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The dybbuk that haunts a Toronto streetscape

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Jess Riva Cooper's art installation is on view 24/7 at Fentster. (Justine Apple photo)

The opening of Every Thread that Binds You, Jess Riva Cooper’s new art installation, started as a downtown street party.

On a summer-like evening on June 12, about 50 people – many with wine glasses in hand – were milling outside Fentster, the large storefront window and exhibition space at Makom in downtown Toronto.

Cooper’s show, which explores the theme of the dybbuk (an evil spirit) – can only be viewed from the sidewalk.

Fentster is dedicated to showcasing art installations that are connected to the Jewish experience.

Every Thread that Binds You, which runs until Oct. 4, is curated by Evelyn Tauben and co-presented by the Ashkenaz Festival.

Through large-scale drawings and intricate ceramic sculptures, Cooper revisits The Dybbuk, a play written by S. Ansky between 1913 and 1916. In Jewish folklore, the dybbuk refers to the possession of a living body by the soul of a deceased person.

The Dybbuk centres on a young Jewish woman who is possessed by the spirit of her dead lover. Cooper’s images offer a feminist interpretation of this work.

At the opening, award-winning actor Alon Nashman performed a scene from his one-man show Hirsch, which features a dybbuk.

Cooper, 37, said she has long been interested in the mystical characters of Jewish folklore. She explained that her grandparents were all Holocaust survivors who exposed her to Jewish folk tales. “From listening to those stories growing up, I became interested in the dybbuk and its magic realism,” she said.

She is also drawn to science fiction and fairy tales. “It’s a wonderful melding of reality and the uncanny,” said Cooper.

Another interest of Cooper’s is parasitic plant life and invasive plant species, images which she incorporates into the drawings and sculpture in Every Thread that Binds You.

Part of Jess Riva Cooper’s art installation. (Justine Apple photo)

Her use of flowing lines and a limited colour palette imbues the images with an eeriness that is apropos for an art installation inspired by The Dybbuk.

However, Cooper’s work has given the century-old play a modern feminist twist.

“I wanted to investigate the ideas I had about Yiddish folklore and The Dybbuk,” she said.

“I reread the play and I thought it was sad. I got angry at the place where the rabbi decides without asking (the young woman possessed by her dead lover’s spirit) to exorcise the spirit out of her. I saw it as a manifestation of patriarchal silencing of this woman.”

Cooper suggested that the woman’s possession might be the only way she was able to feel free to express her own will. “I was taking the idea of the malevolent spirit of somebody who is dead and reinterpreting it as a way for disenfranchised people, or women, to see these beings as benevolent,” said Cooper.

The title of Cooper’s show actually comes from a climactic moment in the play, when the rabbi commands the dybbuk to sever “every thread that binds you to the living world and to the body and soul of the maiden.”

Part of Jess Riva Cooper’s art installation. (Justine Apple photo)

Yet her images show women putting protective talismans onto their clothing and even their own bodies. The sprouting of vegetation in Cooper’s images also becomes part of the protective shield, she said.

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Cooper, the mother of a toddler, is an artist and educator who’s based in Toronto. She’s a graduate of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and the Rhode Island School of Design. She currently teaches at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ont.

Cooper said that she enjoyed putting together Every Thread that Binds You and collaborating with Tauben.

She noted that the streetscape of Fentster’s unique gallery space has enhanced her installation: “The shadow play that happens at night with street-lamp lighting adds another ominous layer.”

 

Every Thread That Binds You by Jess Riva Cooper is on view 24/7 in the Fentster window gallery until October 3. For more information: http://fentster.org