Do Not Destroy: Trees, Art, and Jewish Thought

Contemporary Jewish Museum (San Francisco)

February 16 - May 28 extended through September 9 , 2012

  • Featuring Denver based sculptor Yoshitomo Saito

Yoshitomo Saito - "Aspen Roots for Tu B'Shevat", 2011 bronze, 10.5x16x13 inches
Photo credit: David Menard

(from the press release)

Do Not Destroy: Trees, Art, and Jewish Thought is an exciting opportunity to explore the subject of the tree in Jewish tradition through the lens of contemporary artists who enable us to see the world in new ways and to encourage us to find fresh meaning in tradition. The tree is a universally potent symbol with particular significance in Judaism, especially now as global environmental concerns have begun to impact contemporary Jewish practice.

The title of the exhibition Do Not Destroy (Bal Tashchit in Hebrew), is taken from a commandment in the Torah (Deuteronomy 20:19) that forbids the wanton destruction of trees during wartime. During the rabbinical period, this concept was broadened to encompass humanity’s responsibility to shield all of nature from unnecessary harm. This ancient evidence of environmental protection, along with the rise of a distinctly Jewish environmental movement, inspired the CJM to explore a parallel initiative within contemporary art practice. By creating works of art with the tree as a central motif, artists reference the real world while envisioning an alternative.

Do Not Destroy: Trees, Art, and Jewish Thought is a two-part exhibition. The first is the continuation of a long-running series at the Contemporary Jewish Museum—the Dorothy Saxe Invitational—in which artists from diverse backgrounds and working in a range of medium are invited to explore a Jewish ritual object. Over 50 contemporary artists from across the United States were invited to create new works of art from reclaimed wood and in response to themes inspired by the holiday of Tu B’Shevat. A minor Jewish holiday that celebrates the New Year of the tree is full of inspiration for artists. In fact, it is a holiday ripe with twenty-first century relevance, mystical curiosities, and ancient symbolism—including an all-vegan feast with four cups of wine progressing from white to red, with shades of pink in between. The invited artists have responded by creating an extraordinary variety of objects in a range of media including sculpture, installation, video, drawing, and painting.

For the exhibition, each participating artist was asked to incorporate reclaimed wood into their work in some way. San Francisco designer Yves Behar fashioned the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, Aleph, from a piece of bay laurel driftwood found on the beach at Bolinas. Behar’s piece is meant to suggest a reordering of our priorities. “Our awareness of nature needs to be first, like the first letter Aleph,” says Behar.

Colorado sculptor Yoshitomo Saito used a found aspen root as the basis for a work in bronze. Saito discovered that this iconic Colorado tree spreads through a root system that supports a colony of trees. While an individual tree may only live for 40-150 years above ground, the root system can survive for thousands of years. Says Saito, “The aspen root … represents not only the foundation of life but also means of survival and thriving of community.”

Do Not Destroy also probes the role of the tree in contemporary art more broadly by presenting a selection of works by an international roster of artists for whom the tree has served as the subject of a discrete project like Rodney Graham, Charles Labelle , Yoko Ono, and Yuken Teruya, or ongoing investigation like Gabriela Albergaria, Zadok Ben David, April Gornik, Roxy Paine, and Rona Pondick. Through their works, we are permitted entry into their makers’ visions of an idealized world—one of enchanted forests and whimsy where the natural beauty of the tree is evaluated, deconstructed, and monumentalized. Other artists posit trees as storytellers, keepers of secrets, witnesses of history, and proof of the impact of human behavior on the environment.

Taken together, both components of the exhibition offer an opportunity to commune with trees through video, photography, sculpture, and painting—to be awed by their scale, longevity, transformative powers, and their ability to encourage deeper thinking about history, the environment, and our place in the world. Through these works, we align ourselves with the ancient dictum of Do Not Destroy, a commandment to not only protect trees but to dream of a better world.

Participating artists and designers include Gale Antokal, Tor Archer, Helène Aylon, John Bankston, Bennett Bean, Garry Knox Bennett, Terry Berlier, Harriete Estel Berman, Johanna Bresnick + Michael Cloud Hirschfeld, Jeff Canham, Topher Delaney, Kiki Probst & Joel Cammarata of SEAM Studio, Richard Deutsch, Paul Discoe, Josh Duthie, Lauren Elder, David Ellsworth, Tamar Ettun, James Gouldthorpe, Beth Grossman, Grace Hawthorne, Tobi Kahn, Lisa Kokin, Paul Kos, Naomie Kremer, Daniel Libeskind, Deborah Lozier, Ron Lutsko, Liz Mamorsky, Jane Martin, Matthew McCaslin, Tucker Nichols, Josh Owen, Lucy Puls, Amy Klein Reichert, Galya Rosenfeld, Elliot Ross, Ellen Rothenberg, Kay Sekimachi, Nancy Selvin, Cass Calder Smith, Harley Swedler, David Tomb, Merav Tzur, Ursula von Rydingsvard, Lawrence Weiner, Allan Wexler, and David Wiseman.

Contemporary Jewish Museum
736 Mission Street (btwn. 3rd and 4th Streets)
San Francisco, CA 94103
Hours: Daily 11 AM–5 PM, Thursdays 1–8 PM, Closed Wednesdays


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