L’CHAIM: LAUREN BERKOWITZ AT THE JEWISH MUSEUM
Reproduced with permission from the catalogue for the exhibition Salt and Honey at the Jewish Museum of Australia, Melbourne, 2002
Naomi Cass, 2002
What brings to life a person's belief, transforming empty ritual or rote learning into something purposeful and bountiful? I am thinking here of Jewish ritual in the home. For those of us whose grandparents' lives straddled the astonishing leap from the nineteenth century shtetl to contemporary Australia, we are grandchildren of pioneers who moved from the tiny world of unquestioned religiosity to a world of unprecedented upheaval and change. Many of us are left with the seemingly contradictory and peculiarly Jewish predicament of secular belief.
What better place to tackle this process than within the embrace of a Jewish Museum?
In her exhibition Salt and Honey, Lauren Berkowitz explores the meaning of foods associated with the cycle of the Jewish week and calendar in both Ashkenazi (European) and Sephardi (Spanish) traditions. Berkowitz seeks out knowledge which, up until a century ago would have been so commonly known, as not to be particularly interesting. As the symbolic meaning of foods is not immediately apparent within our contemporary context, it is important for each generation to bring such knowledge to life. For example, the pomegranate, so ubiquitous in textile and graphic design from the Near and Far East, has specific meanings within Judaism. Through its many and brilliant seeds and blood red juice, the pomegranate represents the bounty of Israel, fertility and eternal life. Appropriate as decoration on priestly garments, it also has special significance at Rosh Hashanah representing the 613 good deeds that a Jew must perform during the year.
What better form in which to reacquaint ourselves with Judaism than in the context of contemporary art?
Berkowitz' palette is quite literally the raw materials that bear symbolic meaning in Jewish home life: from the rich and elemental pleasures of Shabbat (Sabbath) oils, grains and spices, to the green herbs and white salt of Pesach, the brown seeds of Tu Bi-Shevat, the golden honey of Rosh Hashanah, through to the most sombre gesture of absence demanded by Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement).
The food of Jewish ritual has a particular resonance for the genre in which Berkowitz works, whereby meaning is invoked through the relatively unmediated use of materials. While Berkowitz' installation can be read in purely formal terms and is non-representational, it is however full of narrative. Salt for example serves as a transformative medium in both Jewish ritual and in Berkowitz' installation. Salt is her canvas, recalling the purity of the white Sabbath tablecloth. A preservative, an antiseptic, salt serves as a symbol of the preservation and continuity of tradition. Essential for the preparation of meat for Israelite sacrifice and in koshering (permitted) meat, when salt is placed on bread, the table becomes a metaphorical altar. Salt represents the covenant between God and the Jews and the potential for God's wrath and destruction. Berkowitz has used salt in previous installations, pointing towards the degradation of Australian soil.
Berkowitz began her enquiry by speaking with members of the Museum community, consulting academic and religious texts in the Makor Library and exploring the shelves of local delicatessens and supermarkets. She has found spices and grains new to her, but more importantly she has found new meanings associated with familiar substances such as salt and eggs. She has found the interconnectedness of belief and ritual. She has harvested and dried pomegranate seeds as might an Israelite woman before her. Berkowitz has contemplated the essential role of women in the traditional Jewish home, a role highly praised in King Solomon's Proverb, the Woman of Worth, a passage which enumerates the astonishing range of women's responsibilities and which is still recited on Shabbat: Who can find a woman of worth, for her price is far above rubies. (Proverbs 31:10-31)
But a word of warning. This is neither an anthropological nor a discursive exercise. While her research is informed by scholarly material, the outcome is governed by a different, poetic logic. Berkowitz is making art. You are invited to experience the aesthetic pleasures of form and natural colour and to become attuned to their various textures. Note the effect of light as it passes through materials of differing viscosity: honey, oil and saltwater; and the particular capacity of surfaces to reflect light, such as the sparkle of roughly crushed rock salt, the lustre of brown and white egg shell or the dull texture of almond skin and poppy seed. She brings to light-wlth all its Holy implications-foods that stand in for historical, political and spiritual events. And note the aroma of cinnamon, cloves and olive oil. Smell too is important.
Jewish ritual in the home is particularly attuned to such simple, sensual and aesthetic pleasures, often deriving from ancient rituals such as the burning of spices for protection against evil spirits, the use of olive oil for light, anointing and purification. Most poignant is Havdalah, the ceremony to farewell the Sabbath, separating it from the coming week. Traditionally, a decorative silver vessel containing ground nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon is believed to propel the pleasure of the Sabbath into the working week through its sweet smell; and a glass of wine is poured until it overflows so the blessings of the Sabbath might overflow into the forthcoming days until the next Shabbat.
Indeed, to partake in God's bounty is a mitzvah: 'every man should eat and drink, and enjoy the good of all his labour, it is the gift of God'. (Ecclesiastes 3:3-13)
As an artist Berkowitz has always been drawn to the materials at hand-transforming them from the mundane to environments of wonder, beauty and meaning. And as an installation artist, her medium is quite different from that of a traditional artist who builds a body of permanent objects that can be gathered together, sold, moved, rearranged, stored and brought out again, according to the needs or taste of the occasion. Her work is created for each occasion: it is site specific. Berkowitz also responds to the issues at hand: the commission, the gallery, the context. Her work is often ephemeral, to be dismantled or discarded at its close. Dazzlingly beautiful in their colour and apparent formal simplicity, it is the process of making that is of equal importance to the finished work. In many respects her installations represent research, thinking and experimentation, as much as craft.
For me, Berkowitz' works are immediately recognisable: elegant in construction, monumental in form, extraordinary in their precision and abundant in their reinterpretation of materials. She gathers materials from three categories of objects: firstly, for example, textual materials such as photographs, documents and photocopies; secondly, consumer waste such as plastic bags, rubber off-cuts, glass bottles and finally, plant materials such as leaves, seeds and flowers. In each category there is a corresponding realm of meaning-human memory and history; human detritus; aspects of nature-through which Berkowitz tells stories without words. Plants speak of their cycles and origins, junk speaks of human disregard and telephone books speak of human loss. Her repertoire points towards the contemporary artist as witness to history and contemporary life. And yet she is a conjurer transforming the discarded into ephemeral constructs of value.
While her more recent materials are drawn from the natural landscape (plants, soils) and are far from the canon of art history, her work may be understood with reference to twentieth century art. Drawn to the Minimalist art movement, she has been influenced here by the work of American artist Eva Hesse. Berkowitz takes the device of repetition-a Minimalist strategy for focussing on the purely formal, a kind of emptying out of specific meaning, in this case through repetition of circles-and yet she imbues these with meaning derived from Jewish iconography and tradition.
Berkowitz draws a parallel between repetition in Minimalism and repetition in Jewish ritual. The unbroken circle representing the year, fertility and renewal: an unbroken cycle of blessings. The egg for example which when fresh represents life (fertility) and as such has many roles within wedding rituals, but when boiled and is dead and scorched with fire represents mourning, at the Pesach (Passover) table and in the month of Av in memory of the destruction of the Second Temple.
Salt and Honey brings to life some of the materials and meanings of Jewish ritual in the home in a joyful and contemporary manner, to which I declare, L’chaim (to life) to the artist, her work and the persistence of salt and honey in Jewish ritual.
Copyright 2002, the author and publisher