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Thursday, May 05, 2005

Read your matzo, it's good for you

Not everyone with an MBA knows that it stands for Matzo Ball Activist, but thanks to the efforts of my friend from my teen years in Toronto, Melissa Shiff, with some assistance from the Daily Kos, the truth is coming out.  Melissa is now an increasingly well-known conceptual artist; this article from Toronto's Globe and Mail details her latest oeuvre, which is in NYC's Bronfman Center at NYU. 

Here's the post from DK's  Jeff Feldman

A Room Made of Matzo
Every once in a while, an artist takes on the Jewish holiday of Passover with spectacular results.

In 1498, Leonardo Da Vinci painted a picture of a Passover meal on a refectory, wall. In 1957, Cecil B. De Mille made an epic film about Passover that forever changed the face of Moses. And last week, American artist Melissa Shiff--an up and coming installation artist--opened The Medium is the Matzo: a remarkable, multi-media work involving hand-sewn cushions, high tech video equipment and--that's right, Moses--thousands and thousands of pieces of unleavened bread.

The Medim is the Matzo is a built environment Shiff created by lining every inch of every wall in an art gallery with actual square pieces of matzo. Some of the matzo "tiling" is painted silver, but most are left natural.  Next, Shiff covered the floor with matzo cushions--something akin to a matzo variation on Andy Warhol's silk screen images of Marilyn Monroe.  The end result, the gallery looks, feels, and smells like matzo, and each step the visitor takes induces a hearty matzo "crunch!"

The installation features four main sections: Passover Projections,  The Elijah Lounge, A Miriam Bar, and a Matzo Ball Activism corner.  Visitors familiar with the Jewish holiday of Passover will recognize the references more than others, but the visuality of the spaces will appeal to everyone.  Shiff's work combines high tech video and basic pillow sewing, Irony based on Biblical reference and the sound of crackers breaking underfoot.   

Crush Oppression
But the star of the show is the matzo lined room itself.  Standing in the gallery spaces lined floor to ceiling with matzo is like standing in a Manischewitz igloo (Manischewitz donated the building materials from its piles of unsold matzo boxes which it would have otherwise discarded).   

Beyond the stunning sensory experience, at the heart of Shiff's installation is a political program designed to focus attention on the problem of world hunger.  Shiff calls this Matzo Ball Activism, linking her Andy Warhol-esque matzo cushions to the Mazon Project.   

Shiff engages visitors to the exhibition in her views about world hunger and she provides a starting point for political action.   

Religion and Politics Unboxed
What is the message in all this matzo?

For Shiff, a large part of her agenda is to involve the public in the basics of the Passover symbolism.  The total immersion aspect of the galleries is something not easily forgotten, and the basics of the ritual are throughout her haunting videos and meticulously crafted details.

Yet, beyond the ritual signs and symbols, Shiff brings to light a powerful statement about religion and consumerism.  In the final corner of the gallery, she has stacked hundreds of jars of Matzo balls against one wall. In a grocery store, this installation would not give anyone pause, but in a gallery it is something to behold.  The industry that produces the American Passover diet is astounding and overblown, but it is also full of kitsch.   

In a season where politicians often bow too quickly on the stage of religion for their own narrow-sighted gains, it is remarkable to find oneself standing in front of a tower of matzo balls set in front of a wall tiled in matzo.  Religion and politics in the public sphere, we discover, do not need to be confined to cries of anguish and threats.  It's OK--healthy even--if religion and politics makes us smile, laugh or marvel.

In the end Shiff's Medium is the Matzo helps us to remember an important point:  there is a playful side of religion, which might very well be the side we need most right now.   

© 2005, Jeffrey Feldman

The Medium is the Matzo
A Passover Installation
by Melissa Shiff

The Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life
7 East 10th Street
New York, NY 10012

Runs through week of May 2
Sunday noon-6pm
Monday-Friday 11am-7pm
Sat 11-5pm & 7-9pm

Posted by Administrators on May 5, 2005 at 05:59 PM in Culture | Permalink

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