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June 13, 2008


Summer in the city: Beginnings

Sumer is icumen in, the old song says. And quite a summer it promises to be.

In addition to the usual games at City Hall, there will be June weddings, lots of them, led off by the remarriage of Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, this time in a court-sanctioned ceremony.

In the beginning, there were two women. They founded a social club called the Daughters of Bilitis because they wanted a place to hang out with their friends and dance… with each other. They started a magazine called The Ladderto let women like them know that they were not alone.

In case you missed the excitement that these women started more than fifty years ago, it’s good to remember that in 1955, gay bars were illegal. It was even against the law in some places for women to wear men’s trousers. In the eyes of Joseph McCarthy and his fear-mongering minions, homosexuals were as subversive as card-carrying Communists. In San Francisco four years later, City Assessor Russell Wolden, running for mayor, announced that the Daughters of Bilitis

is a matter of grave concern to every parent. It exposes teen-agers to possible contact and contamination in a city overrun by deviates.

And all because a couple of women were determined to create their own space.

A simple act. A beginning.

On the cultural front, the city’s cup is running over with exciting, “world-class” events this summer. Frida Kahlo has taken up residence at SFMOMA. Dale Chihuly, whose glowing glassworks have been welcoming visitors to the de Young and the Legion of Honor since the beginning of May, will have a full-fledged exhibition at the de Young. The Legion of Honor hosts a group of women Impressionists — Berthe Morisot, Mary Cassatt, Eva Gonzales, and Marie Bracquemond.

But the new Contemporary Jewish Museum got a head start on all of them by opening last weekend. The media, here and elsewhere have focused on the building, Daniel Libeskind’s imaginative tweaking of the old PG&E power station on Mission, and only touched in passing on the art displayed inside. Talk about judging a book by the cover! It’s a strange and wonderful building — how often do you see a cube poised on one pointy corner? But don’t they realize it’s a museum we’re talking about? Museums are usually containers for exhibits, not just interesting shells.

What’s inside?

All sorts of good stuff — William Steig’s drawings, assorted explorations in sound, photographs of Bay Area Jews — but especially a collection of art, old and new, gathered under the rubric “In the Beginning: Artists Respond to Genesis.”

You remember Genesis: “In the beginning, God created heaven and earth,” and so on for seven days. A very short section at the beginning of the Torah; a very short section at the beginning of the Bible. But its meaning has fascinated scholars and artists since the beginning of time. And the new exhibition is no exception.

There are old drawings by people like William Blake and Marc Chagall, new installations that include electronic media and oral testimonies. Perhaps most stunning is a room designed by Mierle Laderman Ukeles, which re-creates the Kabbalist creation story of Tikkun Olam, or “Repairing the World.”

In the process of creating the world, the story goes, God made vessels of light and poured a divine substance into them, but the vessels shattered, sending out little sparks that lodged in matter everywhere. The world has been fragmented ever since. Every time a person takes a material object — a desk, a wrench, a floor mop — and uses it for a good purpose, the trapped sparks are freed and reunited.

Ukeles has lined the sides of the room with strings of two-sided mirrors, which catch and reflect the light —- one side to illuminate an individual’s path and the other to “capture the sacred images of Others.” But these mirrors will not hang there forever. She offers a trade: on specified days — the first is July 31 — visitors intending to perform a good deed may exchange their signed promise for a mirror. Then, Ukeles says,

This flow of light, COVENANT, and personal Tikkun into the world will transform the artwork…

By joining me in this journey, your light will be known within here, and then, through your Tikkun action, it will radiate out in the world.

To Mierle Laderman Ukeles, the idea of using service to transform the material world into art is nothing new. In 1969, when she was pregnant, she watched her own body changing at the same time that the social and political worlds around her were being transformed. She felt frustrated by

the image of the “housewife” as someone locked into an irretrievable system of dependency.

She wrote “Maintenance Art — Proposal for an Exhibition,” in which she reframed housework — the “maintenance art” —

as a means to the survival of personal freedom, art and all other social institutions. In other words, maintenance art was a necessary part of the human condition. Through this approach to the problem, Ukeles began to extend the references in her work outside of a purely feminist content in order to reveal the conditions of work, and the stereotypes handed to maintenance workers on all levels, whether in public, private, or corporate enterprises.

The manifesto turned into action in 1973, in an early bit of performance art, when

she washed the floor of the Hartford Art Museum during regular public visiting hours, surrounded by sculpture and painting, as well as its entrance way (Hartford Wash: Washing, Tracks, Maintenance: Inside and Hartford Wash: Washing, Tracks, Maintenance: Outside). After all, as an artist, the museum was her home away from home. To it she brought her performance art inside and outside — whether as wife and mother or as maintenance worker, ignored as service workers usually are.

It’s only natural that, for the past 30 years, she has been artist-in-residence for the New York City Department of Sanitation. In 1983, she covered a garbage truck with a tempered glass mirror, perhaps anticipating the mirrors she hung in San Francisco.

The reflecting truck is a metaphor for the interrelationship between “us” whose images get caught in the mirror and “those” who collect our garbage.

Now she’s offering us dozens of mirrors to “repair the world.”

And all because a woman was determined to create her own space.

A simple act. A beginning.

Thanks for reading. I’m outta here.

        — Copyright Betsey Culp 2008