Hillel Smith

Culture Lab: Oil

Culture Lab is an interdisciplinary arts program sponsored by SIJCC designed to foster new work and provoke a community-wide conversation about arts and culture that is grounded in Jewish tradition.

The inaugural event, Culture Lab: Oil, was an interactive art installation created by a group of four artists — Julie Schustack, Corrie Siegel, Jonathan Skurnik, and myself — each working in various disciplines, including sculpture, video, and mixed-media installation, selected from a peer-nominated pool. Together we collaborated on a dynamic new piece based on the theme of oil and how it intersects with Jewish tradition and modern American life. In it, we transformed a vacant storefront in Echo Park into a reinterpretation of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, exploring themes of service, sacredness, and sacrifice.

Watch the video by Jonathan Skurnik and see photos below by Dave Koga.

As the resident designer of the group, I naturally handled graphics and signage.

The front of the building.

Upon entry, participants received three coins, each representing a different aspect of prayer: gratitude, forgiveness, and divine offering. I designed the coins of divine offering and laser-cut them out of plexiglass. The shapes represent the various foods and animals that were given as sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem, namely a bull (find its head), a sheep or goat (the hoof), a dove (wings), wheat or barley (stalk in the center), and three new fruits.

The coins were then exchanged for different items to be used in the installation, including:

A small glass vial with a tag,

and a small floating wick that each person would light in a ceramic basin filled with oil that would float through a window into the next room.

Following the flames gently floating down the canal of oil, participants encountered interactive projections of oil (see video for more of that).

In this center room, loosely referencing the Sanctuary of the Temple as a place of service, there was a large dispensary of oils, each with a label evoking one of the 19 supplications in the amidah prayer service.

By filling their vials with the desired qualities, participants in essence could craft a physical prayer to take home.

Continuing to follow the canal of oil into the third and final room, alluding to the Holy of Holies, a place of serenity, wonder, and awe, participants saw their flames join others' in a large copper basin. The impact of the communal contribution was reflected in the mirrors lining the walls, creating a seemingly infinite space.

As we'd hoped, participants gathered silently in this intimate room to reflect and share in the mystical glow made by everyone's little flames acting as one.