Our Wandering, Rootless Nature, Given Shape by a Jewish Tradition
LOS ANGELES — The Jewish holiday of Sukkot is one of contradictions. Known as the “Festival of Booths,” it celebrates both the bounty of the fall harvest and commemorates the biblical exodus of the Jewish people from Egyptian bondage. During the weeklong autumn holiday, Jews erect a sukkah, a temporary, walled structure whose roof is covered with vegetation, often palm fronds. The sukkah recalls the provisional huts that farmers would live in during harvest season, as well as the makeshift dwellings that the Israelites sheltered in during the 40-year period spent wandering the desert, between leaving Egypt and finding the land of Canaan. Also central to the holiday are the ushpizin, seven ancient exalted guests who are symbolically invited into the sukkah, one on each night. (More recently, seven female figures, the ushpizot, have been added to the tradition.) Poor people or others in need are often invited into the sukkah to represent the ushpizin in real life. The harvest bounty being celebrated is tempered by a prayer for rain, looking ahead to potential future seasons of drought.
Sukkot provides the framework for We are all guests here., an eight-person exhibition at Bridge Projects, a gallery whose mission is to explore the crossover between art and spirituality. In the holiday’s complex and opposing themes of precarity and plenitude, searching and security, the artists — all of whom have “various connections to Judaism” — have found ways to engage with a range of contemporary issues. “Homelessness, migration, water rights, lynching. Every piece touches on a difficult topic,” Cara Megan Lewis, co-director of Bridge Projects, told Hyperallergic. Even though they’re confronting heavy topics, “there’s this element of hope. The commandment to rejoice” — another central tenet of Sukkot — “is present in each of the works,” she noted.
Some of the artists reflect on the physical structure of the sukkah. Jenny Yurshansky’s hovering, crystalline shelter, We are all guests here, recreates the sukkah’s traditional woven reed pattern in cast glass. A refugee herself from Soviet-era Moldova, Yurshansky speaks to the tenuous nature of the security and safety that refugees and migrants yearn for, threatening to shatter with the slightest blow. Her reeds are modeled on Arundo donax, a plant that is now blacklisted as an invasive species in California and targeted for removal, a bitter metaphor for the hostility many migrants face.
Susy Bielak explores architecture as well, not of the sukkah, but of her familial home in Mexico City. Her background also reveals a story of migration, from Poland to Mexico, and the Ukraine to Los Angeles, where her parents met at Canter’s Deli. Cuarto de Estar (Living Room) reimagines her paternal grandparents’ house in Mexico City, where they settled after fleeing Poland over a century ago. On the backs of freestanding vintage dresser mirrors, Bielak has transferred hazy photos of the home’s interior, some taken by her 20 years ago, others by her father 40 years ago, like palimpsests of the home’s story. Wallpaper covers two walls featuring a repeating motif of a water jug, referencing the water and wine that are part of Sukkot’s ritual, and contains the viewer like an envelope.
Although she was born in Mexico, Bielak was raised in Pittsburgh, returning to Mexico to visit throughout her childhood. “I grew up far from family,” she recalled during a recent phone call. “This house was family for me.” In much the same way that the sukkah represents rootless rambling, so too does the home for Bielak. “We were talking about the sukkah as a place to hold the memory of wandering,” she explained. “Home and domestic objects do the same thing.”
Brody Albert takes a more abstract approach to our mundane material surroundings. We Buy Houses is composed of plywood recreations of signs and discarded objects found in his Lincoln Heights neighborhood: Signs for check cashing joints, discarded pizza boxes, and predatory flyers offering cash for homes in hopes of capitalizing on peoples’ desperation. The verisimilitude of their construction is at odds with their otherworldly blues and reds as they are dyed with pomegranate and indigo.
“In the mindset of the pandemic, I was thinking about the moratorium on evictions, the housing crisis, impossibility of home ownership,” Albert told Hyperallergic. Once a neighborhood filled with Jewish and Italian immigrants, Lincoln Heights is now primarily Latinx. The neighborhood is being reshaped once again, only now through gentrification which threatens to push out longtime, lower-income residents. The abundance of Sukkot is referenced in the pizza boxes, specifically the Little Caesars Hot N Ready, which is supposedly the most nourishment you can purchase for five dollars, though the quality of that nourishment is questionable. What does it mean when the physical fabric of your environment, the place you call home, is actively hostile towards your well-being? the piece seems to ask.
Two other artists explore Sukkot’s connection to the land. In her four-channel video installation Sacred Bouquet, Mira Burack replaces the traditional “Four Species” of the holiday — lulav (date palm frond), etrog (citrus), hadass (Myrtle), aravah (willow) — with flora native to her home in New Mexico: juniper, yucca, prickly pear, and piñon. In SaraNoa Mark‘s evocative installation* Prayer for Rain*, water gathered from Lake Michigan, the Mississippi River, the Colorado River, and Castaic Lake drip from hanging glass vessels onto carved clay tablets, linking ancient ceremony with current issues surrounding water rights. Burack and Mark emphasize the site-specific nature of the sukkahs, which take on different characteristics wherever one is raised.
The work in the show that most explicitly links the twisted themes of Sukkot to the turbulence of contemporary society is Shelter in Place by artist, dancer, and choreographer Adam W. McKinney. The installation reflects on Fred Rouse, an African American man who was lynched by a white mob in Fort Worth, Texas a century ago. In tintypes by Diné photographer Will Wilson, McKinney poses as Fred Rouse in locations around Fort Worth related to the lynching. Using an AR app developed by Wilson, Talking Tintypes, viewers can see the figure come to life, thus “making the antique contemporary,” McKinney told Hyperallergic. “I’m using my body as a canvas by which I remember him, and using dance and imagery as a way to heal historical and contemporary anti-Black racial violence.”
Alongside the photographs is a two-screen video installation depicting McKinney performing a dance that represents the Shechinah, or Glorious Clouds. “When the Israelites were in the desert, God sent clouds of glory to protect them on their journey,” he explained. It is both a comforting but painful vision that questions how history would have been different had glorious clouds been sent to protect Fred Rouse.
McKinney wrestles with this painful history, not simply to unearth and expose it, but to move towards a place of healing and growth. “Sukkot is also known as the ‘time of our rejoicing.’ I ask: ‘how can we be happy and rejoice if we don’t fully understand our history?’”
This points to something that the artists in We are all guests here. all underscore in different ways: that Sukkot is not the commemoration of a long-ago event or veneration of an ancient figure. Rather it is a living festival, whose flexibility continues to offer solace and community for new generations. “None of us have ever arrived,” Bridge Projects’s Lewis said. “We’re always in that desert, always waiting on the promised land, that sense of belonging.”
We are all guests here. continues at Bridge Projects (6820 Santa Monica Boulevard, Hollywood, Los Angeles) through January 15, 2022. The exhibition is curated by Bridge Projects’s team Cara Megan Lewis, Linnéa Gabriella Spransy Neuss, Vicki Phung Smith, and Michael Wright.