How Good are Your Dwelling Places

by Cyril Reade

The title of this exhibition, how good are your dwelling places, is derived from the exclamation of the non-Jewish prophet Balaam:

How good are your tents, Jacob, and your dwelling places, Israel! (Numbers 24:5)

The Moab king Balak had sent Balaam to curse the Israelites camped on the east side of the river Jordan after their forty years wandering in the desert, but upon seeing their encampment, the prophet could not but utter his wonderment. This declaration was incorporated into the Mah tovu, the prayer recited on entering the synagogue, since the tents are often understood to refer to the sanctuaries of the Israelites, not yet in the Promised Land; Balaam‘s declaration links the home and the Law. Decoupled from this Biblical source, the title is equivocal: is it a question or a declamatory statement? Are we asking about the quality of home life, or the material soundness of the building? Is this a query about the tenor of community life, or about the tone of the neighbourhood? Or is this an exclamation made after being impressed by a house, expressed in an old-fashioned way? In the articulation of this exhibition, the title is taken as a question about the moral, ethical and ecological environment provided by the home.

In Jewish tradition, the home is where daily rituals are practiced by the observant and where annual celebrations of a number of holidays for the more secular can transform the domestic. This exhibition has not followed the trail of the symbolic however; nor has it asked what the Jewish home might look like, given the impossibility of defining a monolithic group identity. Rather, the exhibition brings together works that explore the fluidity of Jewish identity in a North American context where often very little distinguishes a Jewish home or a Jewish neighborhood from most other neighborhoods in the same city, except for institutional buildings and the signage of commercial strips.

The artists participating in the exhibition, Rita Bakacs, Susan Lakin, Ross Racine, and Allen Topolski, have developed practices that consider domestic architecture or the home. They differ, however, in how near they get to their subject: some stay at a considerable distance, some get close up. In addition, the artists work in different media – film, photography, digital drawing, sculpture. This multiplicity itself diversifies the points of view through which this subject can be considered. While the artists are not Jewish, they are familiar with the modern condition of displacement, none of them living in their city of birth. Much as Balaam looked at the dwelling places of the Israelites, though with a different motivation, the artists focused on aspects of the home life of their Jewish neighbours, their combined work offering a multi-faceted prism through which to view the Jewish home. This interest in the domestic is reinforced by the temporary closing of the Koffler Gallery’s exhibition space for the construction of a new Centre, which generated the idea of an itinerant program, leading to the occupation and transformation of a Toronto residence in this case.

Berlin-based filmmaker Rita Bakacs takes us to the European origins of many North American Jews. In the summer of 2009, I proposed that she visit the Schloss Börnicke, a former residence of the Mendelssohn-Bartholdy family outside Bernau, a town northeast of Berlin, in the former German Democratic Republic. Bakacs has produced a new video work that explores the estate, now in early stages of restoration, magnificent even in its neglected condition. Acquired by Ernst von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy in 1892 and redesigned by the modernist architect Bruno Paul for Ernst’s son Paul in 1910, the villa hosted cultural soirées in its spacious rooms overlooking the park-like setting. This history is representative of one of the ways in which German Jewry had come to participate in European culture since the publication of the eighteenth-century philosophical work and the living example of their ancestor, Moses Mendelssohn, who had provided a rationale for cultural assimilation and religious tolerance. During the bombings of Berlin in World War II, the castle served as a refuge for the Swiss embassy; following the war, it was first a Soviet military hospital, then a vacation home for young German communists, and finally a home for physically disabled children. Closed in 1992, the building was left to gradually decay. Bakacs’ camera records the villa’s current crumbling state and its environs, echoing the past, resounding with the sometimes forced, sometimes voluntary migration of peoples and the ensuing transitions of neighbourhoods.

Large waves of Jewish immigrants, entering North America with other Europeans at the turn of the twentieth century, first settled in downtown areas where they started their families and their businesses. After World War II, their children and subsequent generations participated in the migration to the suburbs, like those surrounding the Sherman Campus, where it was thought that a spacious house, a safe neighborhood and a healthy environment would replace the more crowded and increasingly distressed city core neighbourhoods being occupied by new waves of arrivals. Ross Racine digitally renders bird’s eye views of suburban tracts, orderly and prosperous at first glance. The suggestive titles of these imaginary developments shape our perception of the configuration of the subdivisions. Often, the names of streets and neighborhoods commemorate what has already disappeared, Fairwoods, for example, recalling what stood in the suburb before the developer’s bulldozer razed it. Instead of the suggested verdant neighbourhood, close observation of Racine’s digital drawings unveils homogeneity and limited choice, where house design and landscaping are deployed like building blocks.

Susan Lakin, Daniel, Stephen, and William, 2008/2009, Lambda C-Print.
Susan Lakin, Daniel, Stephen, and William, 2008/2009, Lambda C-Print.
The photographer Susan Lakin leads us inside the home where she takes portraits of the inhabitants reflected in their television screen, a ubiquitous North American appliance. Often set up in the most lived-in room of the house, the television is surrounded by the portrayed subjects’ possessions, providing a cipher of the subjects’ interests, occasionally signaling a Jewish identity. Frequently, however, the books, videos or art found in these portraits are indistinguishable from those of their neighbours, Jewish or otherwise, reflecting a North American lifestyle. The television itself signals the investment in this particular appliance and its role in home life; Lakin’s use of the screen underlines the performativity of those portrayed, often modeled on the roles supplied through the medium of television.

Sculptor Allen Topolski and his family moved into a house in Brighton, a Rochester suburb, that was formerly occupied by a Jewish family. The departing inhabitants left behind many artifacts, including Jewish ritual objects such as mezuzahs (parchment scrolls inscribed with Biblical text, affixed to the doorframes of Jewish homes). Savoring the eccentricity of the taste these items exuded, Topolski saved many of them, and was spurred to create works that reflect the former owners’ predilections. The ensuing humorously strange objects, in which the artist marries the familiar with the uncanny, are installed to interact with their temporary home. Identifying a similarity in shape between domestic components and skullcaps, Topolski also fashioned a selection of hybrids that he dubbed Yamakappliances. Through the path of humour, he reminds the viewers of religious ritual embedded in the everyday.

Allen Topolski, Finding Maywood (left), 2010, salvaged materials; Yamakappliances (right), 2009, found materials (installation view).
Allen Topolski, Finding Maywood (left), 2010, salvaged materials; Yamakappliances (right), 2009, found materials (installation view). Photo: Isaac Applebaum.

The works of these artists are assembled for this exhibition in a building that was formerly a house, a few doors from the childhood home of the architect Frank Gehry – born Ephraim Owen Goldberg – who recently renovated the Art Gallery of Ontario further up the street. The row of buildings is slated for demolition and redevelopment; the inhabitants of the early twentieth century have long gone, now to be replaced by yet other residents. The art works gathered in this space offer a visual and tactile snapshot of where we, North American city dwellers, have come from, how we have lived, and how we live now. The temporary gallery itself is a snapshot of the way we treat our dwelling places. This space and the images and objects created by these artists, can lead us to reflect on how good we make these dwelling places.

Cyril Reade is Associate Professor of Art History at the Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester, New York. His book Mendelssohn to Mendelsohn: Visual Case Studies of Jewish Life in Berlin was published by Peter Lang AG in 2007. Reade is currently working on The Mendelssohns in Berlin: Portrait of a Family. He recently participated in the Kofflerʼs Wrecking Ball, and was guest curator for the Galleryʼs 2005 exhibition NXT.Message.

Rita Bakacs was born in Tatab.nya, Hungary in 1976; her family moved to Germany 10 years later. She earned a MA in Comparative Literature at the University of Cologne and the University of Rochester, NY. She worked in film and television in Los Angeles and Berlin where she has been based since 2002. Her first documentary video Wohnkomplex BRD (Residential Complex) won the Audience Award at the Leipzig Documentary Short Film Festival. Bakacs has received funding from the ZEIT Foundation, the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and the Foundation for Human Dignity and Labour for her independent film and video work.

Susan Lakin is Associate Professor of Photography at the Rochester Institute of Technology, NY. She has a BFA in Photography from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA and a MFA in Art Studio from the University of California, Santa Barbara. She examines our interaction with mass communication through electronic screens in our homes, looking at how these displays frame our lives. Lakin has exhibited throughout the United States, including the Memorial Art Gallery, Rochester; Gallery @ 49, NYC; Houston Center of Photography; and the Photographic Resource Center, Boston. She is currently exhibiting at the Lishui Photography Museum in China.

Ross Racine, born in Montréal, Québec, lives and works in New York City. He received a MFA in painting from Concordia University, Montreal. Racine draws aerial views of the city freehand on the computer. His prints have been shown in solo and group exhibitions in the United States, Canada, and Europe including Drexel University, Philadelphia; the Front Room Gallery, New York; the Los Angeles Printmaking Society; and the International Print Triennial, Katowice, Poland. His work is in several collections, including the Des Moines Art Center, the Johnson & Johnson Collection, and the Hallmark Collection.

Allen C. Topolski is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Rochester, NY. Topolski was raised in the coal region of central Pennsylvania; the artifacts from his post-industrial childhood town prompted the investigations of nostalgia and domesticity that dominate his current work. Topolski received his BA from Bucknell University and his MFA in 1990 from Penn State University. Topolski has a national exhibition record and is currently involved in a number of public art initiatives in the city of Rochester.

Design and editing: Tony Hewer | Photography: Isaac Applebaum
Digital publication to the exhibition how good are your dwelling places
Presented by the Koffler Gallery Off-Site at 23 Beverly Street, Toronto | January 14 to March 14, 2010.
Guest Curator: Cyril Reade

© Koffler Centre of the Arts, 2009, in collaboration with the individual contributors. All rights reserved.
ISBN 978-0-920863-88-6.

Koffler family FoundationCIBC Wood GundyOntario Arts Council | Conseil Des Arts De L'OntarioToronto Arts Council | Funded by the City of TorontoCanada Council