The inspiration for the “Do Not Destroy: Trees, Art and Jewish Thought” exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, is a commandment from the Old Testament: “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.”
Bringing together 80 works by more than 70 artists, the exhibit merges contemporary with traditional art and draws inspiration from today’s ecological movements as well as Jewish ritual and tradition.
The exhibit consists of three parts: The Dorothy Saxe Invitational with works by mostly local artists that focus on exploring Jewish ritual objects (this year focusing on the holiday of Tu B’Shevat, the New Year for the Trees), as well as a selection of works 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.
One of the most stunning pieces in the exhibit greets the viewer at the entrance on the 2nd floor. “Blackfield” by Zadok Ben-David consists of three-inch-tall, stainless steel plants painted in jewel tones on one side and black on the other.
When viewed from the front, the darkness of the delicate images presents a scene of desolation. But when viewed from the back (the tiny images are laid out on a huge circular board covered with sand), they blossom into a colorful wonderland.
Tal Shochat’s series of photographs depicts fruit trees native to Israel—peach, almond, apple, pomegranate, and persimmon—at the height of their ripening.
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.
Nguyen-Hatsushiba’s video “The Ground, the Root and the Air: The Passing of the Bodhi Tree” shows students painting Bodhi trees while traveling by boat down a river in Vietnam. As the boats swerve and sway through the muddy current, some of the easels fall into the water. Moved by the spirit of the Buddha, many of the students jump into the river and swim toward the tree. Underscored by a sound track of chanting, the video conveys timeless devotion and the sacred spirituality of nature.
Other works on view in this portion of the exhibit range from political activist performance art by Joseph Beuys to paintings by Claire Sherman and April Gornik.
In the next portion of the exhibit, the Dorothy Saxe Invitational, the museum asked over 50 contemporary artists from around the country to create works inspired by Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish New Year for the Trees.
Mystical Kabbalists revived the festival of Tu B’Shevat in the 16th century. In the 20th century, the meaning of the holiday shifted again as the planting of trees in Israel became crucial to inhabiting the land and gaining independence. Today, Tu B’Shevat has gained momentum with young Jews in particular, who connect with Judaism through environmentalism and a passion for social justice.
For the exhibition, each participating artist was asked to incorporate reclaimed wood in some way into the work.
There are personal stories to be found in the show’s selections. Beth Grossman’s “Yearnings” (2011) tells us that a tree was planted in Israel in her name the year she was born, 1958. “It came with a promise that I would one day visit the land of milk and honey,” says Grossman. “Then, in nursery school, we loved to collect coins in a blue Jewish National Fund tin box to plant more trees in Israel. We were building a Jewish nation, one tree at a time.”
Fittingly, Grossman’s piece is an image of a tree carved into a block of wood. Under her hand-carved branches, she records her thoughts and events from her life. “Can I talk about my complicated love for Israel?” she muses under one branch.
Lisa Congdon’s “Connected” (2011) renders the rich symbolism of the Tu S’Shevat Seder with a Kabalistic tree of life made of reclaimed wood and painted with gouache.
Harriete Estel Berman uses recycling as a visual and material basis for her “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” another colorful piece incorporating a myriad of recycled materials.
The current exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum is revolutionary in it’s portrayal of an ecumenical and universal spirituality, honoring our dependence on nature.
As Midrash Ecclesiastes Rabat (7:13) relates, the job of guarding the Garden (of the earth) may be the biggest challenge we face. ”Beware least you spoil and destroy My world, for if you will spoil it, there is no one to repair it after you.”
“Do Not Destroy: Trees, Art and Jewish Thought” will be on display at the Contemporary Jewish Museum until May 28. The museum is located at 736 Mission Street, between 3rd and 4th Streets in downtown San Francisco (one half block from the AMC Metreon Cinema). The CJM also operates a cafe and a gift shop. Information on hours and admission prices can be obtained at: www.thecjm.org