on the scented trail of tradition

Lauren Berkovitch: Salt and Honey / Chris Barry: Atonement
The Jewish Museum, Melbourne
August - September 2002

It was Proust, with his use of the madeleine motif, who initially drew attention to the role of the senses as triggers of memory. More recently, cultural theorist Dipesh Chakrabarty has questioned the adequacy of a purely ideological approach to modern identity construction. He finds many of the proponents of the theory of 'the invention of tradition' guilty of concentrating exclusively on the ideas propagated by modern nation states, thereby ignoring the importance of sensory training in the imparting of tradition:

No 'invention of tradition' is effective without a simultaneous invocation of affect, of sentiments, emotions, and other embodied practices… Practices of subjectivity are embodied, our senses are culturally trained-smelling, tasting, touching, seeing and hearing. Ideas alone cannot provide a genealogy of tradition. Ideas acquire materiality through the history of bodily practices. They work not simply because they persuade through their logic; they are also capable, through a long and heterogeneous training of the senses, of making connections with our glands and muscles and neuronal networks. This is the work of memory... The past is embodied through a long process oftraining the senses...'1

It is because our feelings are constructed from sensual memories, not only ideas, that we can continue to respond emotionally to nationalistic songs and flags, to religious hymns and icons and to the aromas of festival fare, even though we may have rejected nationalism and religion intellectually.

Though employing different media, both of the exhibitions that were staged simultaneously in adjacent spaces at the Jewish Museum in Melbourne through August and September 2002 shared a focus on memory and highlighted the central rqle of the senses in the construction of subjectivity and identity.

Lauren Berkovitch's installation, Salt and Honey, illustrated the central role of sensory experience in the imparting of Jewish tradition. However skeptical and/or critical modern Jews may be of religious orthodoxy and/or Israeli nationalism, they tend to respond nostalgically or sentimentally to the sounds of Yiddish folksongs and Hebrew religious melodies; to the taste and smell of traditional Sabbath and festival foods; to the joyful rhythms of wedding dances and the mournful strains of memorial prayers. In her installation, Berkovitch focuses on the significance of food and fluids in Jewish tradition.

On entering the space of Berkovitch's installation on opening night, visitors were overpowered by the scent of fresh spices. This exhibition was an olfactory experience, not just a visual one, a feast for the nostrils as much as a feast for the eyes. The visual display was in fact minimalist. In the darkened room, two overhead spotlights shone onto two large round glass platters, covered in gleaming white salt crystals. On this carpet of salt Berkovitch had placed a number of glass trays containing glasses of wine and oil and piles of dried fruit, herbs and spices.

The abstract patterning of the arrangement and the whiteness of light and salt suggested formality, purity and austerity. The white light can be read symbolically as 'the Light', (that is, divinely inspired knowledge) but also analogically, as the actual lighting over the ritual dining table; the white salt, similarly, can refer analogically to the white table-cloths used for Sabbath and holy days, symbolically to toil and tears, but literally also to the staple flavour and preservative of meat, fish and vegetables. Honey and oil function likewise literally as ritual elements and cooking ingredients, and symbolically as sweetness and light. Accompanying annotations linked the contents of the trays to the specific culinary traditions and religious rites of the weekly Jewish Sabbath and the annual Festivals.

Chris Barry's exhibition, in the adjacent space, consisted of three walls of largely black and white photographs shot in Poland in 1992 but re-printed and re-arranged ten years later. Two of the walls were covered in images of street scenes and landscapes, interspersed with portraits of family members. The third wall was covered in images shot in the old Jewish cemetery of Lodz. The exhibition as a whole conjured up an autumnal experience of Poland: warm hazy days; carpets of golden autumn leaves; the scent of hay and daisies and the squawks of geese in the countryside; the textures of peeling walls and cobble-stoned streets; the urban smell of dust and decay. Barry's angular country cousins, singleted and silent, and their blond children, hair streaked with hay and daisies, inhabit this autumnal memory of her visit to Poland. But the wall frieze of the Jewish cemetery is especially poignant. Its old stone gates and tombstones, decaying and neglected, are covered in a carpet of autumn leaves, the soft focus suggesting a tender and nostalgic veil of tears...

Barry called her exhibition 'Atonement'. Berkovitch, in Salt and Honey, represents the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), the annual day of fasting and penitence, with empty dishes, with the absence of food and drink. Barry, as an Australian artist of Polish Catholic roots exhibiting in an Australian Jewish museum, performs her atonement by insisting on visiting the cemetery of the dead Jewish community of Lodz, recording its dereliction-and their absence. It is an elegy for the lost community. But Barry, as a sensitive second-generation Australian-Pole, continues to respond nostalgically to the sensual beauty of Poland-to its golden autumn, its dry warmth, its flower and hay-scented countryside, its old stone buildings and cobble-stoned streets, its hidden sorrows and absences...

notes: 

1. Dipesh Chakrabarty, 'Afterword ', in Stephen Vlastos (ed), Mirror of Modernity: Invented Traditions of Modern Japan, University of California Press 1998, pp.294-5.