Kate Abbott: Feeling human warmth in 'The Wandering Veil' at Mass MoCA


'The sky waits for this spell to be broken ...
so that a symphony of conch shells

may wake up the statues

and a beautiful, dark goddess,

her anklets echoing, may unveil herself."

I am reading Agha Shahid Ali's translation of "Evening," a poem by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, and on the walls birds are rustling against the sunset.

Outside it is snowing finally, coating the trees. I'm standing in the long open gallery at Mass MoCA, on the old mill floor, in a room with cloth walls. I'm inside in Izhar Patkin's "The Wandering Veil."

It's not what I'd expected. And I know I'll come back.

I want to sit in these rooms when they are not full of people with wine glasses, and remember David Ross reading aloud from the poem Ali wrote for Patkin.

Ali came from Kashmir and Patkin from Israel. They met in the U.S. and worked together. Ross said Ali wrote the poem for Patkin, and the speaker in the poem seems to sit at night in a city apartment, talking with a new friend who draws him powerfully. He sounds fascinated and unsure, wanting a way in, and the talk and the two people finding their way toward each other travel "each night from night into night" like the movement of a Jewish holiday.

Patkin spoke with Ross this week at an opening for his show. Ross asked him the way into his carefully designed rooms.

He said the way into his rooms is through texts. He sees his art working with stories.

Not all artists say so. In fact Patkin may be reacting in turn to a broad artistic movement away from narrative.

"I grew up in modernism," he said. "Israel is Bauhaus country."

As modermism took hold, he suggested, with Duchamp's signed urinal and the debate over what art is, the audience began to be afraid, "to think the world had no narrative and didn't need one."

But he does. He values stories. He opens the show with Don Quixote carrying books tied to his saddle.

He is not afraid to think about what the work means to him and talk about it.

"I'm not ironic," he said. "When I came to New York, the big story was the distance between the artist and the work. I wanted no distance."

And poetry leads Patkin into his own stories: His journey from Israel to the U.S., and his convictions as an atheist from a Jewish country, and grief for Ali, who as his friend, and who died too young, of brain cancer.

Ali loved and wrote Ghazals, desert poetry out of Northern Africa and court love of Persia. They have deep roots in the courts of Al-andalus, in Islamic Spain.

And I've read that Patkin drew on the Zohar, Moses of Leon's passionate re-imagining of the Torah, in the last century before Granada fell. I am fascinated by Moses of Leon. He claimed to be translating an ancient manuscript, but most likely he was writing his own, translating his faith into his time and place. And he sold the translations like a pedlar. So I came looking for a man selling poetry from a barrow.

But I walked on a snowy evening through images of Patkin's father and Patkin's travels.

Here on one wall, a fishing boat docked beside a weathered one-room building in Tel Aviv, and on the other wall hung a desert hillside city.

It takes nothing away from the work that I thought of fishing co-ops on the Maine coast, of a prarie cabin by train tracks in Nebraska, and of the Albaicín, the old Arabic neighborhood in Granada, before Spain forced the Muslims into exile in the 15th century.

I have seen that neighborhood. My family once spent three weeks traveling in Spain, and my sister and I went walking there. We found a high plaza where we could look across to the Al hambra.

I will come back to walk his streets and read the poetry on the walls ... and to feel the dark goddess dancing, like a college woman in a sandy square to flamenco guitar.


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