Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Cultural Heritage Artists Project: Beth Krensky

On December 6th, the Cultural Heritage Artists Project will open its first exhibition, dedicated to the Orchard Street Synagogue. Before the exhibition opens at the John Slade Ely House in New Haven, 2Life Magazine will feature various participating artists. Each one will get three questions related to their artwork and their experience.
Today we feature Salt Lake City based Beth Krensky, an assistant professor of art education at the University of Utah.

How did you find out about the Orchard Street Shul project and what motivated you to participate?

I was interested in the Orchard Street Shul project because it examined a particular place, the shul, over time and, for me, was a way to examine how a space or objects in that space get imbued with meaning. Much of my current work explores how objects can be used to create new rituals that comment on larger social and/or political issues. Since I moved to Utah 6 ½ years ago, most of my art has explicitly drawn from elements of the Jewish tradition—both text and objects--that have to do with transformation. For these reasons, the project intrigued me.

Can you explain your contribution to the project?

I visited the shul last summer and I was interested in how the meaning and power of many of the religious objects remained intact despite the layers of dust and decay that had occurred over the years that the space appeared to have lay dormant. I was also struck by the importance of the space to former congregants. I pondered questions like “What gives a place meaning?” and “Is there a way to sanctify a space by demarcating it in some way?” These questions brought up the idea of portable sanctuaries. I considered making physical tent-like spaces that could signify a space of worship and could go to where the congregants were scattered. In the end, I decided to recall and reify the objects that represented orthodox Jewish observance which would represent that meaning despite the location they were placed in.

In my statement about the pieces, I assert that:

These Reliquary pieces are about enduring objects. The Orchard Street Shul, and the neighborhood within which it exists, act as a metaphor for the multiple layers of shared existence over time and place. The ebb and flow of people, activity, decay and renewal shares a history with objects that retain their symbolism, power and liturgical or ritual meaning over time. The objects placed in the reliquaries have physically and symbolically endured over time and demarcate a space for religious observance. Architectural elements of the Shul have been incorporated into the forms of these containers. Much of my work consists of common objects made sacred. This turning of the mundane into precious invokes the possibility of change, mirroring the layered history of the community and Shul.

How does this work fit into the context of your other art work?

In his book, The Strange Place of Religion on Contemporary Art, James Elkins debates the impact and importance of contemporary art that addresses religious beliefs and/or observances. These beliefs and observances can come from established, new or individually created religions. In describing some of this work, he refers to the artist Betty Saar who believes that this type of work shifts points of view and releases an inner spirit.

For my own work that is based on ritual, I often research ancient traditions that were used within Judaism and other traditions of faith. This research only informs my art, as I often imagine new, sometimes idiosyncratic, rituals based on ancient knowledge. The objects I create are intended as instruments for our own rituals, real or imagined.

I like to think of my work existing somewhere in the space between secular art and ritualized objects. There is a long tradition of artists, many of them women, creating altars, rituals and objects that aesthetically reside within the high art world, yet the purpose of the objects often responds to a personal ritual. These very personal actions can come to bear on larger social or political issues, such as the work Suzanne Lacy engages in.

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