As the president of Lincoln Center, Reynold Levy is a busy man. But when an old friend, the artist Tobi Kahn, forced a small, white wooded block into his hands and urged him to use it to reflect on 9/11, he complied. And he was glad he did.
At the time of the attacks on the World Trade Center towers, Levy was head of the International Rescue Committee, and working with the block prompted him to remember how quickly his colleagues around the world e-mailed that day to let them know of their concern. Their warmth was especially touching, Levy said, given the challenges of their own work helping refugees fleeing every kind of disaster, natural and manmade.
“His request jogged a memory,” Levy said. “It was a sort of catalytic experience that helped alter my view of the world and allowed for a glimmer of light in an otherwise very tragic and scary situation.”
Today, Levy’s block sits surrounded by 219 others in “Embodied Light: 9-11 in 2011,” an installation Kahn created at the Educational Alliance, a community center on the Lower East Side. Visitors to the exhibit, which will run from Sept. 9 through Nov. 23, can examine and rearrange the blocks and in the process, Kahn hopes, engage helpfully with their own experiences and memories as Levy did.
“The piece is really a meditative space,” said Kahn, gazing around the room, purposely painted a soothing shade of blue. In addition to the “Memory Block Project,” the installation includes seven sculpted oil-burning memorial lanterns, a dozen bronze-and-wood works and a floor relief representing the city as viewed from atop the towers. Chairs and benches will invite visitors and passersby to stop and reflect.
The 220 blocks, each variously adorned, carved, wrapped or inscribed by friends and colleagues of Kahn’s — from his rabbis to the guy who sells him his daily cup of coffee — are meant to evoke the 220 floors of the towers. Many are, like Levy’s, covered in script; others in collage; one in musical notation. One is wrapped in fabric; another has been hacked into the shape of an hourglass. One has been painted black and transformed into one half of a pair of tefillin. (Disclosure: Jewish Week Associate Editor Jonathan Mark and the paper’s book critic, Sandee Brawarsky, participated in the memorial block project.)
“I really didn’t want it to be only my voice,” said Kahn, who watched the towers crumble from the windows of his Long Island City studio.
A painter, sculptor and teacher, Kahn led an art workshop at the Alliance immediately after 9 /11 for children grappling with the tragedy, the success of which inspired Alliance gallery director Walter O’Neill to invite him to create a project for the 10-year anniversary.
Kahn, the son of Holocaust refugees, grew up in the intensely Jewish milieu of Washington Heights in the 1960s and 1970s. As a young man, he studied in various yeshivas both in New York and Israel.
Jewish allusions suffuse the “Embodied Light” project, from the seven memorial lanterns, meant to evoke the seven days of shiva, to the two tall, standing pewter-painted tzedakah boxes in the shapes of the towers themselves. Donations deposited in them will go into the emergency relief fund the Educational Alliance maintains for the poorer among the population it serves, said CEO Robin Bernstein.
Art and faith are for Kahn inseparable, he said.
“I do not see myself as a Jewish artist,” he said. “I see myself as an artist who’s Jewish. I don’t see myself as a male artist, a married artist, an observant artist. I see myself as an artist who is all these things. They are how I see the world.”
Indeed, O’Neill sees Kahn’s work as accessible to everyone. “He’s Jewish, and his work is rooted in his Judaism and his belief in God, but it becomes ecumenical,” said O’Neill, who wrote in the catalogue accompanying the exhibit that he wanted it to help people grapple with the memories and feelings in a positive way.
Several Jewish groups, such as the Jewish Art Salon, Town & Village Synagogue and the Museum of Biblical Art, will receive a pro bono gallery talk from Kahn when they tour the exhibit, which is co-sponsored by the UJA-Federation of New York. It is also free and open to the public.
Since the 1980s, Kahn has created spaces similar to “Embodied Light” in hospitals, hospices and a synagogue, in addition to two Holocaust memorial gardens. Art can be redemptive, he says, and he hopes those who visit his basement installation will leave feeling more at peace.
“His work is spiritual, healing and meditative,” said O’Neill.
The latest expression of Kahn’s longstanding insistence on the therapeutic potential of making and experiencing art, “Embodied Light” opens soon after leading mental health professionals concluded in a special issue of the journal American Psychologist that traditional talk therapy probably didn’t help much right after 9/11. It might have even intensified victims’ suffering by forcing them to relive it.
“Trauma is beyond words,” said Rabbi Simkha Weintraub of the National Center for Jewish Healing. “You need other mechanisms to express what you’ve been through.”
By contrast, the arts therapist works to elicit feelings that go so deep they are unmediated by language, said Robert Landy, a licensed arts therapist who also directs the drama therapy program at New York University.
“What we mean by healing is not accepting, it’s not moving on; it’s about integrating the loss into your life story,” said Weintraub, who since 9/11 has run a therapy group for Jews who lost someone when the towers fell.
Kahn’s work has the potential to do this both for participants like Levy, who created the blocks, and for those who wander off the street and into the space, Weintraub said.
“If Tobi Kahn’s installation can help people integrate their loss into their life story, it’s a great blessing.”
“Embodied Light: 9-11 in 2011” will run from Sept. 9 to Nov. 23 in the Ernest Rubenstein Gallery at the Educational Alliance, 197 East Broadway between Jefferson and Clinton streets.