Tobi Kahn’s “Sacred Spaces for the 21st Century” Exhibit

By Peninnah Schram | Issue Date: February 2010

Tobi Kahn discusses his sculpture “Saphyr-Omer Counter.” Photo: Sofia HubscherOn a gray day in early November, about 60 people (many of them BJ members) gathered in one of the large galleries on the second floor of the Museum of Biblical Art to explore, along with artist Tobi Kahn, his solo exhibition, “Tobi Kahn: Sacred Spaces of the 21st Century.” The show contains 30 recent paintings, sculptures, and ceremonial objects, many of them made with acrylic paint on wood.

A large photo and replicas of individual ceremonial ritual objects gave clues to his artistic approach toward his most recent task: creating a visually cohesive environment for Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The sanctuary’s interior consists of eight wall-scale abstract paintings; the sanctuary’s ceremonial art includes the eternal light, memorial lights, menorah, tzedakah box, mezuzah, and doors to the ark. Kahn’s abstract designs resonate with symbolism, fusing art and religion. They are also extremely original.

At first, most of us sat in the middle of the gallery on small canvas folding seats, but when Kahn invited us to come closer to the art pieces, the experience turned into a sixties-style “happening” in which we all participated and interacted with the works. The pieces seemed to surround and envelop us, engaging all our senses. Regarding them became a journey, weaving in and out of the various spaces within the gallery. It reminded me of the theatrical events of the Middle Ages, where the audience would move from place to place (known as “mansions” or “stations”) within a church to see the next scene of a religious drama. In addition to the artist’s explanations, we also had the great pleasure of our own Rabbi Roly Matalon introducing Tobi Kahn and talking with him about the exhibit. Roly set the show in context, explaining how the element of time is most important in Judaism, but adding that space is also essential. What is sacred space? When does space become sacred? These became focal questions. As Roly told me afterward, “It was an exquisite morning, a great gift to be exposed to Tobi’s heart and mind, while being surrounded by his beautiful and impressive art.”

Photo: ©Tobi Kahn StudioSurrounded by the extraordinary artwork, and also by the appreciative people, I found myself responding to all the pieces. They are powerful ritual objects that shine a light on the creative and imaginative talent who designed and brought them to life. When Tobi spoke about his work, he used his whole being! One could feel his energy and his passion flowing through his voice and his words.

Among the many pieces, two specific objects caught my attention. The first represents the four thronelike chairs created for mothers and grandmothers to sit on for the naming ceremony of a daughter. These chairs evoke the four Biblical matriarchs. Tobi explained his choice of colors and designs, including sacred spaces represented within the design, and helped us understand these decisions drawn from the religion and its traditions and symbolism. The piece reconceptualizes our rituals and brings them into the 21st century!

The second piece that I loved looked like a huge variation of a one-sided Rubik’s Cube or an abacus with 49 protruding geometric wooden blocks, each unique in shape. It was so tactile that I wanted to reach up and turn them. Tobi said this wooden “wall hanging” was to be used for counting the Omer. (It turns out Tobi makes actual toys, too.) As described by the museum brochure on the show, “This imposing sculpture … is designed to mark the transition of the Jewish people from a condition of slavery to one of freedom.” Its combination of qualities vividly illustrates that Kahn has a playful heart as well as a creative and educated mind.

When I asked BJ member Judy Geller-Marlowe what she felt about this exhibit, she said, “Tobi Kahn’s ritual objects have inherent beauty in their design, form, and structure. However, coupled with his textual references and explanations of artistic choices, he creates another layer of beauty with which each piece resonates. Hearing his stories amplified the experience for me, and I came away with such admiration and appreciation of his work.” Her response echoes the way many of us experienced the works in the midst of this sacred space.