by Nancy Ewart
Vanessa Marsh | Mountains 4, 2014, (2/3 unique prints) | Chromogenic photogram | 30 x 58 inches
Night Begins the Day: Rethinking Space, Time and Beauty which just opened at the Contemporary Jewish Museum is the first collaboration of Renny Pritikin and Lily Siegel, the museum’s new senior and junior curators. It is another one of the shows, unique to the CJM, that asks for you to enter with an open heart to encountering the sometimes difficult sublime. In the catalog essay, Pritikin writes that it was his discovery of the Hebrew word yir’oh - an “amalgam of fear, awe, love and beauty” that gave him the original idea for the show. Twenty-five contemporary artists, working in every form of media, have created the most beautiful, poetic and philosophical show currently showing in the Bay Area.
“The Jewish concept of time, that the day begins at sundown, challenges an accepted standard much as this provocative exhibition invites alternative ways of considering space, time, and beauty,” says Lori Starr, Director of The CJM. “Night Begins the Day marks the beginning of a renewed era of artistic experimentation and engagement at The CJM. Using a Jewish idea as the spark, we have brought together some very exciting art practitioners from around the world to stimulate a broader dialogue about contemporary concerns. With more exhibitions like this to come, The Museum is ambitiously deepening its role as an agent of creativity and culture in the Bay Area.”
So many museum shows today focus on the transitory and the ugly, the crude and the disparaging. The viewer enters, looks, maybe reads a text or two and then moves on, perhaps giving each piece a total of 30 seconds. What a shock then, to walk into the exhibit and encounter work that compel's one's full attention, to be engaged with one piece after another - all of which are more than "simply" beautiful. The works evoke awe, tears, wonder and, ultimately fear that we are destroying the best that our world has to offer through our own greed and indifference. The museum’s ambition to encompass time, space and a modern definition of those ideas (as opposed to the 19th century which is well defined by the Turner exhibit currently at the de Young) through the works succeeds beautifully. By returning to the older ideas of space and time, the museum has created an exhibit that is both contemporary, compelling and timeless.
Night Begins the Day opens with a photograph of the infamous Darvaza crater (translated as the “doorway to hell”) in the former Soviet Republic of Turkmenistan. The story goes that oil explorers in the 1960s came across a promising field that turned out to be full of natural gas. Thinking they would burn it off quickly, instead they set it on fire. A half century later it is still an enormous raging inferno, a perfect example of man’s ignorance combined with hubris which will probably burn until our sun goes super-nova.
One of the most beautiful pieces is Lisa K. Blatt’s video Clearest Lake in the World, filmed in Southern Argentina in Patagonia. In the middle of the night—also without light pollution—she recorded a brief video of the Milky Way spread above her. Her secret is that she shot the starry scene as it was reflected in the lake water, which is why the image wiggles: a slight breeze has rippled the surface. The effect is hypnotic.
Vanessa Marsh looks at the night sky though her Chromogenic photograms - fabricated images which are composed of multiple layers of vibrant collage, an imaginary construction of distant galaxies, a beautiful “nocturne” as explained in the catalog. The photograms are a visual representation of what millions of Star Trek fans feel when they hear the opening sentence of the series - "to boldly go." In this case, the "go to" is manufactured here on earth but none the less awe inspiring.
Daniel Crooks' A Garden of Parallel Paths (2012), is a slow video loop that looks like it’s right out of the “Twilight Zone.” Pedestrians walk in and out of what appear to be parallel worlds, passing through walls or disappearing into thin air. They walk toward the viewer, through each other, oblivious to what seems obvious to us but is a clever construction of the film maker, created to make a philosophical point. There may be parallel lives as well as parallel works but those who inhabit them are oblivious to “the other.”
Pompeii, a site of fascination and exploitation since its rediscovery in the 17th century, is explored in a surreal, mediative film by French artist Laurent Grasso. Soleil Noir (2014) was created by using drones to film Pompeii from the air, images interspersed with shots of Mt. Etna, a still active volcano spewing clouds of steam and ash. The landscape is apocalyptic and surreal, a tension exploited by shots of a stray dog wandering the streets. Josiah McElheny’s The Center is Everywhere is a brass and cut-lead crystal chandelier that is a map of a small section of the universe. Each crystal represents a star, a quasar, or a galaxy. The length of the rod that holds each crystal corresponds to the distance light from the astronomical element must travel to reach Earth.
This is not an exhibit to rush though. Each piece asks the viewer to look, to think and go back and look again. To give each piece its due is to feel what the poet Blake felt when he wrote:
"To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour."
Fragments from "Auguries of Innocence"
Through September 20, 2015