The sun set a short while ago, and now, in the darkness we have embarked on the unique journey that is Yom Kippur. When I was preparing for this moment, my mind went back to a sunny Sunday in June. Unusually for a Sunday, I was in London, visiting one of my favourite haunts: the South Bank.  It was the place to be that afternoon. Among the star attractions: food stalls serving every kind of delicacy, beach huts and sandpits on the promenade, and a green roof garden on the Queen Elizabeth Hall. But the main attraction, as far as I was concerned, was the Tracey Emin retrospective exhibition being held at the Hayward Gallery.[1] It was a tour de force: striking colourful quilts and a partially collapsed wooden pier, complete with hut; neon signs and films; her early work, together with pieces in various media, exploring relationships with family and friends, and her own personal experiences; drawings and paintings; works in white and white neon, as well as sculpture. A real retrospective – with one curious exception: that infamous un-made bed that got Tracey Emin shortlisted for the Turner prize in 1999; apparently, the art collector, who owns it, wasn’t prepared to lend it …[2]

There is no doubt about it, Tracey Emin’s art is all about Tracey Emin – or so it seems. As we inspect all the memorabilia, and in particular, when we view the autobiographical films – a conversation with her mother, a scene at the seaside with her father, the account of one of her abortions, her review of her early days in Margate and her young ambition to be a dancer – it seems that Tracey Emin is telling all; revealing everything about herself.

I will say more about this in a moment. Before I do, I want to tell you about another exhibition. As I went round the Tracey Emin retrospective that day, for some reason my mind went back to another retrospective, held exactly 40 years earlier in the summer of 1971. I had just completed my O-levels, and my elder brother, Geoffrey and I, went together to see the op-artist, Bridget Riley’s show at the Hayward Gallery.[3] It was a dazzling experience – quite literally: the stewards all in dark glasses to protect them from the dazzling impact of vast canvases with their lines and squares and dots and triangles, shimmering light, forcing me to squint as I gazed.

It is impossible to imagine a greater contrast between the two exhibitions and the two artists. Seeing Tracey Emin’s work, the untutored spectator feels drawn into her life, her quirky personality, her pain, her struggles, her chutzpah, her flair, her obsessions, her passions. Seeing Bridget Riley’s paintings – the untutored spectator feels forced to step back, unsettled by the optical challenge, literally, unable to open one’s eyes fully, let alone one’s heart. What does it all mean? And when we learn that teams of students were marshalled to complete the works, to fill in the squares and dots and triangles – a massive task, requiring precision and hours of labour – we can’t help wondering: who is this artist? What is she about?

Of course, all the apparent differences in their art and the way they work as artists apart, Tracey Emin and Bridget Riley have something in common – not least, the fact that they are both women, and also that, in both cases, their detractors are inclined to say that what they are doing is not art: Tracey Emin being too self-indulgently confessional; and Bridget Riley, too abstract and technical.

So, what is art? As it happens, Tracey Emin and Bridget Riley have something else in common: despite appearances to the contrary, despite leaving school at 13, Tracey Emin graduated with an honours degree in printmaking from Maidstone College of Art, and later received a Master’s degree in painting from the Royal College of Art in 1989. She was not only shortlisted for the Turner prize in 1999, in 2007 she represented Britain at the 52nd Venice Biennale, was elected a Royal Academician, and was awarded honorary doctorates by the University of Kent, London Metropolitan University and the Royal Academy of Art. The similarities with Bridget Riley are striking: Bridget Riley went to Goldsmith’s College of Art in 1949, and then on to the Royal College in 1952. Combining teaching with her painting, she had her first exhibition in 1960, and by 1968, was so well-regarded that, together with Philip King, she represented Britain at the 34th Venice Biennale and won the International Prize for Painting – the first woman to do so.

Again: what is art? One answer to that question is, clearly, this kind of ‘evidence’.  But there is something much deeper going on – which is why I’ve chosen this evening, on Erev Yom Kippur, at this sacred service, to talk about these two artists. In her review of the Tracey Emin retrospective, the writer, Marina Warner, points out that ‘[T]here are long gaps in the story unfolded by these works’.[4] Yes, if you go along with the way in which Tracey Emin presents herself, you wouldn’t know that she got a Master’s degree at the prestigious Royal College of Art. Her formal artistic training is not part of her narrative. The issue is that Tracey Emin is not actually revealing her life to us, she is constructing and reconstructing her life-story; she is transforming her life experience through her art. The making of art is a process of transformation. Even something as evidently documentary as the video showing Tracey Emin talking about her most harrowing abortion is not simply a record of that experience. As the viewer listens to her story and watches her face, we get a sense of how the artist has contained her experience and placed it in a frame within the tale of her life, which she has crafted.

In the second account of creation, related in Genesis chapter 2, we read that, ‘The Eternal God formed the human being of the dust of the ground’ – Va-yyitzer Adonai Elohim et-ha-adam afar min-ha-adamah (:7a). Va-yyitzer – based on the Hebrew root letters, Yud TZadi Reish – to ‘form’. Genesis chapter 1 describes God as a Creator. In chapter 2, this more abstract notion is replaced by an image of God as an artist, a sculptor, hands in ha-adamah – in the red earth[5]; kneading ha-adam – the human being – into life: ha-adam from ha-adamah. And what of the human being? According to Genesis 1, the human being is created b’tzelem Elohim – ‘in the image of God’ (1:27). What does this mean? The passage in Genesis 2 goes on to tell us that ‘The Eternal God took the human being, and put him into the Garden of Eden l’ovdah u’l’shomrah – ‘to tend it and to keep it’. (2:15). So: the human being is a gardener – and an artist, too? Surely artists have special gifts and skills and a unique vision? And: are trained to be artists – just like Tracey Emin and Bridget Riley. Of course. Perhaps, a better way of putting it would be to say that every human being is an artist with a small ‘a’ – shaping his or her experience, crafting her or his own story; each one of us, creating and inventing, as we remember this and forget that, and present and re-present ourselves.

Of course, we are very rarely aware that this is what we are doing. But Yom Kippur is one of those rare moments when, stepping outside the routines of our daily lives for a day, we can become aware of how we are choosing to live, what we’re doing and not doing, and what we are saying about who we are to others, and also to ourselves. And if we are brave enough, Yom Kippur is also an opportunity to challenge ourselves and to re-form ourselves; to dig our hands deep into the mud of our lives and to re-shape ourselves anew.

My late mother’s closest sister, Victoria, aged 93 now, had a stroke in March. Fortunately, although she has problems with her swallow function, has lost sensory awareness on her left side, and has severe short-term memory loss, cared for at home around the clock, she is still able to enjoy many of her customary activities – like attending her synagogue every Shabbat and going to art exhibitions. I try to visit my aunt most Wednesdays, and on this particular Wednesday in August, I took her out to lunch. It was a sunny day, and so we sat outside. One of my aunt’s favourite pastimes is reciting poetry. She is very proud of the fact that when she attended Newington Green primary school, her teacher, Miss Spender, the sister of the artist Stephen Spender, used to call on her to recite a poem, whenever there were visitors. Since that time, she has relished her ability to memorise poems, and recite them with feeling. As we sat there that day, in the midst of our meal, she paused and suddenly quoted from the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: ‘O gift of God / O perfect day /…. / whereon it is enough for me / not to be doing, but to be’.[6]

There are probably not too many ‘perfect days’ in a lifetime – and to be able to experience a day as ‘perfect’, at the age of 93, and living with the aftermath of a stroke, is a ‘gift’, indeed. Today may not be a perfect day, but it is a gift of a day nonetheless, and on this gift of a day, released, briefly, from the tasks of the daily round, perhaps we may find a way of being with ourselves. But there is more to being then being with ourselves. As I said earlier, I’m not sure why visiting the Tracey Emin retrospective reminded me of the Bridget Riley retrospective forty years earlier. And I’m not sure why the Bridget Riley exhibition had such an impact on me, since I found it so bewildering. But it did have an impact. I was so taken by the experience at the time, that with my 16-year-old’s pocket money, I bought the 80 page catalogue. Perhaps, the fact that my Auntie Vicky and Uncle Bernard had opened an art gallery[7] sensitised me to the importance of art. But there was more to it than that. Somehow, even though I didn’t understand those paintings, I came away with a sense of the enormity of the experience that caught my breath. Was it simply that the paintings were so dazzling and commanding?

When I got home after visiting the Tracey Emin exhibition, I took out the Bridget Riley catalogue and began to read the 21 page introduction by Bryan Robertson. As an untrained eye, I find it quite difficult to make sense of an art critic’s analysis of a painter’s work, but two passages in the introduction – direct quotations from Bridget Riley – seem to me to get to the heart of the matter: ‘There are vast reserves of energy in everything and if you allow them to operate freely, relieved of pressures, concepts, malfunctions, distortions or perversities, or remove from them the burden of carrying or embodying the projected character, you are nearer to stimulating or unleashing a truly creative power’ (p.8). In their carefully crafted repeated patterns, which seem so abstract, impersonal and controlled, Bridget Riley’s paintings evoke the transcendent power of the universe and provide intimations of eternity. As Bridget Riley puts it: ‘Our bearings still suffer from the concept or suppositions of Renaissance theory, which is: “man as the measure of all things”. But man is part only of a bigger whole…’ (p.14).

If Tracey Emin’s flamboyant display testifies to the human being as an artist, with the power to relate and craft their own particular life, then Bridget Riley’s vast patterns remind us that humanity ‘is part only of a bigger whole’. Taken together, the creative output of these two artists, presents us with the blessing and the burden of being human. As Chasidic Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Przysucha (pronounced: Peschischa), in Poland, taught:[8]

Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending on the need. When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: “For my sake was the world created.” But when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: “I am but dust and ashes.”

Today, on Yom Kippur, we have the challenge of reaching into both pockets – of honouring ourselves with our scrupulous attention, and honouring the Eternal beyond, with our unconditional humility. May each one of us grasp that challenge and find the courage to acknowledge and receive the gifts of this special day.

And let us say: Amen.


Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah

Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalom Verei’ut

Erev Yom Kippur, 10th Tishri 5772 – 8th October 2011

[1] ‘Love is What You Want’, 18 May to 29 August.

[2] Information from private conversation with someone who knows…

[3] ‘Bridget Riley – Paintings and drawings, 1951-71’, 20 July to 5 September 1971.

[4] London Review of Books, Vol. 33, no. 16, pp.28-29, 25.08.11.

[5] The nouns, adam and adamah, are based on the three letter root, Aleph Dalet Mem. The word for ‘blood’ – dam – is connected to this root. Similarly: the adjective, adom – ‘red’.

[6] 1887-1882. ‘A Day of Sunshine’.

[7] Fieldbourne Gallery, 8 Queens Grove, St John’s Wood, 1971-1990s.

[8] Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Przysucha ,1765–1827, one of the main leaders of Chasidism in the late 18th and early 19th century.