‘Do you think the professor was in on it?’ Lily Siegel, Associate Curator at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, laughs at the question. ‘I think he was,’ she says, looking back at the art installation in front of her. ‘It would be cruel if he weren’t.’ She is standing in front of Dying Star Letters, a series of 77 type- and hand-written condolences by artist Katie Paterson ‘which proclaim stellar deaths.‘ Though it is uncertain whether the professor was amused, it has been a popular source of befuddlement for visitors. ‘Interestingly, it’s one of the most ‘talked-about’ pieces in the exhibition. For some reason, people just identify with it.’
Its broad appeal lies in offering viewers a comfortable foray into the naked realities of death. Each star has unequivocally died, but this fact becomes known only when the light of that star is discovered. Millions of light-years away there is darkness, but here, on Earth, the world is aglow in starlight. Is it truly dead? Of all the artwork on display in the CJM’s newest exhibition, Night Begins the Day, this piece truly exemplifies the contrast between light and darkness, night and day, and the nebulous space between the sublime and the commonplace.
Death continues to stalk the CJM’s halls with Soleil Noir, a silent film by Laurent Grasso. Viewers travel through the empty ruins of Pompeii, seeing what curator Renny Pritikin calls ‘a kind of bleached perfection, like half-buried bones’ from a slow, plodding birds-eye view. As Grasso depicts a once living city destroyed, abandoned, and populated with wild dogs, he simultaneously induces his audience to contemplate the nature of space over time. In Pompeii, though the walls remain the same the people do not: Virgil’s melodious hexameters are replaced with the clicking shut of camera lenses. The bawdy laughter of countless foreign peoples supersedes haggling over foreign spices or discussing the latest news from the Servile Wars. The people are gone but some part of them remains encased in Pompeii’s intricate stone thoroughfares.
By contrast, Vanessa Marsh’s Mountains series backs away from mortality while jumping headfirst into illusion. Her beautiful nighttime vistas appear to be photographs, but are in reality a ‘complex combination of drawings, cut paper, and reverse color paintings on mylar, all photographed together.’ The effect is spectacular, the subterfuge brilliant. In a similar act of creative deception, Christopher Woodcock’s The Great Western Divide – Trail Crest appears to show a mountain crest lit by the rising sun. Inverting the perception of night and day, it is in reality a long exposure of the mountains bathed in moonlight. The result is a stark moonscape, devoid of life or even the twinkling of distant stars.
The entire show is an exercise in such provocation and, to an extent, winking tomfoolery. This is evident even in its foundational concept, yir’ah, according to Pritikin ‘an amalgam of fear, awe, love, and beauty.’ Although he attempts to associate this Biblical sense of overpowering awe with the sublime of 19th-century Romanticism, his efforts are misplaced. For example, in his magnum opus The World as Will and Representation, philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer discussed sublimity as the overcoming of the self and the attainment of communion with natural phenomena. In experiencing the tidal wave, the arid desert, or the forbidding mountain, a man will feel repulsion at the danger to his body, but simultaneous attraction to the elements of beauty inherent in nature’s violence. Conscious of his fear but also of his desire, he will wrench himself from the first and so become immersed in the second, baptized completely in an overwhelming feeling of exaltation, or Erhebung.
Yir’ah is a far different feeling. It receives its first mention in Genesis 22:12, when God commends Abraham for trusting enough in providence to sacrifice his only son, Isaac: ‘Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest [ארַיְ, y’ray] God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.’ The theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel correspondingly defined ‘yir’ah’ as a ‘way of being in rapport with the mystery of all reality,’ (72) mystery itself defined as ‘a meaning which stands in relation to God.’ Sublimity becomes but one more way of being in rapport with the mystery, one where even the heavens and the stars ‘all continually depend on the living God,’ (38) whose grandeur is beyond accounting, and for whom the Psalmist said ‘all the earth sings of the glory of His name.’
God’s utter absence in the exhibit makes this sardonic mis-association even more amusing. Though it shoots wide of the mark, such was likely intentional: opening up a new line of inquiry into aesthetics seems more important to the curators than adhering to strict definitions. ‘Is there a sublime in Judaism?’ asks Nathaniel Deutsch, professor at UC Santa Cruz and author of one of the exhibit’s exploratory essays. ‘No. And yes’ he riddles. If the sublime is a perceptual experience of nature as a ‘mysterium tremendum,’ the great and horrible fever dream of the Romantics, then no. But if the sublime is the transcendent, all-encompassing awareness of God’s presence throughout creation, then yes.
Looking at Peter Alexander’s illuminated PA & PE, a portrait of Los Angeles at night, there is a sense of getting lost in the representation. An overflowing effulgence of lights conveys the grandeur of the great conurbation, and the roaring tempest of black, gray, yellow, orange, and blue clouds create a sense of smallness in the viewer. And yet, there is an embedded contradiction: ‘for all their multiplicity, Alexander’s points of light are clearly nothing compared to the real number of the city’s illuminations.’ The sense of smallness is facile, incomparable to the real grandeur of being which must be circumscribed, and therefore distorted. In this quandary lies the synthesis of sublimity and yir’ah: though it is impossible to see clearly through eyes darkened by the human condition, it is possible to see through eyes attuned to the mysteries of heaven. Yir’ah is the ability to hear the voice in the wilderness cry ‘Where are thou?’ and the courage to respond in kind: ‘Here I am.’