Command J: Innovative Jewish Art For The 21st Century

Heeb editor Josh Neuman and I went to the Jewish Identity Project at the Jewish Museum a few weeks ago and, for various reasons, we thought it sucked. And I told the curator so, Norman Kleeblatt, right to his face, on a street corner in Toronto last week (kitschy diversity and identity are two very different things; who the f*ck wants to look at photos of someone’s bookshelf; the best thing they had going were the photos of 770 and that’s sad; etc. etc.). Both Kleeblatt and I were in town for Rejewvenation, a conference on the future of Jewish culture sponsored by the University of Toronto. (You can read the text of my incredibly well-received presentation here.)
Coinciding with the conference was an exhibit running through late-November called Command J: Jewish Laws, Digital Arts. Curated by Louis Kaplan, the exhibition features new works from Helene Aylon, Simon Glass, Jeffrey Shaw, and Melissa Shiff (who did that bad-ass exhibit The Medium Is The Matzo at the Bronfman Center last year), all of whom make a great showing with incredibly innovative and intriguing artworks.
Here, this is straight from the catalog:

The impact of the Ten Commandments and of Jewish laws in general permeates the fabric of Western civilization and Judeo-Christian culture, and the ethical ideals of Judaism have motivated the desire for social justice throughout the centuries. Featuring work by four internationally recognized contemporary media artists Helene Aylon, Simon Glass, Melissa Shiff, and Jeffrey Shaw who work in digital photography, video, computer graphics, and installation art, Command J: Jewish Laws, Digital Arts examines important issues related to Jewish laws, ethics, and the ongoing demand for justice.
The artists in the Command J exhibition confront difficult and important philosophical and social questions in their interrogations of Jewish law. The Second Commandment (the prohibition against idol worship and graven images) is at the heart of Jeffrey Shaw’s interactive computer installation The Golden Calf (1994/2005) as he asks us to consider whether we are setting up technology as a new idol in our own time. Meanwhile, Simon Glass‘ series The Ten Commandments/Prohibited Weapons (2005) consists of ten giclee prints 44” x 22” embellished with golden leaf. Containing the Hebrew text of the Ten Commandments coupled with images of actual prohibited weapons, these images meditate on both the possibility and impossibility of justice and the necessary violence of the law.
It is the questioning of the covenantal commandment to circumcise the male at eight days that motivates the feminist inquiry of Melissa Shiff’’s video installation, Gender Cuts/ The Jew Under the Knife (2005). Building a circumcision tent featuring a video projection, Shiff turns the viewer’s gaze to this normally occluded rite of male initiation and to an audio track where religious and cultural leaders discuss the pros and cons of this hotly debated issue. Finally, it is the comprehensive desire to confront and transform the patriarchal legacy of Jewish law when it is informed by sexism and/or misogyny that drives Helene Aylon’s interactive computer installation, The Digital Liberation of G-d (2004). The installation allows users to respond directly to questionable passages from the sacred Torah that are highlighted by the artist. While both these feminist inspired works address legal issues internal to the Jewish covenant (i.e., ritual circumcision or the rules of patriarchy), they also address the place of women in religious orthodoxy and traditional communities more generally.
These are thoughtful and provocative works raising important questions for traditional Jewish laws and commandments whether it be Jeffrey Shaw on the Second Commandment, Melissa Shiff on the rite of circumcision, Simon Glass on the Ten Commandments, or Helene Aylon on the Five Books of Moses in general. But, even more importantly, these artists and their works are delving into Jewish law, ethics, and ideas of justice to help us think about and imagine possible Jewish futures.

Word to that. Command J was one of the finest showings of Jewish art I’ve seen in recent memory, and I would strongly urge those of our readers in the Toronto area to slide on over to XPACE (303 Augusta Ave., Kensington Market) and give it thorough checking-out.

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