Lipstick on Torah Scroll Part 2

3 Feb

By David Sperber |

38 Dov Abramson, Ner Mitzvah, 2003, digital print on paper

613 Candles

In this same spirit, the three artists whose work is displayed in the Zimmun exhibition were trained as graphic artists or industrial designers, yet are active on the art scene.

For a long time, graphic design was perceived in Israel as having no bearing whatsoever on fine art; critics often gave artists a slap on the wrist for borrowing principles from graphics and applying them to their artwork. The works of Dov Abramson deconstruct this dichotomy: Abramson works in graphic design and is also an artist. His visual expression is not merely illustrative; it is also directed towards an utterance that does not pretend to illustrate, explain or reify a topic. His work seeks, rather, to maintain an independent discussion about essence and experience. Abramson’s work often tests the boundaries between sacred and mundane, especially in the multi-layered world of halakha. His engagement with the body of Jewish law touches upon the very essence of Judaism: the centrality of “the yoke of the commandments” in any discussion of Jewish culture. This kind of artistic activity integrates critical study with a profound cultural commitment: Judaism is scrutinized with tools deriving from general postmodernist theory; hence, this art raises acute general cultural issues too. Abramson’s confrontation of art and halakha poses questions about daily commitment, its limitations and beauty, and about freedom of choice in the world of Jewish observance. Dilemmas are raised as to the relevance of halakha and appropriate personal halakhic observance. Abramson frequently employs the technique of fragmentation, that is: breaking up the whole into its parts, thereby emphasizing certain segments and enhancing visibility of those pieces which, although they make up the whole, usually remain transparent.

In his communicative installation “Mitzvah Candle”, courtesy of the Jewish Museum in New York, Abramson presents a visual alternative to the numerical total of the Biblical commandments. On a table stand 613 memorial candles, each marked with one commandment. On each candle is a sticker bearing symbols related to the ritual associated with that particular commandment (see fig. 36). The artistic act has transformed the medium of the written word that served in medieval times to calculate the sum total of Biblical injunctions, into a visual medium. Reifying the commandments as tangible objects, i.e. the candles, awakens a desire to touch, arrange and classify the candle-commandments. This mode of presentation also evokes a sense of fragmentation, since each individual injunction stands on its own. This conflicts with the very aim of classical halakhists, who collected the individual commandments into a comprehensive, binding codex.

36 Dov Abramson, Vidduy (The Musical), 2009, aluminum and wood

“Confession”, also by Abramson, is a xylophone with 22 keys, each engraved with one word from the alphabetical list of sins making up the confessional prayer recited daily in the synagogue, but is better known as one of the high points in the liturgy for the Day of Atonement, when it is recited to a special tune (see fig. p. ??). The physical aspect of confession – symbolized by the custom of lightly tapping one’s breast with a fist while reciting the prayer – is replaced in the piece by tapping the xylophone keys, thereby creating a new tune of joy and repair.

Abramson’s works stem from an essentially pluralistic artistic approach, and draw upon the notion of the death of the creator and the author. By assuming an ostensibly neutral perspective, the works open an expanse for challenging a subject, either positively or negatively, depending on the viewer’s judgment. Creator, artwork and viewer’s gaze thus all become planes joined together to make a single entity – the conceptual work itself and its meaning. This tactic is grounded in the insight that tension between sacred and mundane, religious and secular, obtains not just between external entities but is an internal, immanent tension, with power to inspire believers and non-believers alike.

– Translated from the Hebrew by Sara Friedman

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