At 86 years old, multimedia and feminist artist Helène Aylon says her work has experienced three phases: In the 1970s, Aylon was a process artist focusing on work relating to the body, rescuing its image from demeaning representations and patriarchal attitudes. In the 1980s, she expressed her antinuclear stance and determination to save the earth from annihilation by loading up ambulances with what she called “earth sacs,” pillowcases filled with dirt, rocks and seeds. Since the 1990s, Aylon has been working on “The G-d Project: Nine Houses Without Women,” an extended meditation on God, the patriarchy and feminism.
Her latest piece, “Afterword: For the Children,” is the coda to “The G-d Project.” It will be exhibited at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute from March 20 to June 16, and travel to the Jerusalem Biennale in October.
Over the phone, Aylon told JewishBoston that, as a child, she constantly drew to please her mother, but always had an affinity for art and a passion for Judaism. Brought up as an Orthodox Jew in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn, Aylon married a rabbi when she was 18 years old; at age 30, she was widowed, and subsequently left orthodoxy. She began her feminist and artistic journey taking art classes at Brooklyn College with abstract artist Ad Reinhardt. When asked when she began to consider herself an artist, Aylon said, “We women do not jump to conclusions about something as important as declaring oneself an artist; but if we don’t do it, no one does it for us.”
While the focus of “The G-d Project” has been on places traditionally hostile or forbidden to women in the ultra-Orthodox world, “Afterword” is a digital presentation of the Torah, which says future generations will be responsible for the sins of their fathers. This biblical injunction rattled Aylon, who asserted: “I don’t think God said that or intended that. It’s a misquote. Maybe I’m being blasphemous but by being blasphemous, I’m holding on to the Torah. If I wasn’t blasphemous, I couldn’t pray to the God of the Torah.” “The G-d Project” is a series rescuing God from these patriarchal projections. Every dash Aylon uses in each work is pink, a reflection of her iconoclasm and feminism.
The first work in “The G-d Project” was “The Liberation of G-d,” an installation where the Five Books of Moses, in both English and Hebrew, sat on velvet upholstered stands with translucent pieces of parchment covering each page. On an adjacent glass wall, Aylon displayed 54 sections of the Torah and used a pink highlighter to underscore phrases she believed conveyed patriarchal attitudes. In her memoir, “Whatever Is Contained Must Be Released: My Jewish Orthodox Girlhood, My Life as a Feminist Artist,” Aylon declared: “I begin the Liberation of G-d searching in the Five Books of Moses for the sections where G-d has been spoken for. I look into the passages where patriarchal attitudes have been projected onto G-d as though man has the right to have dominion even over G-d.”
The second piece, “The Women’s Section,” is dedicated to agunot—women who are chained to their marriage because their husband will not grant them a religious divorce. In this installation, Aylon included passages from the Torah that describe women as “impure” or “virgins.” She noted: “I placed my grandparents’ photographs on a long table. That long table stands in for the same table in the back of my grandmother’s synagogue where she would have to go to pray.”
“My Notebooks,” the third work, was completed in 1998. In it, 54 blank notebooks, some closed and some open, were arranged in columns. The closed notebooks had dark covers, and the open notebooks were covered in white. Across this display, Aylon projected photographs from the Jewish girls’ school she attended. In a powerful statement on the silencing of women’s voices in Jewish history, she dedicated the work to “Mrs. Rashi” and “Mrs. Maimonides,” “for surely they had something to say.”
Installments four through eight—Epilogue: Alone With My Mother; My Bridal Chamber: My Marriage Contract; My Bridal Chamber: My Marriage Bed/My Clean Days; The Partition Is in Place, But the Service Can’t Begin; and Wrestlers—debuted throughout 1998-2005.
In 2007, Aylon created “Finale: All Rise,” which conceptualized a judiciary of women who had previously been forbidden to become judges in a beit din (Jewish court). The piece comprised three chairs on a wooden platform; tzitzit (the ritual fringes of a prayer shawl) hung from each. Above them and on either side were two pink pillowcases and three signs emblazoned with “In G-d We Trust.” Those hyphens, true to form, were pink. As she professed in her memoir: “I came to realize the Five Books of Moses were the Five Books of Moses…. Then I was obliged to desist no longer, but to let it be known that the Liberation of G-d is the task that is long overdue.”
“The G-d Project,” with its emphasis on women missing in Jewish ritual, concludes with the forward-looking view presented in “Afterword: For the Children.” In the final piece of the series, Aylon dedicates the 10 Commandments to future generations.
Aylon revealed her next project will focus on civilization. “It’s going to be about building a wall to the heavens, like in the biblical story of Babel,” she said. “It will be about searching and all these people who were punished by getting different languages so they couldn’t understand each other.”
In the meantime, Aylon said her version of a ner tamid—the eternal light that burns, day and night, over the ark in synagogues—shows her symbolic pink neon dash emanating its light in a white box. This “one little pink dash,” said Aylon, “sums up the last 20 years.”
Helène Aylon will discuss “Afterword: For the Children” at a reception in the Kniznick Gallery of the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University on Tuesday, March 21. For more information, click here.