical sites and objects; they carry their impression.(Other works by Bucher meant to hang in the air have a more clearly sculptural sensibility. Alas, none of these were on view at Lehman Maupin)

An artist who fell into obscurity after her death, Bucher is today mostly known for work in which she covered architectural surfaces such as walls, windows, doors, and entire buildings with latex which she then peeled off and treated with mother of pearl pigment. The press release tells us that she called them “skinnings” or “moultings,” and that they hold elements of paint, rust, and dirt. There is maybe something animal about them. The press release leaves unexplained the mother of pearl, which I would suggest adds a special sheen to the skin. The textile adds a quality of softness. Original architectural details are preserved, a memory trace of the architectural objects from they were removed and which no longer “are” in view.

As I am reading these works (reading in the wake of Aristotle and Irigaray), Bucher’s work sustains notions of “place” by drawing attention to the sense of the place that is separate from but which contains or holds an architectural structure in space. The object once nestled in that place no longer “is” given to hand. The skins thereby encourage the notion that the sense of a place has the potential to peel off from its original physical site and to transfer to another physical site. This includes the capacity by which the sense of place might transfer from an actual physical site to a mental or psychic form of attentive dwelling. Imbued with possibility, the sense of place is not necessarily site specific. The idea is that the skin of the original site might continue to maintain a hold in the world in abstentia, in the absence of the original structure.

One might want to maintain a more neat division between architecture and sculpture. No longer “architectural,” these works are sculptural and enjoy a more compelling freedom as such, divorced from origin and use-function.

As grist for a particular form of Jewish philosophical speculation, it might be the case that something like this happens to the site of the Jerusalem Temple, the skin of which  has been removed from its physical site. A sense of that once actual place in which the objects and ideas that it once contained in situ transfers from an actual physical into the mind of the Mishnah and Bavli; there it begins to operate virtually, as does Jewishness. It’s here that Bucher’s use of mother of pearl comes into play by providing special, animating luster to the “object” once removed and removed again. In terms of their look, a lot also depends upon the light in which these objects are set.

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New York Cityscape (Abstract w/ Organic Elements)

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View from a window, New York cityscapes are abstract with organic elements. New York is more typically associated with the vertical, in particular with the skyscraper. But the most interesting part of the urban geometry might be the horizontal lines of the rooftops, balconies, and plant life.

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Green Light (Riverside Park)

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In Riverside Park on the walk-path under the Olmstead Wall, which framed the intense green light shooting down the length of a single tree branch on a bright spring day

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(Violent Surge of Excellent Writing) Habakkuk (Shavuot)

Habakkuk

Locked up tight in the liturgical reading of Scripture in the synagogue as the haftarah on the second day of Shavuot, the holiday of revelation, the manifestation of  God in the third chapter of Habbakuk signals total world disaster. In the mode of Shigionpth, the coming of God from Teman, the Holy One from Mount Paran is told in the form of brilliant light and pestilence, the earth bursting in streams and torrents of rain, the shattering of mountains and the loud roaring deep, a treading of the earth in rage and a trampling of nations in fury, the failure of grain, olive, fig, sheep, and cattle. The prophet’s bowels quake and his lips quiver; but his strength is God, who makes his feet like the deer’s striding upon the heights. And that I suggest is the most stunning image in the chapter, the fleet foot of the prophet. Able to run very fast, the prophetic as such is the violent surge of excellent writing, which the savvy reader knows to leave at that. Selah.

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(Kiddush/Chillul Ha-Sehem) Jewish Respectability Ethics (Hertz Pentateuch)

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A standout moment in the classic Hertz Pentateuch commentary from 1936, a fixture in the liberal synagogue for the better part of the 20th century, is the appeal to respectability, phrased in terms of kiddush Ha’Shem, the hallowing/sanctification of  God’s name, and chillul Ha’Shem, the desecration of God’s name.

“Ye shall not profane My holy name, but I will be hallowed among the children of Israel” (Lev. 22:32). In the biblical text, this injunction follows sacerdotal instruction specific to the concerns of the ancient priestly authors. It is inward looking in its concern with ritual. In contrast, in the Hertz, Jews are now remonstrated not to do anything that might tarnish “the honor of Judaism or the Jew,” particularly in relation to “any misdeed towards a non-Jew.”

Nothing less than God’s glory is in the hands of the individual Jew, and even more importantly, “the honour of his [sic] Faith and of his entire People” (italics in the original).  The entire history of anti-Semitism has been brought to bear upon this single biblical passage. The Hertz is bitterly confident that nothing “will ever beak the world of its habit of putting down the crimes, vices, and failings of a Jew, no matter how estranged from his people or his people’s Faith he may be, to his Jewishness, and of fathering them upon the entire Jewish race.” So the Jew is bidden to do nothing less than to “live as to shed lustre on the Divine name.”

Bits of rabbinic wisdom are brought to bear on this lesson: [1] a dicta about wild beasts in the world from Pirkei Avot (5:11), [2] the adage about a boat at sea and the fool who begins to bore a hole under his own seat, threatening to sink the entire vessel and drown everyone on board, [3] and the story about R. Shimon ben Shetach who returns a precious gem that he finds and returns to an Arab, who in turn blesses the God of Shimon ben Shetach and the God of Israel.

The Hertz commentary has its eye on both Jewish precarity in the world and the precarity of Judaism, on anti-Semitism and Jewish assimilation, namely the estrangement of modern Jews from their faith and people.  With all of this brought to full view, long comment concludes that “It is important to make non-Jews respect Judaism, but even more so to make Jews respect Judaism.”

We are still in the Holiness Code, that important section in Leviticus (chapters 17-26) where the ritual and the ethical sit cheek by jowl. The Hertz commentary is enough to give one pause about Jewish ethics as a modern project. The at once anxious and aggressive core of that modern project called Jewish ethics is a respectability project. It would be easy to write this off as a period piece, but one wonders if this is an enduring feature of Jewish ethics, as such, lifted off and out of its ritual context. The Hertz would suggest that Jewish ethics, broadly considered to be a reflexive phenomenon, is about wanting to look good in front of gentiles, about wanting to look good in a mirror.

About this one can be of mixed mind, perhaps because the difference between “being good” and “looking good” is only infinitesimal.

On FB, friends Shaul Magid and Larry Yudelson pointed out that there is another side to the respectability coin. In the 1970s and after, the Jewish right, including Meir Kahane, fearing only God, not gentiles, absolutely rejected Jewish respectability and “Jewish ethics” in favor of “Jewish survival” and the Jewish settlement project in the Occupied Territories. As friend Laura Levitt observed, maybe it’s true, after all, that looking good is overrated.

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Jared Kushner Palestine Plan (Religion & Politics)

Watching amateur hour unravel in full public view, that the so-called Deal of the Century was cooked up by 3 rightwing modern orthodox Jews will have to be raised at some point. Of course, we’re playing with fire, which is precisely why you don’t want to mix religion and politics, and how doing so puts people at risk.

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Animals (Franz Marc & Martin Buber)

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Yellow Cow

This terrestrial surface is a physical place of noise and violence. Redemption is its metamorphosis. Franz Marc, who was killed at Verdun on the Western Front, was a tragic figure to those who memorialized him. Writing his obituary in the Berliner Tageblatt on March 6, 1916, the poet Else Lasker-Schüler called her friend “a mighty biblical figure about whom there hung the fragrance of Eden. Across the landscape he cast a blue shadow. He was the one who could still hear the animals speak; and he transfigured their uncomprehended souls.”18

Marc’s 1911 Gelbe Kuh (Yellow Cow) (fig. 5) is physically and spiritually lyrical. She undulates soundfully. The art historian Klaus Lankheit spots instinctive, joyous, animal-like being. Frederick Levine finds security and harmony along with exaltation. Both refer to Kandinsky’s color symbolism. Yellow is placid, cheerful, and sensual, the blue on
the cow’s flank is spiritual, as are the mountains in the distance. Levine notes how the creature has begun to float above the ground.19 Standing in for redeemed existence, like the Baal Shem Tov, she is “free of all earthly aspects” (LBS, 72).

A visual marker to the tonal stuff of redemption in relation to death, the yellow cow’s joyful lilt betrays signs from a different symbolic register than that of simple sensual joy. Pathetic, her image evokes the ecstatic change of status that only death can bring just before the material order dissolves into immateriality. Four obtruding black vertical shapes, an axis of doom, frame the main figure. The line of her throat, the motion
with which she has stretched it out and up, is the secret movement toward her own slaughter. It is the same gesture performed by the blue deer in Marc’s Fate of the Animals (plate 14), her throat curving into slashing shards of orange, red, and black light from the dark, right side of the forest. Both are premonitions of death. Fate of the Animals is
only more violent in its expression. “It is artistically logical to paint such pictures before wars, not as dumb reminiscences afterwards,” the painter wrote to his wife in 1915.20 Levine hears the more obvious plea for redemption in Fate of the Animals, but the same cry can already be heard in Yellow Cow.21

Animals

In the Pentateuch, domestic animals are an everyday piece of equipment at the basis of pastoral economy, ritual cult, and social gestures of welcome. In Psalms, Job, and Jonah, wild animals gauge the sublimity of divine power, a sovereignty extending far beyond the limits of human care. In modern Jewish thought, the life of encounter includes
raw sensation. Religious thought thus participates in what Marc called “the animalization of art,” a line he traced from Delacroix, Millet, Cézanne, and Van Gogh to unnamed French artists, presumably Picasso, Braque, and Delaunay. For both Buber and Marc, animal life is bound up with judgment. In Horse in the Landscape (plate 13), the “inner trembling animal life,” the circuit of blood, is expressed through the multifarious parallelism and waves in line (S, 98). For Buber, the judgment conveyed by animal life is expressed by a wordless glance or by touch. The animal is a persona manifesting the spiritual sensation that animates the sensible world. Beasts reflect a trembling life that looks toward and makes demands upon the human person who comes near to them.
Animals embed a down-to-earth sensuality into human companionship and moral judgment. The young Besht slips away from the cramped and unpleasant confines of the traditional Jewish schoolroom “as softly as a cat.” He is left alone in the forest, where he grows up “under the speechless modes of the creatures” (LBS, 52). On the mode of speechless communication, Buber professed in I and Thou that the “eyes of an animal
have the capacity of a great language.” Without sound or gesture, they communicate an anxiety between plantlike security and spiritual risk (IT, 144). “I sometimes look into the eyes of a house cat.” We hear its “truly ‘eloquent’ glance” as it turns its glance upon “us brutes.” Thecat “began its glance by asking me with a glance that was ignited by the
breath of my glance.” It demands to know, “Can it mean that you mean me? Do I concern you? Am I there for you? Am I there? What is that around me? What is it about me? What is that?!” (145). Just as suddenly, the stammering glance reverts to speechless anxiety (146).

The animalization of religion and art, the cat’s command of moral judgment, is a complex sensation that burrows deep beneath the surface of everyday human communication and rational discourse. To entertain the possibility that the cat’s eyes have a great capacity for language is to join sight and sound into wordless expression. Touch suggests that an animal glance meeting my glance maintains the breathlike power to ignite. In his own art, Marc conveyed judgment through animal perception, the way in which nature appears to the eye of an animal, a comparison that renders our own conceptions paltry and soulless (S,99). I and Thou, Horse in the Landscape, Yellow Cow, and Fate of the Animals privilege raw animality over against impoverished, instrumental
human reason. A severe act of judgment, the stammering eye of a beast turns the human person into a brute.

Conferring on animals the capacity to pass judgment upon human life, Buber describes himself as a young child on his grandfather’s estate, recalling how he had gone to stroke the neck of “my darling,” abroad-backed dapple-gray horse. Unsullied by self-consciousness and intellectual cognition, “what I experienced in touch with the animal was the other, the immense otherness of the other, which, however, did not remain strange like the otherness of the ox and the ram, but rather let me draw near and touch it. When I stroked the mighty mane . . . and felt the life beneath my hand, it was as though the element of vitality itself bordered on my skin, something that was not I, was certainly not akin to me, palpably the other, not just another, really the other itself; and yet it let me approach, confided itself to me, placed itself elementally in the relation
of Thou and Thou with me.”

Gently raising its massive head, ears flick, a quiet snort, the signal from the beast, “and I was approved.” But once he grew self-conscious about his own hand, contact was ruined. The horse did not raise its head to the boy’s touch. “[A]t the time I considered myself judged” (BMM, 23). Bound up in the revelation of the other’s presence, the moral authority to judge has been given over to a horse, by whose most forceful and
elemental authority a human being is accepted or rejected.

[Animals are in vogue now. When were they not? I wrote about sensation, animal life, and religion in The Shape of Revelation.  The human and animal share an asymmetrical matrix space. These remarks reflect on the artist Franz Marc, and then Martin Buber. Marc and the Yellow Cow appear in the Pathos chapter, pp.111-12. The material on Buber appears in the Eros chapter, pp.213-15.]

 

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