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Repetition Makes the Difference

Published on
April 8

We take in so much information every day - especially in New York, where there is no end to the array of stimuli assaulting our senses. Our brains are quite good at sorting this information, making us aware of what is important and discarding the small differences that are less so. I probably walked past a hundred people on my eight-block walk to work this morning, yet I doubt I could recall any one of them. How often do we focus on the details, the minute deviations from the norm? And more than that - how often do we celebrate these differences? I've visited many different museums and exhibitions since coming to New York, but Repetition and Difference at the Jewish Museum is the only exhibition I have seen that devotes so much focus and thought to these ideas. They are present in virtually every detail of the exhibition, not only in its content but in its structure.

I arrived at the museum about half an hour before a free guided tour of the exhibit was to take place. I decided I would take a look through the galleries on my own, and then take the guided tour to see if the docent was able to add to my own insights. The exhibit takes up the majority of the second floor of the museum, and makes it clear right at the start how seriously and holistically the museum believes in the idea of repetition and difference. While many museum exhibits begin with a large introductory panel, this exhibit begins with four; each contains the "same" information, but in quite different ways. For instance, each begins with the same quote from Giles Deleuze's influential book Difference and Repetition (clearly inspiring the exhibition a great deal): one panel presents the quote in its original French, and the other three provide English translations created by different translators, including a virtually incomprehensible one translated by Google. Every minute detail of the exhibition has been clearly thought about, and then thought about again. There is no set path through the exhibition - instead of the traditional signs showing the progression through the rooms with an arrow and the words "Exhibition continues," arrows point towards the end and the beginning accompanied by the words "Exhibition repeats". 

I chose to go to the right first, where I was first struck by a series of six works by the contemporary artist John Houck. The first was a large folded color photograph; each subsequent work was a photograph of the previous, which was itself folded. By the final piece, it was difficult to tell which folds were of the image and which were of the paper itself. I passed into the next gallery, through a small mirrored doorway, and was struck immediately by three flashing neon signs, each flashing through different provocative messages: "You want life," "You want to be," "The life you were meant to live". It was only after I read the description of the work that I realized that these signs were actually flashing marketing slogans for Visa ("It's everywhere you want to be") and Ceasars hotels and casinos ("The life you were meant to live") in different combinations. Modern works of art like these were displayed alongside ritual Jewish objects like Torah binders, yarmulkes, and mezuzah cases, each serving the same function, but presented in strikingly unique and beautiful ways. It was interesting how the exhibition juxtaposed these collections of traditional objects with modern art. 

While I enjoyed the exhibition on my own, my second trip through with a tour guide made the experience even more fascinating. This repetition brought out deeper layers than I was able to perceive on my own.

The tour progressed through the four rooms of the exhibition in the opposite path that I followed. I quickly learned that the objects on display were not arranged randomly throughout the exhibition: the juxtaposition of religious artifacts and modern art added additional layers of repetition and difference. One room, for example, contained several Jewish marriage contracts and a large modern work consisting of found paper objects painted gold and affixed to the wall. This is no coincidence - both showed the varying degrees of significance that paper could have, from something as meaningful and sacred as a marriage contract to something that the artist found discarded in the street. Every detail of the execution of the exhibition was fraught with meaning. Even the mirrored passageways that I quickly passed through on my own were deliberately designed - by looking directly in them, you could see both into the room you just left and the room you were about to enter, but on opposite sides. 

The tour guide also pointed out deeper degrees of difference in ritual objects that went beyond mere aesthetics to represent social issues. For instance, the different yarmulkes on display would each be worn by a different kind of Jewish person - there were some specifically for the ultra-Orthodox, for women, for gay and lesbian Jews and even for transgendered Jews. Rather than merely serving as a Jewish custom, these differences allow Jews to find a way to honor both their religion and their individuality.  

I toured Repetition and Difference two times in one afternoon, yet I would eagerly go back again. The more you view these works, and the more you view the exhibition itself, the deeper layers of repetition and difference you find. I remember an exhibit of an artist in another museum I saw months ago, which stated that the average museum-goer spends about four seconds looking at any one work of art. This exhibit demands your time, and your fullest attention. Each new repetition points out striking differences, and yet each difference brings up intriguing repetitions of ideas. At the risk of repeating myself, there is so much here to be uncovered, if you just take the time to look.