The Contemporary Jewish Museum’s “Do Not Destroy: Trees, Art and Jewish Thought”—artists respond to trees with hope and despair, through May 28, 2012
From the earliest times, trees, which offer shelter and protection, and bear fruit, have been a potent symbol and the focus of religious life for people all over the world. Today, Earth Day, when we think about the state of our planet and our dependence on nature, we are reminded that trees are on the front lines of our changing climate too and that, for a myriad of reasons, trees really do matter. Do Not Destroy: Trees, Art and Jewish Thought, at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum(CJM) through May 28, 2012 is a compelling exhibition that explores the tree in Jewish tradition through the lens of more than 70 contemporary artists, drawing inspiration from today’s ecological movements as well as Jewish ritual and tradition. The title, Do Not Destroy (Bal Tashchit in Hebrew), comes from a commandment in the Torah (Deuteronomy 20:19) that forbids the wanton destruction of trees during wartime.
“When thou shalt besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, thou shalt not destroy the trees thereof by wielding an axe against them; for thou mayest eat of them, but thou shalt not cut them down…” (King James Version with Strong’s, Deuteronomy 20:19)
The exhibit, curated by CJM’s Dara Solomon, consists of three parts: The Dorothy Saxe Invitational featuring works by 57 artists, mostly local, who were asked to create works incorporating reclaimed wood in response to the range of themes inspired by Tu B’Shevat, a minor Jewish holiday which is essentially a New Year for the Trees. The second component is a selection of loaned works by internationally prominent artists, examining the tree as image and as a political symbol in contemporary art. The third component is the expansion of the exhibition beyond the walls of the Museum on to the Jessie Square Plaza with a commission by the San Francisco-based environmental design firm Rebar. Taken together, the newly commissioned works, the selection of existing works and the Jessie Square Plaza project offer an opportunity to commune with trees through design, video, photography sculpture, drawing and painting.
As you enter the exhibition on the second floor, Zadok Ben-David’s “Blackfield” (2007-2009) is laid out before you. This is a work all about perspective and the best viewing angle is on your knees. The work is an enormous circular field of thousands of carefully rendered 2-3-inch-tall, stainless steel cut sculptures of plants that spout up from a field of sand. Each plant sculpture takes its form from Victorian botanical illustrations which Ben David found in old text books. The detail on these delicate pieces is quite amazing and delightful. The trees are painted in jewel tones on one side and black on the other. When viewed from the front, the darkness presents a scene of desolation. But when viewed from the back, these plants blossom luminously into a colorful wonderland. Born in 1949, Ben-David, an Israeli who lives and works in London, has had over forty solo exhibitions since 1980 and is the recipient of many prestigious awards.
Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba, half Japanese, half Vietnamese, is best known for his captivating dreamlike underwater videos depicting local fishermen pulling rickshaws along the seabed and divers performing traditional Chinese dragon dances underwater. “The Ground, the Root and the Air: The Passing of the Bodhi Tree” is a mesmerizing three-chapter video work of enigmatic beauty that the artist completed with a group of 50 art students from Luang Prabang Fine Arts School in Laos. The chapter entitled “The Air” closes the film with a flotilla of these students, each on a small, simple boat, painting while traveling down the Mekong River. As the current takes them down river, what they attempt to paint rapidly vanishes from view and they are forced to romanticize the moment, a blip in time. As they approach Vat Sing, a monastery outside of Luang Prabang, a giant Bodhi tree stands on the river shore and the beckoning sound of chanting is heard. Some of the students jump out of their boats and swim toward the tree, the species of tree under which the Buddha attained Enlightenment. Others, in contrast, float by without stopping. Nguyen-Hatsushiba has commented: “As locations and moments are left behind by the flow of the river, so will this symbol of Buddhism gradually fade away from the view of the painters, leaving them with some measure of doubt about the journey they have started.” (Quote taken from artist comments issued for France Morin’s four year project The Quiet in the Land, the sponsor of the film.)
Tal Shochat’s series of photographs depicts 5 fruit trees native to Israel—peach, almond, apple, pomegranate, and persimmon—all at the height of their ripening and enhanced to the point they look too bountiful to be entirely natural. Shochat carefully cleaned every branch and leaf and then completely stripped the trees of their context, sharply silhouetting them against a dramatic black background. Her artificially constructed forest of fruit trees ironically alludes to an idealized vision of Eden, where nature was preserved from human intervention.
Other works on view in this loaned portion of the exhibit range from Joseph Beuys’ 7,000 Eichen (7,000 Oaks)—a political activist performance Buey’s initiated at documenta 7, in 1982, with the planting of 7,000 oak trees in the city of Kassel, Germany—to April Gornik’s Light in the Woods (2011)—an oil painting of sunlight mystically shining through a grove of trees—to Roxy Paine’s Model for Palimpset (2004), a stainless steel tree sculptures with branches that form impossible loops and strange, gravity-defying configurations.
The Dorothy Saxe Invitational builds on the Museum’s long-standing tradition of asking artists from a variety of backgrounds to explore a Jewish ceremonial object, holiday, or concept within the context of their own mediums and artistic philosophy. This year’s theme is the holiday Tu B’Shevat (the New Year for the Trees). All of the works in the invitational are for sale, with the proceeds split 50-50 between the artist and the Museum.
Berkeley artist Gale Antokal made her own charcoal and then used it to create “Rebirth,” which is a drawing of the root from which she made the charcoal. The piece is inspired by Antokal’s mystical understanding of the “Tree of Life” as “a renewal of the flow of divine energy that occurs during the darkest time of winter when the deepest roots begin to stir.”
Stanford-based artist Gail Wight fashioned handmade paper–a delicate and ephemeral medium–on which she has created an image of a cross section from a Devonian tree from over 400 million years ago.
Luke Bartels, a member of the Woodshop collective in San Francisco’s Sunset district, contributed “The Wood Standard.” a stack of wood, which has been fashioned to resemble bars of gold. He cleverly questions the manner of ascribing value to particular materials over others–in this case positing trees or wood as valuable as gold.
Details: Do Not Destroy: Trees, Art and Jewish Thought closes May 28, 2012. The Contemporary Jewish Museum is located at 736 Mission Street (between 3rd & 4th streets), San Francisco. Parking is Hours: open daily (except Wednesday) 11 AM – 5 PM and Thursday, 1 – 8 PM. Museum admission is $12.00 for adults, $10.00 for students and senior citizens with a valid ID, and $5 on Thursdays after 5 PM. Youth 18 and under always get in free. For general information, visit www.thecjm.org or phone 415.655.7800.