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LOS ANGELES — Last Saturday morning, artist Cara Levine stood on a dusty hilltop in Malibu and staked one end of a seven-foot-long string in the dirt. She held the other end of the string taut in one hand and, using the string as a compass, walked in a circle. As she did so, she poured out a trail of crushed limestone powder from her other hand, marking the circle’s circumference on the ground. She then invited the assembled crowd of 20 or so people to pick up shovels and begin digging at the circle’s edge. 

This was the start of “Dig a Hole to Put Your Grief In,” a weeklong collaborative project conceived by Levine in response to recent traumas: the COVID-19 pandemic, the BLM movement, the social uprisings over police brutality, and the existential threat of climate change. “I was really at a loss in my studio about bringing any newness forward. I had a bodily desire to create a cavity that could contain the depth of the grief,” she told Hyperallergic.

Every day this week, from 8 to 10am, Levine digs the hole, assisted by anyone who wants to join her. “Part of the act of inviting others to share in the digging, is an invitation for the collective to lift the burden of the individual,” Levine wrote via email. “I think digging together, expressing the depth and weight of the grief all around us, can be a shared burden.”

Cara Levine, “Dig a Hole to Put Your Grief In” (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Participants can also write down what they are grieving on sheets of paper embedded with flower seeds, which will be buried in small pots and distributed, while native seeds will be symbolically scattered in the hole at the week’s end.

“Whatever one is grieving is welcome — be it the loss of loved one, or more nuanced and subtle grief — the grief that comes with aging, with watching children grow, loss of friendships, habitat, completions to other life cycles, opportunities, loves, that one won’t see flourish, and so on,” she wrote.

“Dig a Hole” is inspired by Shiva, the seven-day period of mourning in Judaism (Shiva literally means “seven” in Hebrew). After someone dies, their immediate family mourns at home for a week, being supported and comforted by the community. 

“Shiva is one of the most powerful experiences afforded by Judaism on the ritual level,” explained Rotem Rozental, an advisor on the project and chief curator at American Jewish University, which supported “Dig a Hole” through its Institute for Jewish Creativity. “You’re literally being contained by your community.”

Levine was raised Jewish and not far from the site of her project, but had never made work with explicitly Jewish themes before. “I’ve been grappling with how to understand myself as an artist and a Jew,” she said. “For me, the rituals of the Jewish mourning process are really resonant. The grief is so big, Shiva gives space to spread out a little emotionally and psychically. That felt critical. The tradition I was raised in taught me the importance of that duration.”

Alan Salazar leading the opening ceremony

Throughout the week, Levine has invited several artists and community members to contribute artworks, performances, and rituals. Some offer interpretations of Jewish practices while others draw on other cultural and religious traditions. Before Levine marked the hole, Tataviam and Chumash Elder Alan Salazar held a blessing and land acknowledgement. In exchange, Levine created a wooden plaque to honor generations of Indigenous peoples in California, from the genocide of the Mission period to those who served in the US Armed Forces and those still fighting to preserve their culture today.

“I believe very strongly that we have more things in common than our differences,” Salazar told Hyperallergic, mentioning a theory that the Tataviam may have migrated from the Mojave Desert to the area north of Los Angeles a few thousand years ago, similar to the biblical story of the Exodus, after which the Jewish people wandered in the Sinai Desert for 40 years. “We’ve both wandered the desert aimlessly looking for a horse with no name,” he joked.

Plaque created by Cara Levine for Alan Salazar (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Alongside the traumas inflicted upon the original inhabitants of the area, the site itself bears its own scars. “Dig a Hole” is located on property belonging to the Shalom Institute, an inclusive Jewish retreat and community center, which has existed here since the early 1970s. It was almost completely destroyed in the Woolsey Fire of November 2018, with only the Torahs and farm animals whisked to safety as the flames engulfed nearly all of the camp’s structures. Blackened oak trees around the property stand as reminders of the devastation.

Some participants have engaged with the land itself, like Adrienne Adar, who has laid microphones into the hole that capture the sounds as people dig. Channeled through headphones nearby, the reverberations of displaced dirt translate the land’s disturbance.

Dorit Cypis, “I’m Sorry…”

Dorit Cypis’s project “I’m Sorry…” is based around the well-known Jewish prayer Avinu Malkeinu (“Our Father, Our King”), which is sung on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. It is a plaintive chant, an admission of past wrongdoing and request for forgiveness and the possibility of a better tomorrow. A short walk from the hole, down a path marked by orange safety vests, Cypis placed a speaker in one of those surviving oak trees, which plays a recording of a young boy passionately singing the prayer’s melody. Instead of the Hebrew words, however, he sings, “I’m sorry for all I did wrong, I’ll try to be better for ever and ever…,” a reinterpretation that captures the prayer’s mixture of remorse and hope. A piece of plywood leans against the tree, onto which visitors can trace their bodies, leaving overlapping traces of collective sorrow.

Dorit Cypis, “I’m Sorry…” (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The week’s activities will end on Saturday, as the hole — now four feet deep after Thursday’s session — is filled with water and transformed into a Mikvah or ritual bath, from which Ekaette Ekong will lead a ceremonial hand washing. Poet and playwright Asher Hartman will host a conversation titled “The Bell Tolls: A meditation and conversation on grief as sadness, numbness, stuckness, irritation, anger, denial, laughter, and fear.” “It’s about not turning grief into rage, but into reconnection with self, earth, deep ancestral, and emotional losses,” Hartman explained, noting the “insufficient” ways that grief is dealt with in American culture. “Why can’t we be vulnerable as Americans?” he asks.

I drove up to the Shalom Institute on Monday morning to experience the work for myself. The unforgiving Southern California sun was already beating down at 8:30am when I arrived. I wrote down something I had been grieving for some time on the seeded paper, and felt a slight weight lift as I deposited it in a container with the losses, deaths, and regrets that others were mourning. I stood inside the shallow hole begun two days earlier and dug alongside Levine for about half an hour, before my pandemic-atrophied muscles began to ache and sweat stained my shirt. I looked down at where I had been digging and realized it looked about the same as when I had started. Then I thought back to something Levine had told me during our conversation a week earlier. “This is a continual lifelong process,” she said. “To perform the ritual doesn’t mean it’s over. It doesn’t mean flowers will always bloom.”

Cara Levine, “Dig a Hole to Put Your Grief In”

The closing events for “Dig a Hole to Put Your Grief In” by Cara Levine will be held on Saturday, August 21, 5–8pm. Those interested should RSVP here.

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Matt Stromberg

Matt Stromberg is a freelance visual arts writer based in Los Angeles. In addition to Hyperallergic, he is a frequent contributor to Daily Serving, and Glasstire.