Helène Aylon with Ann McCoy
Helène Aylon sat down with Ann McCoy at the Brooklyn Rail’s Industry City headquarters to discuss her upcoming traveling exhibition, Afterword: For the Children (Hadassah-Brandeis Institute and Kniznick Gallery, Waltham, Massachusetts, March 20 – June 16, 2017; Jerusalem Biennale, October 2017). The exhibition forms a bookend to a twenty-year body of work called “The Liberation of G-d.” Aylon’s journey is unique: married to an Orthodox Jewish rabbi at the age of nineteen, she became an art student and colleague of Ad Reinhardt and Mark Rothko. She has forged a remarkable path in the art world, tackling theological and feminist issues with her heartfelt sincerity and unmistakable vision.
Ann McCoy (Rail): Linda Montano and I have been huge supporters of your work since the ’80s. I have memories of you in California, in about 1982, rolling up in your “Earth Ambulance,” a large white truck painted with a red cross and filled with pillowcases of potentially radioactive soil “rescued from nuclear sites.” I remember liking you instantly and thinking, This is the most far-out artist I’ve ever met. I’d like to start the interview with two images I saw recently in your studio: the first is from your book, Whatever Is Contained Must Be Released, which is an amazing piece of writing. It’s the image of your elderly mother lighting the Shabbat candles, with an accompanying poem:
At candle-lighting time the dazzling white tablecloth covered our large tish
(the dinning room table) making it look like a world unblemished...
I loved the movements of my mother’s arms
bringing the Shabbos light towards her in broad arcs,
her arms sweeping the light in towards her heart—
one time, two, three, all in slow motion.
When she lifted the palm from her face,
her eyes beneath were invariably moist.
“Good Shabbos!” she called out and kissed whoever was witness to
the arrival of the Shabbos accompanied by the moon, the comet, and the Shabbos queens and the angels and the Shechinah
(the divine presence of God) all arriving every week precisely at sundown when the siren was heard throughout the land of Boro Park
to announce licht benching time (time to light the candles)…
nowhere in the five Books of Moses is there a commandment
for the woman to light candles. But it became a custom and
this custom got passed down from mother to daughter.
The second image on your studio wall was called My Eternal Light: The Illuminated Pink Dash (2012), a small frame with a glowing slit of pink neon light. The two pieces seemed to go together thematically. Can we start with that image of your mother? Is that all right?
Helène Aylon: Of course. My mother is in the memoir throughout. In fact, the Feminist Press, who published my book, said, “You’re an artist, Helène—you write and write about your mother—you begin the book with your mother, you end the book with your mother.” But that’s how it is. That’s how I was formed, to either merge with her or actively assert where I could not merge.
Rail: It’s as though the spirit of your mother permeates your work.
Aylon: It’s interesting because my whole life I wanted not to be like my mother—when I left the Orthodox community in a sense, and became an artist. It all seems to flicker like candlelight somehow, here and there in the work. In general, I suppose my mother’s goodness made me in some way want to do good, so I tried to do socially engaged works—my way of being “good.”
Rail: Your mother is like a hovering angel. She was such a benevolent person in every way. There’s also something about the spirit of your Baba, your grandmother who lived with you. The spirit of those women seems to emanate from your work, at least from my point of view.
Aylon: My grandmother was my roommate. We shared the bedroom. She had a Siddur (prayer book), and prayed all day long; that’s what she did. When I came home from school I’d see her in that mode. When she woke up in the morning I would see her dipping her hands in the water under her bed, which is an Orthodox tradition, and thanking her God “for restoring her soul”—the words of the morning prayer.
Rail: I love that part, the shisel of water where she acknowledges the restoration of her soul. There’s something very moving about that in a world where so many no longer believe in the soul. Here’s a woman whose life’s purpose was very much about the soul.
Aylon: When you sleep and then you wake up, your soul is restored: you are alive again. It could have been a long sleep, meaning death, but it wasn’t.
Rail: Your work is very much about the restoration of the feminine spirit within the context of Orthodox Judaism, and bringing that content into art but in a highly original way.
Aylon: When I look through the Old Testament there is only one word that sustained me for a while. The word was ruach, meaning wind, spirit, and breath. This whole idea of breathing. At the root of the Hebrew word, linshom (which means “to breathe”) is neshama, which is the soul.
Rail: So, it’s a kind of breathing with the soul.
Aylon: Ruach is also the word for wind and spirit together.
Rail: Didn’t you use that word in the Jewish chapel you designed for Kennedy Airport in 1966? I believe ruach was a palimpsest of letters submerged in the painted walls.
Aylon: I felt that it summed it up, at that time. What I felt was godliness without necessarily “G-d.”
Rail: When I think about Judaism, I think of laws and texts, rather than images. Your work seems to be about a feminine spirit in Judaism that was not allowed to have a text, or an image, the part that defied literary discourse. I am moved by the act of lighting the candles and dipping the hands in water, the unacknowledged feminine parts of spiritual practice.
Aylon: Restoring that aura brings the spirituality to me. In other words, I’m really like a detective looking through the old texts and exclaiming, “A-ha this has disappeared!”—but I am finding it to replenish it, bringing a new vision. For example, nowhere in the five Books of Moses does it say, “Light the candles.” That is such a very basic part of Judaism, lighting the Shabbat candles, so I thought, How did this come about? Someone had to start it. You know, in Judaism anybody can make their own midrash (commentary). From a feminist point of view, I could imagine women huddling together, waiting for their husbands to come back from the synagogue on a Friday evening and one of them said, “Let’s light a candle.” That’s how it might have happened. So, I assume it must have been women. Whenever it is credited as anonymous and there is no caption stating who was the author or originator, I assume it must have been a woman.
Rail: In Psychoanalysis of Fire, Gaston Bachelard goes into all these poetic discourses about fire—but he never mentions Hestia, the Greek goddess of the hearth. Bachelard talks about fire in Promethean terms, but forgets that fire belonged to women. Women were the keepers of the flame. That’s why I found your “Eternal Light” so moving, along with the image of your elderly mother lighting the candles with you as her witness.
Aylon: Yes, she was the doer, and I was the one to witness. Actually, every church and synagogue has what they call an eternal light, a light somewhere that flickers. That’s one object churches and synagogues really do have in common.
But that omission in the Old Testament of the women’s role—of “keepers of the flame,” as you put it—only amplified the betrayal I felt that patriarchal projections were spoken in the name of God throughout the five Books of Moses. Indeed, I do feel these are the books of Moses, literally. For twenty years I highlighted in pink the parts in the Old Testament that I perceived as patriarchal, misogynistic, and militaristic. I sum up the nineteen years of my highlighting as The G-d Project: Nine Houses Without Women.
Rail: This was part of the twenty year “Liberation of G-d” project?
Aylon: Yes, “The Liberation of G-d” was the first of the Nine Houses. It was the Beit Midrash, the House of Commentary within the “G-d Project.” The little pink dash sums up all those twenty years. We were always taught to use the dash, so as not to use the name in vain. The Feminist Press even printed the color pink when the word G-d was used with the dash throughout the book. And whenever G-d is mentioned that’s the only color, there’s a pink dash.
Rail: And your eternal flame is like the pink dash?
Aylon: My eternal light, yes: it’s a pink neon dash.
Rail: Linda Montano and I were having a conversation about your work recently. I remember the period of the ’70s and the feminist journal Heresies. Women around that journal were reading books like Merlin Stone’s When God Was a Woman, and Marija Gimbutas—there were many books on Goddess worship. I always felt that your work was in a class by itself; you weren’t a Goddess worshipper per say, you were engaged in a theological inquiry where you wanted to redeem what men (or women) had projected onto God. God was freed to remain an infinite mystery.
Aylon: I felt that the matriarchy was not a substitute for the patriarchy, I felt that it should not be anything, neither a patriarchy nor a matriarchy. Right now, in Brandeis where I’m going to be showing, I’m dealing with this one sentence—there in the second commandment of the sacred Ten Commandments—about transferring “the sins of the fathers onto the children up to the third and fourth generation.” And I made a sculptural six-foot metal image of the tablet icon. It resembles a drawing in space and there are no words engraved in stone. I call it The Air Commandments because just the sight of that—there’s something spiritual about the shape of the tablets, they need not be filled in. God is like air and air makes us breathe. We breathe it in, we breathe it out, and that’s enough. Again, the invisible is stronger than the visible words, especially the patriarchal words attributed to God.
Rail: It’s sad, many people have decided to be secular, or atheist, simply because they are turned off by those Old Testament projections on God, the ones that scared us all to death as children. For me, your work is a lot more interesting because it suggests that we can remove what has been projected onto this image of God. God isn’t the problem, it’s what has been projected onto this Imago Dei for centuries. You are the only artist I know of who tackles this problem. Your Air Commandments are about the importance of the unseen.
Aylon: Well actually, what is left out is the only thing that keeps me looking at the Bible. Just to keep searching for what is left out. Everything else that is in there is problematic because it represents a man-made patriarchy. I always said that the forefathers perhaps sought something spiritual but found themselves instead.
Rail: What you just said is memorable.
Aylon: So, I look at the Torah just to see what was left out. That’s what intrigues me. In fact, there are prayers that are anonymous too. There’s a prayer for looking at a rainbow and I couldn’t imagine that that prayer was made by one of the sages. I felt that perhaps it was a woman who made that prayer, by telling her child, “Look at that rainbow. Let’s say a prayer.”
Rail: And it’s not in the Torah—it’s in the Zohar?
Aylon: It’s not in the Zohar, I’ll try to think. Maybe it’s in the Apocrypha.
Rail: I didn’t realize Jews also read the Apocrypha.
Aylon: We do have that.
Rail: Protestant bibles omit it, but Catholic bibles have the Apocrypha. I always loved the Apocrypha because of all these racy stories, like “Susanna and the Elders.” I thought, at least we can get something juicy. [Laughter.] There’s that Rembrandt painting of Susanna and the Elders (1647)—old geezers lusting after a young girl.
Aylon: You know, I didn’t tell you this, but I did a whole bunch of work I call “Headboards” (2008) on just what the Talmudists say. It’s very hilarious, actually. They want to advise women about sexual conduct.
Rail: Now that must be interesting.
Aylon: It was very interesting. [Laughter.] For instance, they talk about frequency of sexual relations. It’s all based on the occupation of the husband, like if you’re a camel driver it’s every six months. Of course if you’re a Talmud scholar it could be every Friday night. [Laughter.] They’re very humorous to me. Men have looked at women and discussed their bodies from all the way back.
Rail: I wouldn’t say your work is heretical, exactly—it’s something else. When I think of the Torah I think of the sacred scroll that’s passed around and enshrined in opulent jackets and capped with crowns. It is a given, residing in the holy of holies. When you work with the Torah in works such as My Wailing Wall or The Book That Will Not Close you very carefully put vellum over the pages, so you’re not marking up the Torah. You have tremendous respect for it, but also a way of looking at the Torah with new eyes.
Aylon: I don’t say why I highlight it; it’s up to the reader to figure it out. I’m sure they would feel the same way if they have any feminist consciousness.
Rail: Or even a humanist consciousness at times.
Rail: Bertrand Russell wrote this hilarious book called Why I Am Not a Christian, where he takes the Old Testament and says, “Who would want to believe in this document with words like ‘smite,’ ‘slay,’ and all those horrible stories of God’s vengeance?”
Aylon: If someone said that my father had said some of those words—for example: “Two men lying together shall be killed”—I would reply that my father would never say that. So why do all those who read the Bible allow the father in heaven to state this drastic homophobia? In other words, this has to be a misquote. That’s why I am protecting G-d, I am on G-d’s side. Others just accept it, they swallow it.
Rail: I remember seeing the video Written Behind My Back (2014), which was shown in the 2015 Jerusalem Biennale. You have the problematic words in both Hebrew and English projected onto your back.
Aylon: I wrote in script over the words from the Book of Deuteronomy: “Once I was your Sabbath bride.” I felt a betrayal, not about God, but because, as far as I’m concerned, God was made up by the patriarchy. It’s a betrayal by these men who have spoiled and impeded my spirituality. All these supposedly holy books impede spirituality.
Rail: I think you’re right in some ways, although there are profound treasures to be found there, like the Psalms and the Gospels.
Aylon: It’s not everything, but it’s the pink-highlighted words, and I kept finding them. Every time it states, “And God said to Moses,” I even highlighted that phrase because I question whether G-d ever spoke directly to Moses.
Rail: Moses is such a towering, punitive figure, throwing down the tablets; when I think of Moses I think of that monumental Michelangelo statue of Moses in Rome.
Aylon: He needed anger management because he just threw down the tablets when he was angry about the Golden Calf.
Rail: So many people now, in terms of religion, see it as all or nothing. I know many Jewish artists who will say something like, “My great-great-grandfather in Lithuania was a rabbi, but of course I’m an atheist.” The same holds true of many Catholics. They seem almost embarrassed by their religious legacy. I think what fascinates me about your work is you mine your legacy and instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, you keep the baby and change the bathwater.
Aylon: And, I look for the baby’s mother and sisters.
Rail: It’s a revisionist impulse without discarding some of the most wonderful sacred parts.
Aylon: In Judaism there’s this imperative: tikkun olam, which means “repair the world.” I’m starting with the basic, the very first word that was in the Old Testament, the creation story: “Thou shalt have dominion.” That was the first word that I highlighted, the word dominion.
Rail: It seems like that one word in our creation myth, dominion, has screwed us up totally as we face ecological disaster.
Aylon: Who stated that word, dominion? G-d? I don’t think so.
Rail: Still, I see your work as Biblical. For example, you ventured out into the wilderness collecting soil for your Wrestlers (1980, 2005)—Christ went into the desert for forty days, the Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years, Saint Mary of Egypt went into the desert for forty years. The wilderness was a place of revelation through solitude. I love the desert photos where you’re wearing robes like a biblical prophet and wrestling with the angel like Jacob—except you’re doing this as an art form, and you’re doing this as a woman.
Aylon: They called the spot where Jacob wrestled with God, Beth-el, “the House of God.” And I felt that’s not the house of G-d if it’s also the place where Lot’s wife turned around and was punished by being turned into a pillar of salt. She is the first battered woman. But, as you point out, the idea of a voyage, a pilgrimage, has seeped into my consciousness somehow. Even the “Earth Ambulance,” going on this voyage just to look at the earth and “rescue” the earth before it gets contaminated. It was a voyage driving it to the U.N., for the mass rally for nuclear disarmament in 1982. The U.N. was the promised land to go to at that time.
Rail: Dr. Helen Caldicott has been writing on Fukushima. It seems like this idea of tikkun, of healing, started with your “Earth Ambulance,” and now it’s gone into scripture. What is the Jewish reaction to your work on scriptures? There must be some conservative Jews who see what you do with the Torah and go into a faint.
Aylon: Yes, it would be considered blasphemous, because you’re not allowed to change anything in the Torah. Actually, I’m not changing anything, I’m highlighting the words for others to look at and think what to do about them. I do think it should be changed, but all I can do as an artist is highlight it. I just can’t imagine that a sixteen-year-old goes to a synagogue and is told that two men lying together shall be killed, and he’s a gay boy. I can’t imagine that we’re holding on to this. And I feel that someone like me, who is passionate about Judaism, should point it out—because I’m an artist, so I’m not too threatening. All I do is take my marker, I don’t belong to any organization.
Rail: So much of your work is about the fact that women in Judaism have had no voice. This is true in Catholicism, and Orthodox Christianity as well. Women have not had input in Vatican counsels, are relegated to the bus, literally. Radical feminist scholars like Mary Daly broke from the ranks; however vocally angry they may have been, they have not impacted doctrine.
Aylon: And that’s why there’s Nine Houses Without Women. The first house was for “The Liberation of G-d,” and that’s the house of discourse. The next one was “The Women’s Section.” In the back of the synagogues, where the women sat by themselves, my grandmother always sat at this table, away from the men. In my proclamation, I ask my two pious grandmothers, if they knew what I’m doing now, would they have said in Yiddish, “hindele” (“you must not do that”)—or would they have said “Thank God, it’s about time”?
Rail: In a funny way, I think they might have said the latter. They probably couldn’t say it aloud. There’s a very sweet picture of you when you’re doing your sand project. You’re sitting on the beach with your mother and she says she hates sand; she’s wearing a little suit and she’s gazing at you quizzically—yet with such love and such acceptance.
Aylon: She’s trying to figure me out, this daughter of hers!
Rail: But there’s so much love in her eyes. It’s a wonderful photograph, so touching.
Aylon: Yes, I did schlep her there to the beach to one of the sand gatherings, when I did my sand work in 1981.
Rail: I’m thinking of the legacy of our foremothers. I think of my aunt Rita, whose mother died in childbirth with her eleventh child, rearing all her brothers and sisters. Rita was a daily communicant and, like your mother, a godly woman. She also taught school and was the matriarch to forty-three nieces and nephews, and worked for Tom Harkin, the liberal senator. I wonder sometimes if women like your mother, your grandmother, and my aunt Rita, who had these committed, daily devotional practices, had something that many of us are missing today. In your book you say something like, “For my mother, who took a straight line while I walked in circles.”
Aylon: That’s right. My mother always said to me, “Helène, belong, you’ll be happier.” I don’t know. I had to be an artist. Perhaps we all have our own mission in life and that’s how it is. We can be inspired by these women, and yet not be like them in the same way, but extend it in a different way—like cleaning up the earth. When I went to Israel and I saw the stones of the Intifada as teenage boys were throwing stones, I said to the Arab and Jewish women, “Let us just clean up after the boys.” This is what women do, they clean things up.
Rail: Like the Arab and Israeli women marching recently together against militarism, it is women who will find the solution.
Aylon: It becomes different, it becomes transformed.
Rail: Into another dimension.
Aylon: And I don’t quite know what that’s going to be. Right now, with this installation regarding the Second Commandment, I appreciate the shape itself of the tablet. For me, it’s enough. In fact, better to have The Air Commandments than to have the Second Commandment words: “I am a jealous G-d, I transfer the sins of the Fathers on to the children to the third and fourth generation.”
Rail: Such a horrific commandment.
Aylon: And it’s hidden inside the Second Commandment, so that’s why I’m showing it at Brandeis. I think everybody—Christians and Jews—reveres the Ten Commandments the way they revere the Statue of Liberty, or the Declaration of Independence. But we glide over those terrible words within the Second Commandment; we just shrug them off. I deleted all the words, because once the words are tainted in one commandment, I could not accept the other words as words of this same God. But the idea of the tablets as a guide to live. By persisting. I still sense the aura of that shape.
Rail: I disliked the idea of children bearing the weight of their parent’s sins. I loved the gesture with the pink ink and the brushing away of the letters, freeing the children from this harsh commandment. There’s a tenderness about it: a tender reflective quality.
Aylon: That is a sweet interpretation. For me, what I meant with the Vanishing Pink is that no matter how much I highlight and highlight, nothing changes. It all vanishes. When will something change? Because I do want to correct it, but who am I to correct something from 5000 years ago?
Rail: But what you’re doing seems so egoless in a way, because you’re not correcting it, you’re saying, “Look at it.” You’re not making a big ego pronouncement or a theological statement. You’re saying, “Just look.”
Aylon: Yes, just look and be mindful of this. Don’t shrug it off. I don’t want to throw it down the way Moses got angry and threw down the tablets. I don’t want to throw anything down, I don’t want to destroy anything. I just want to say, “Look at this.”
When I was going around the country for “The Liberation of G-d,” the curator in San Francisco suggested a Talmudic debate, which became a tradition with all my G-d voyages: I took on an Orthodox, a Conservative, a Reform, and a Reconstructionist rabbi. The curator called it “Four Rabbis and an Artist: A Talmudic Debate.” [Laughter.]
Rail: A woman artist in the lion’s den?
Aylon: Exactly. [Laughter.]
Rail: That takes chutzpah.
Aylon: And the rabbis, even the understanding ones, relegated it to a feminist midrash. So, it was still relegated, it wasn’t taken seriously.
Rail: It was marginalized.
Aylon: It was like “that’s her point of view and I can understand it—there it is, but nothing’s happening.” And that’s why I did the Vanishing Pink. It shows that I’m doing it: pinking over certain words, and then they vanish. The other piece I’m doing at Brandeis is Wipe, and all it is is me wiping the tears of the born and unborn children who are unlucky, whose fathers have sinned, so the punishment goes on to them. And I am crying for these children, and I can’t cry enough, because it’s so sad. And so, I’m wiping and wiping and wiping my tears. If I have sinned, it’s my sin; and if somebody else sins, it’s their sin; and if it’s their father’s sin, it’s his sin. It has nothing to do with children born and yet to be born. For twenty years I have been engrossed with the belittling of women, and the absence of women, and the dismissal of women. This is a postscript to The G-d Project and Nine Houses Without Women. I’m doing this one sentence for the children. It’s a kind of P.S. to the children, to our future.
I disliked the idea of children bearing the weight of their parent’s sins. I loved the gesture with the pink ink and the brushing away of the letters, freeing the children from this harsh commandment.
ANN MCCOY is an artist, writer, and Editor at Large for the Brooklyn Rail. She teaches in the Yale School of Drama, graduate design, and was given a Guggenheim Foundation award in 2019.