Off to the side of a video in David Hartt’s site-specific The Histories (Le Mancenillier) for Frank Lloyd Wright’s Beth Sholom Synagogue outside of Philadelphia, papaya leaves nod in the breeze and burn white with sunlight, catching the curving shadows of nearby foliage. Then the light shifts and the moment’s over, as transitory as the bee pausing on a spear thistle in one scene or the pond algae floating south in another. These images of Haiti and New Orleans pass by like days before your eyes, but instead of the usual babbling nature sounds, Jewish-Creole composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s piano ballads resonate faintly from another room as the video’s green reflects onto the synagogue’s umber linoleum. Hartt works in precise description to place you in multiple locations at once; at Beth Sholom, he uses video, sound, tapestries, and flora in the synagogue’s lounges, foyers, and main sanctuary to encourage curious reflection on why people move and settle. How does a place become home, and what are the mundane details of it we synthesize in making culture?
On ViewBeth Sholom Synagogue
September 11 – December 19, 2019
Elkins Park, PA
Curated by Cole Akers, The Histories borrows its title from Herodotus’ record of traditions, empires, and everyday life during the 5th century BC. Hartt’s work has a smaller, similar goal: to understand Beth Sholom Congregation’s relocation out of north Philadelphia’s Logan neighborhood into the suburb of Elkins Park in the 1950s, and the subsequent arrival in Logan of an African-American community, members of which established the Beloved St. John Evangelistic Church in the former synagogue.
Hartt doesn’t use the term “white flight,” avoiding the notion that diaspora is a straightforward process of cause and effect. Identity within a community is much more porous, shaped sometimes by projection and other times by chance; it’s fitting then, that The Histories is not a didactic experience, but almost one of osmosis. Moving through the building, sitting and taking in the variety of all the work’s media, you’re suddenly hit with a pang of love, a sense of place—the inexplicable kind you have for an ocean view or brand new city, just as you’re about to leave it.
The Beth Sholom synagogue was commissioned in 1953 by Rabbi Mortimer J. Cohen, who believed only Wright could translate the Jewish-American values of democracy, education, and humility into architectural idioms. And Wright did—the synagogue is one of his best and last buildings, replete with a pyramidal 110-foot roof, corrugated fiberglass panels, and sloping carpet that guides you to your seat. But if Wright wanted to astonish, to compress and release with his stairs that deliver you into the sunlit sanctuary, Hartt is content with having his work fade in and coexist with the building.
Barely noticeable, until you see the Spanish moss tumbling out of the synagogue’s planters, Hartt has replaced all the previously installed fake flowers with flora native to the Caribbean. Dozens of orchids still in their throwaway pots mark aisles and climb steps, culminating in three industrial planting beds that match the frames of and rise above the sanctuary’s pleather-metal seats. Ranging from a milky white to a charged fuchsia, the orchids arch over onto seatbacks, some petals beginning to wither and litter onto the floor. It seems Hartt’s just done a punctuated landscaping job here, until you hear a steady pitter-pattering rhythm. The orchids are raincatchers. I visited The Histories on a particularly rainy day, and because of the sloped floor, water pooled to a side of each orchid’s saucer, sometimes sprouting bubbles like the stagnant marsh water in the videos. Orchids are unconventional in how their roots attach non-parasitically to existing trees or plants to grow—Hartt’s implementation of a thing that lives then dies into Beth Sholom’s architecture to fix and enhance it can be seen as a symbol for diaspora and the cumulative languages, customs, and works of art made by people cycling through a place.
This idea continues in full force in Gottschalk’s music, performed by Ethiopian pianist Girma Yifrashewa and played back on four speakers and a subwoofer at the edges of the sanctuary. That Hartt worked with audio engineer Eugene Lew to record the music with five microphones in and around the piano is important, as important as his decision to show the videos on 96-inch diagonal 4K monitors, and to have the tapestries woven with a mix of wool, silk, cotton, and flame-retardant polyester. Hartt is one of the most particular artists I know, and here his attention to the recording and playback fills the sanctuary with a playful then plangent mood. Moments of solemn waltz are chased by scurrying, turbulent fingerwork; you can tell the left hand bassline is full of robust jumps trying to bridge the right hand’s syncopated melody. It’s ragtime meets Rachmaninoff, though Gottschalk melded his classical Paris training with Afro-Caribbean riffs way before. Split between speakers, the high notes fall on the south and low notes on the north end of the synagogue; when you’re walking through and it all crystallizes, it’s an incredible moment, as if you’re in the piano itself.
At the back entrance of the synagogue is an accompanying video of related tropical scenes, except Hartt shot this one with a confetti filter and drones. Sunlight sparks out in mid-air as the video jerks around, flipping upside-down and toggling between the outdoors and a close-up, motion control pan of orchids in Hartt’s studio. Shafts of pixelated light fold down the screen like blurred tail lights through a frosted window. Both tapestries are sourced from video stills, pixels translated by Flanders Tapestries into a topography of threads. Hartt specified the layers of color and material as they were stitched, but the best parts are where the machine failed—the gradient around a lens flare rendered as single red threads scattered among shades of green, and partly shrouded branches as shallow, negative space. Hartt understands that every successive attempt at the perfect depiction of a site will have its discrepancies (a video or tapestry will never be the real thing) but carries on resolutely, pinpointing the searing feeling of wanting to take a picture of something so you don’t forget it.
At first it can seem that nothing really happens in The Histories, but that is because Hartt is not an artist in the business of striking the reference on the head or of making exhibitions that you visit, press release in one hand, checklist in the other. The Histories doesn’t feature masses of migrating people, because that’s not what diaspora is. Stay unconcerned with meaning and just watch, listen. Soon, you’ll realize Hartt’s care in description, which is in the same vein as Caspar David Friedrich or Robert Adams—he’s revealing subtly the particular drama in the human traces and aspirations of an environment lived, and sometimes left behind.