The launching point for the “Do Not Destroy: Trees, Art and Jewish Thought” exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum is a commandment from the Old Testament: “When thou shalt besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, thou shalt not destroy the trees thereof by wielding an axe against them; for thou mayest eat of them, but thou shalt not cut them down.”
Although these words were written thousands of years ago, they translate as particularly relevant in an environmentally conscious city like San Francisco and take on new importance when interpreted by contemporary artists. Merging the traditional with the modern, the exhibit draws from today’s sustainability movement and human connections to trees and to nature.
At the exhibit’s entrance, a miniature forest occupies a round space on the floor. “Blackfield” by Zadok Ben-David consists of three-inch-tall, stainless steel plants painted in jewel tones on one side and black on the other. When viewed from the front, the darkness of the never-ending field is eerie and off-putting, but when viewed from a new perspective, the vivid colors create a miniature wonderland. His work upholds the Jewish tenet to respect nature, but with a fresh and modern approach.
Ben-David is one of the 20 international artists invited to contribute to “Do Not Destroy.” Working in all types of media, the artists explored the significance of trees through distinct artistic lenses. Nguyen-Hatsushiba’s video “The Ground, the Root and the Air: The Passing of the Bodhi Tree” shows students painting Bodhi trees while traveling by boat down a river in Vietnam. Using highly conceptual cinematography, the video emphasizes the universal holiness of trees.
Yuken Teruya takes the tree’s universal sanctity and transplants it into a childhood memory. In her work, “The Giving Tree Project,” Yuken Teruya has cut out delicate pop-out trees from the pages of Shel Silverstein’s classic children’s story, turning it into a work of art to be displayed in a museum gallery.
In the next portion of the exhibit, the museum asked over 50 contemporary artists from around the country to create works inspired by Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish New Year for the Trees. The tree’s image — its grace, strength and symbolic complexity — provided inspiration for all of these artists.
In the spirit of environmental sustainability, Tucker Nichols took broken-down furniture from the museum and recycled it into a towering stack of geometric, brightly colored blocks. His linear sculpture contrasts with many of the other works, which are created from wood and other natural materials. Several pieces of furniture are displayed in the center space along with sculptures of trees composed of wood.
Using trees and nature objects as both material and subject, the artists accentuate their respect for nature. Paul Kos conveys his personal identification with the landscape in “Sierra Nevada Crest,” a piece of a red fir stump with jagged mountains carved into the wood. A light shines onto the sculpture, illuminating the peaks from the front and casting a shadow on the wall behind.
Although the ties to Jewish philosophy are powerful throughout, the exhibit’s primary message draws on the universality of trees, their societal importance and aesthetic appeal. All depicting the same loaded subject, the artists each bestow their own significance to the tree. The incredibly diverse artworks collectively convey a conception of a tree that should never be destroyed.
Anna Carey is the lead visual art critic.