Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Paper Offerings: Judaic Themes in the Artwork of Donna Ruff

Artist Donna Ruff takes a well-known iconoclastic act—the destruction of the book—and invites us to consider this act for its destructive potential as well as its creative possibilities.

Figure 1: Es-tu comme moi? (Are you like me?), 2008. Lithograph, altered books. 
9 x 21 in. Photo courtesy of artist.

MLA citation format:
Mohan, Urmila and Donna Ruff.
"Paper Offerings:
Judaic Themes in the Artwork of Donna Ruff "
Web blog post. Material Religions. 2 December 2015. [date of access]

To call her work the ‘burning’ or ‘tearing’ of books might be an exaggeration but the form and effect of Donna Ruff's art certainly relies on her ability to singe and cut paper in a highly controlled manner. An established book artist who has exhibited globally for the past fifteen years, Ruff expresses her personal relationship with ‘religion’ through evocative manipulations of book pages and newspapers. Encountering her work first at an exhibit in 2010, I was struck both by the religious undertones of her work as well as her signature technique of manipulating paper through burning, folding and cutting. 

Ruff explains that she is Jewish by birth, culture and to a certain extent practice: 
My background has been a defining element in what I am interested in making. My family wasn’t particularly religious, but they did send me to Hebrew school when I was in junior high…as someone who always loved to draw, I was fascinated by the Hebrew letters we were to learn and write. Hebrew script is different than letters in books and I liked writing it, even if I never learned what the letters meant except for some basic words…I still can’t read Hebrew, so the letters are meaningless as words but they are still highly charged as signifiers of my religion. 

So, why books? 

I’ve had a very formative experience with books. My grandparents had a scrap paper company in Chicago and one of their suppliers was Field Publications, the publishers of World Book and Childcraft encyclopedias. When the out of date books arrived at the warehouse, the pages were slashed top to almost the bottom so that they couldn’t be resold. My grandmother would rescue the books, carefully taping the pages back together, so that she could give them to us. We were never really bothered by having to read the pages with a piece of yellowing tape holding them together, but the first time my parents bought us a real set of World Book Encyclopedias it was a most exciting and precious gift. The pristine nature of the books made a big impression on me. They were expensive to buy and it meant that my parents had achieved a certain level of financial success. Clearly books were valuable beyond what you could read in them. 

Religion is both explicit and implicit in Ruff’s work. I asked her how Judaism had influenced her work. 

Judaism is centered on the Torah and other religious books—Jews are sometimes called “People of the Book.” The ritual of Jewish practice informs my work a great deal. In the synagogue itself, as in most places of worship, there is a separation of congregation from the leaders of the service, who are on a raised platform with a reading podium called the bimah, where the Torah and other prayers are read. Thus to be “called to the bimah” is an honor. On the wall behind the bimah is the sacred ark, a cabinet where the Torah is kept, marked by a lamp above it that is never allowed to be extinguished. 

The Torah is a handwritten scroll, beautifully illuminated, encased in an elaborate and jewelled textile to protect it when it’s not being read. Reading it requires copious study beforehand. In addition, it is a circular document—a portion is read each week, according to the Jewish calendar, and at the end of the cycle it is started anew, so it is never-ending. At a certain point in the service the rabbi or an important member of the congregation will take the Torah around through the synagogue to allow congregants to kiss it. You must never touch the Torah—even when following the text when one reads from it, one must use a pointer, called a yad. When the Torah comes to you, it’s customary to first touch the Torah with your prayer book and then lightly kiss the prayer book, or you can touch the Torah with your prayer shawl and then kiss the shawl. These concepts of circularity, necessary action to be allowed to read, highly precious and venerated text and the inability to interpret have all been subtexts in my work.

Figure 2: Nephesh, 2004. Suede backcloth, dye, laser prints on kozo paper, wood stands. 
70 x 12 x 25 in each. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Performance is invoked in Ruff’s artworks through the actions associated with the Torah as well as the signifiers of text that are manipulated/left intact. “Nephesh”, 2004 (Figure 2) was a site specific installation at the Eldridge Street Synagogue, Lower East Side, New York. "Nephesh" is the Hebrew word for "soul" or "spirit." Now a museum, The Eldridge Street Project celebrates Congregation Kahal Adath Jeshurun/Anshe Lubz, the oldest synagogue in this country built by and for Eastern European Jews. Five handmade books, representing the Five Books of Moses, or Torah, were placed on movable wooden stands. The text in each was gathered from various sources including archives of the synagogue itself and aspects of Jewish life and culture, specifically the culture of early immigrants living on the Lower East Side of New York. 

Figure 3: Rabii, 2013. Screen printed book cloth, handmade abaca, ribbon, acrylic. 
9 x 9 x 7 in. Photo courtesy of the artist.
‘Rabii’ (Figure 3) was made for an exhibition honoring those who died in an explosion on Al-Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad—the street of booksellers. The word ‘Rabii’ means spring in Arabic. It has no text, just long cut away rectangles indicating where text might have appeared. A green ribbon bears the names of those who died, which Ruff painted carefully in Arabic script, after a professor from Egypt wrote it out for her to copy. Ruff says: It brought me back to those early days in Hebrew school where I could recognize certain letters as they reappeared, but I couldn’t read them. I just enjoyed the act of copying as a ritual of honor and respect. 

Islam and Judaism both forbid the use of the figure in religious art and I feel there are many overlaps in beliefs, but of course there is so much enmity that that is not often explored. The titles I use are both Hebrew and Arabic words. Because of political events and my own political biases, I have used imagery that suggests Islamic patterning. 
Figure 4: 5.14.14, 2014. Cut newspaper. 16.5 x 11.5 in. 
Photo courtesy of the artist.
Ruff’s techniques of material manipulation act as strategies that subvert communication by obscuring and removing content. 

So many women artists and academics (in the late 1990s) were exploring the idea of absence and the void, and this was a concept that is particularly relevant to Jewish texts. Two artists whose work I viewed around that time were very influential: Helene Aylon, whose installation “The Liberation of G-d” was in the exhibition “Too Jewish?” at the Jewish Museum, and Ann Hamilton’s “tropos” at the Dia Center. Aylon laid transparent parchment paper over the pages of the Torah, then highlighted in pink pen the passages that were misogynist, sanction violence against women, or neglect to mention women’s names. In Hamilton’s installation, a lone figure in the immense Dia space sat at a desk burning lines of text from books. Horsehair covered the floor and the effect was powerful as image and concept but also olfaction, as the smells of smoke and hair filled the air. 
Figure 5: Fanatic 6, 2014. Burn on book page. 7 x 7 in. Photo courtesy of Donna Ruff.

In ‘Fanatic 6’ (Figure 5) Ruff creates a circle partly by burning out the text except for the ascendants and descendants and thereby draws our attention to them. Based on another statement by her, these visual ‘remnants’ seem to invoke the actions associated with reading Hebrew where vowels are indicated as various dots and marks. Ruff also noted that there are no vowels included in the Hebrew text of the Torah and one must learn how to read it through instruction and performance. 

Figure 6: Spreads of Influence, 2010. Burn on book pages. Variable dimensions. 
Photo by Urmila Mohan, used courtesy of the artist.
Ruff’s work is not didactic or polemical but she does leave us some clues about her concerns. For instance, the book pages displayed in “Spreads of Influence” (Figure 6) are from a 19th c. letterpress copy of the book “Fanaticism: the outgrowth of enthusiasm” that she picked up at The Strand Bookstore in New York. The readable text of works using pages from the same book, such as “Fan 271”, 2014, and “Fanatic 4”, 2014, bear references to “religion”, “fanaticism” and “god”. A few years ago, the photograph of “Spreads of Influence” was used as a cover image for a Turkish translation of Alberto Toscano’s book on fanaticism. [i] Ruff’s art had, indeed, come full circle.

[i] Toscano, Alberto (2010). Fanaticism: On the Uses of an Idea.  London: Verso. Toscano’s book complicates the use of a term that has dominated debates about faith and secularism. Attempting to overcome the simple either-or of ‘reasonableness’ and fanaticism, Toscano places the fanatic at the very heart of politics, arguing that historical and revolutionary transformations require a new understanding of this role.



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