How do you get across the meaning of an object that’s separated from everyday life by the glass of a museum vitrine? This question, constantly grappled with by curators of object-based collections, is very much at stake in the Jewish Museum’s current exhibition As it were … So to speak: A Museum Collection in Dialogue with Barbara Bloom.
This presentation of 276 objects from the Museum’s collection, cherrypicked by Bloom — a New York–based artist with a penchant for the humble object who has previously been grouped with Richard Prince and Sherrie Levine under the label of the Pictures Generation — stands in stark contrast to its neighbor from the floor directly above. Culture and Continuity: The Jewish Journey, the Museum’s permanent collection display, was installed in 1993 and looks its age. Culture and Continuity does everything you would expect a traditional display of museum objects to do (scythes and potshards are helpfully located by fading photographic backdrops of rural vistas), including telling the visitor exactly what the function and history of each object is. Bloom’s presentation, however, refuses to traffic in such clear-cut definitions.
As its roundabout, elliptical title suggests As it were … So to speak is more concerned with opening up the Museum’s collection to any number of possible, expansive interpretations than it is with narrowing its meaning down. To give flesh to this idea through her exhibition’s design, Bloom took a cue from the Talmud: a sacred Jewish text with a distinctive layout, in which the primary material is literally framed by layers of commentary and opinion that ripple outwards across each page, spanning whole millennia in a single spread. Both Bloom’s introductory wall text and the book-shaped text panels that punctuate the exhibition make use of this format; their primary, objective information peppered with interjections from a variety of sources that shatter the impersonal voice of traditional museum texts. The exhibition’s introductory text, which speaks about Bloom in the third person, is interrupted by the artist’s own first-person observations, which jostle for space alongside quotations from Edmond Jabès, Marcel Duchamp, and Wikipedia.
But the exhibition’s connection to the Talmud goes deeper than mere mise-en-page. Debate, the DNA of the Talmud, is really what makes Bloom’s display tick, and gives it structure. The centrality of debate, of wrangling over meaning, is flagged up at the exhibition’s very point of entry. Before stepping through the wooden doorway that provides access to the exhibition’s galleries, visitors must first pass through a subtler, more experiential kind of doorway, formed by an overhead speaker that projects sound downwards in a tightly focused spot, providing a brief and surprising immersion in rolling waves of arguments that sway back and forth between a host of unseen opponents, each heard for a moment, fading away before resolution can be reached.
But this is only an amuse-bouche: it’s within the galleries that the real debate unfolds, rooted in Bloom’s provocative proposal that objects might not be evaluated on the strict basis of their symbolic associations (the default position in the case of religious artifacts), but rather thought of in looser and broader terms. “Perhaps,” Bloom suggests, “they could be considered as ambassadors … placeholders for thoughts.”To facilitate such a change in perspective, Bloom has done away with traditional methods of display. Gone are the velvet-lined vitrines from “Culture and Continuity”; in their place ghostly, cool blue pieces of furniture — piano, bed, chest of drawers — hold groups of objects from the Museum’s collection. Evoking the past life of the gallery space, once home to Felix and Frieda Warburg, these pieces of furniture designed by Bloom (in collaboration with architect Ken Saylor) place the objects into a domestic context: a situation in which they would be put to use as objects, in the process acquiring the kind of human attachments and associations that Bloom is interested in unveiling.
To draw out these delicate strands of thought, Bloom has placed the Museum’s objects into a Talmudic dialogue. Each thematic grouping is annotated by a wide-ranging selection of evocative texts, creating a little constellation of shared resonance within which a variety of potential meanings glimmer. Julian Barnes and Marcel Proust, for example, exchange opinions with the Aymara people (for whom the past lies ahead, and the future behind) on the nature of time over a selection of timepieces suspended in the base of a couch. An arrangement of spice holders which, behind protective cases, cannot be smelled, are enlivened by a discussion of synaesthesia and its sensory effects as recounted by bearers of the condition including Albert Einstein and Tilda Swinton. Not all of Bloom’s orchestrated conversations are so earnest; a display of artist-designed brooches, commissioned for the purpose of rewarding high-level Israel Bond investors, is sandwiched between the philosopher Maimonides’s eight levels of charity, and Mayor Bloomberg’s eight “IRS Tax Tip” points for deducting charitable contributions.
Amidst all these buzzing, multi-voiced discussions, quiet moments take on a certain power. Unexpectedly, Bloom’s method of pairing objects with text works to greatest effect in the case of absences: when there’s nothing to comment on, or when there’s nothing to be said. The display of a prisoner’s cap from the concentration camp at Auschwitz is all the more thought provoking for the deliberate elimination of its object label. Elsewhere, a selection of empty circumcision-instrument holders, their cavities exposed, is juxtaposed with an image of blacked-out spreads from Nietzsche’s sister’s edition of the philosopher’s correspondence. Attempts to tease out connections between these disparate lacunae flounder, resulting in contemplation of the process of meaning construction itself.
This search for meaning, which drives As it were … So to speak, is remarkably appropriate to the Jewish Museum right now, an institution in the process of negotiating its own identity. Having undergone a recent changeover at the directorship level — ushering in Claudia Gould, a previous Executive Director of Artists Space in SoHo, and Jens Hoffman, biennial curator extraordinaire — the Museum is inevitably dedicating its energies to contemplating what it even means to be a “Jewish museum” that also displays art, and where its path forward as an institution should lie, given its past — by turns progressive (think Kynaston McShine’s Primary Structures, the 1966 exhibition that showcased the growing Minimalist tendency in art) and conservative. In many ways, Bloom’s exhibition serves as a manifestation of this thought process. In opening up the Museum’s collection — the body of acquired objects that defines a museum’s identity — to a broad range of interpretations with universal relevance, Bloom extends the possible meaning of the Jewish Museum itself.
As it were … So to speak: A Museum Collection in Dialogue with Barbara Bloom continues at the Jewish Museum (1109 5th Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through August 4.