February 2016

Topic of the Week: Helène Aylon

Feburary 18, 2016

Helène Aylon: Recipient of the Women’s Caucus for Art’s Lifetime Achievement Award

Helène Aylon speaks of her multimedia art as a “rescue” of the Body, the Earth, and God—all stuck in patriarchal designations. Her five-decade career can be summed up in five words: Body, Earth, God, Foremothers, and Civilization. She started as a process painter in the 70s (The Body) with Paintings That Change In Time, shown at Betty Parsons, and Susan Caldwell Galleries, and at the legendary 112 Workshop on Greene Street, which later became White Columns.

Aylon’s series, Breakings (1978-79) made more direct reference to the female body. Combining painting and performance, she produced each Breaking by pouring linseed oil onto a large panel, leaving the oil to pool and form a membrane over a period of time. She then direct assistants, whom she called, “midwives” among them Betty Parsons, Nancy Spero and Hannah Wilke, to raise the panel to a vertical position, whereupon the sac-like membrane broke, releasing the oil contained within.

In the early 1980’s, Aylon initiated an extraordinary series of actions involving hundreds of women across the country and in the Middle East and Japan to promote healing and peace. She embarked on a cross-country journey in an Earth Ambulance, salvaging earth from 12 Strategic Air Command sites, which she and her collaborators placed in pillowcases or “sacs.” The odyssey concluded at the United Nations’ mass rally for disarmament in the summer of 1982 where the sacs, many inscribed by women from around the world, were emptied and strung on clotheslines in the street. The humble sac is a multivalent symbol which Aylon has used to powerful effect not only in ephemeral actions such as this, but also in media works, installations, and architectural interventions. She has discussed this body of work in the context of the Jewish concept of tikkun olam or healing the earth.

In the past 15 years, Aylon has probed the Orthodox Jewish tradition in which she was raised in works such as The Liberation of G-D (1990-1996), The Women’s Section (1997) and All Rise (2010). For The Liberation of G-D, she placed a transparent overlay on each page of The Five Books of Moses, highlighting passages of cruelty and misogyny in pink and inserting a vertical pink line where female presence is omitted. In a statement that explicates the work, she writes, “O do not change the text/but merely look at this dilemma./I ask: When will/G-d/be rescued from/ungodly projections/ in order to be/G-d/.”

That Aylon makes her marks on an overlay rather than on the page itself is emblematic of her nuanced engagement with Judaism. She is deeply critical of what she views as the “patriarchal attitudes that have been projected onto G-d,” yet she is sensitive of the proscription against marking or defacing pages bearing the name of God. Her work is not a simple condemnation, but an informed negotiation.

In her recent photographic work, Turnings, she turns as it were, for existential answers, realizing that she will one day be a future foremother. Her memoir “Whatever Is Contained Must Be Released: My Jewish Orthodox Girlhood, My Life as a Feminist Artist,” was published in 2012 in the Reuben-Rifkin Jewish Women Writers Series, a joint project of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute and The Feminist Press. HBI is proud to have Aylon on the Academic Advisory Committee and proud to have supported her work with research awards over the years.

Portions of this were excerpted from The Women’s Caucus for Art, Honor Awards for Lifetime Achievement in the Visual Arts, program biography by Rachel Federman, Ph.D, and assistance curator of painting and sculpture at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.


Topic of the Week: Meet Our Scholars

February 5, 2016

Chantal Ringuet, Scholar-in-Residence

When Chantal Ringuet discovered that her adopted city of Montréal had once been a prominent center of Yiddish culture, she decided to explore that fascinating world.

A francophone born in Quebec City, Ringuet’s dissertation in literature focused on women writers from Quebec, but she decided to learn Yiddish and received a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council grant which allowed her to pursue two years of postdoctoral research on Yiddish literature in Montreal. Since then, she has published a cultural essay, À la découverte du Montréal Yiddish (with 150 photographs), an anthology of Yiddish literature in Canada in French translation (Voix Yiddish de Montréal), as well as two poetry collections, one that was awarded the Prix littéraire Jacques-Poirier 2009, and many literary translations. Ringuet also created the Facebook page Montréal yiddish en français (https://www.facebook.com/mtlyiddishfr/?fref=photo) to circulate research about Yiddish Montreal in her maternal language and to promote cultural interactions in Quebec and North America. She is also the co-editor of a collective work about Leonard Cohen that will be published in April by the Presses de l’Université du Québec.

During her residence at HBI, Ringuet is working on a new project entitled, « On the Other Side of Poetry: Rachel Korn and Kadia Molodowsky, two Yiddish Women Writers in North America. » The first step of this research was undertaken in the Molodowsky-Korn Archives in New York where Ringuet is YIVO Fellow in 2015-16. A second step will lead to the publication, in 2017, of a monograph, a comparative study that will shed light on the two author’s works while allowing a better comprehension of the connections between Montreal and New York as two major centers of Yiddish culture. At the same time, Ringuet is writing a literary essay about Israel, for which she received a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts in 2015. For more information about her work, see: chantalringuet.com