Tuesday, June 17, 2008


pictured: detail of Matthew Ritchie's "Day One."

I found myself in San Francisco with my husband and mother-in-law, with a couple of hours to fill between lunch and getting her to the airport, so we mosied over to check out the Contemporary Jewish Museum.

The building ROCKS from the outside. It is an intriguing melding of the old PG&E facade and modern shapes/textures. The gift shop, which occupies a large chunk of the new and interesting space, was fun to be inside of, looking out.

The building is less successful as a modern art space, as was made abundantly clear in going through the second floor gallery devoted to "In the Beginning: Artists Respond to Genesis." Individual spaces allowed for a very good visual separation of highly disparate installations, and each was very well presented within its space. However nobody designing this space seems to have accounted for the incontrovertible fact that nowadays many art pieces integrate an aural component. There was NO sound separation. Each attempt to appreciate and understand the sound component of a given installation was ruthlessly undermined by the sound bleed from adjacent spaces.

The highlight of the exhibit for me was Alan Berliner's "Playing God." Seven monitors, one for each day of creation, are arrayed in a line across a wall. Before the viewer are two large buttons: one green, one red. It is essentially an elaborate slot machine. The 837 words that comprise the creation of the universe in the book of Genesis are programmed in. The green button starts them flashing past, the red button brings them to a stop. At the very least, each stop provides a phrase rife with possible meanings - sort of like randomly playing with a whole lot of word magnets on a big fridge. But there are three ways to "win":
1. if the word "God" appears on any one monitor;
2. if a direct quote from Genesis is formed;
3. if the seven days align in their corresponding monitors.

We witnessed several "winners." There would be a sound, then on one or more monitors, the words were replaced by still or short video images relevant to the winning phrase.

It was a fascinating and addictive piece and I think it hit the mark for being both well-conceived and well-executed.

The other two installations I recommend in the show are Matthew Ritchie's "Day One," which also uses multiple monitors but to make a very different point, and a piece that I neglected to note the title/artist of that includes a recreation of the antenna that first picked up the background noise of the Big Bang.

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