Whatever Is Contained Must Be Released

Whatever is Contained Must be Released - 614 eZine - Vol 6, Issue 5

Helène Aylon recounts her journey from a traditional Orthodox upbringing to life as a provocative, feminist artist.

Helène Aylon was a good Jewish girl raised in Orthodox Brooklyn, married to a rabbi, and a mother of two. That all changed when she became a widow at 30 and decided to break free of tradition to become an eco-feminist artist whose work speaks to war and peace, women’s bodies, women and god, and the deeply religious questions she holds. This intriguing (and visually beautiful) memoir gives us a glimpse of Aylon’s Orthodox life and also her unstructured, artistic life, in which she defiantly challenges the misogyny of her beloved religion.

Your memoir reveals a great deal about your Orthodox upbringing and your transformation from a nice Jewish girl into the provocative artist you became. Are there some issues and themes you decided not to reveal in your memoir? And, if so, why?

I tried to stick with topics that connect to the subtitle: “My Jewish Orthodox Girlhood, My Life as a Feminist Artist.” The book title promised that “Whatever Is Contained Must Be Released,” so I am releasing the truth that is contained in my own constricted life in the Jewish ghetto of Borough Park in Brooklyn and my convoluted route to Feminist Art. This destination hearkens back to my early life as it also breaks away from it.

I should note that the reader will come upon the phrase, “whatever is contained must be released” when reading about the Process Art of the 70s. I spoke those very words aloud before instigating the performance process of making the paintings I call The Breakings. That’s when the liquid oil drips out or gushes out. I encouraged participants to “midwife” the image by lifting the panel off the floor onto a wall; gravity will cause the liquid sac to release like an amniotic sac. I made this announcement before the women lifted the panel. I also told them, “You are going to initiate a Breaking and I am going to accept it.” In this way, I proclaimed my reliance on chance and my letting go of control as an artist. In a way, it’s about faith.

Your work of the last two decades is definitively Jewish; for example, your 90s installation, The Liberation of G-d, while the earlier process work from the 70s, such as The Breakings, and your activist work of the 80s, like the Earth Ambulance, is secular. Why did you begin creating Jewish art?

All of the work, be it secular or “Jewish,” has the common thread of feminism woven in. This is what binds it all. There may be a different medium to say it one way or another, or a different story line, but the subject is always feminism or Jewish feminism.

In England at a conference, I juxtaposed the three landscapes of feminism of the last three decades and my own art chronology: In the 1970s, I focused on Bio-logical feminism, for which I created The Breaking images resembling torsos or tree trunks, which insinuated that a woman’s body is visceral and wet as opposed to the touched up dry Playboy pictures of the female in this culture. In the 80s I focused on Eco-logical feminism, driving the Earth Ambulance to military sites to “rescue” the earth in pillowcases and the pillowcases were emptied at the UN rally for disarmament. In the last two decades, I’ve focused on Theo-logical feminism, with The G-d Project, a nine-part project, which turns a feminist eye on the Five Books of Moses and on the belittling of women in Nine “Houses” of Judaism, An example is my courtroom installation called All Rise, an imagined feminist courthouse, which I made in response to the Beit Din (House of Law) forbidding women to be judges.

Is the creative experience any different for you, depending on what you are making?

I merged the experience of activism when dealing with the earth, and scholarship when dealing with the Torah G-d.

Like many artists, you were not encouraged by your parents to be an artist. How were you impacted emotionally by this, and were you able to make peace with it? If so, how?

I still want to prove the rightness of this choice. The only convincing proof of the rightness of a choice in this culture is that it “pays off,” and, in the Jewish world, that “it’s good for the Jews.” I try to laugh it off. Even my mother would have suspended her worries for my security, but she was never convinced that “The G-d Project” was good for the Jews until Norman Kleeblat, the curator of the Jewish Museum, showed and acquired The Liberation of G-d. Then he was more than a curator—he was a mashgiach giving his seal of kashrut. After all, it must be good for the Jews if it’s in the Jewish Museum! [laughter]

Would you consider yourself an observant Jew today, however you define that? Explain.

This would be a long tirade if I explained. Observant orthodoxy is when you swallow everything. All the other denominations are like a smorgasbord; you pick and choose what you find appetizing. What I want for my Torah study, I can’t have because I want the input of my foremothers and their input has been erased, distorted, co-opted, and ignored. I can’t walk away because the spirit of my foremothers is in my DNA and in my consciousness. I believe in their input, which is why I remain. The most beautiful aspects of Judaism to me come from the foremothers, and are not in The Five Books of Moses—be it lighting the candles, covering mirrors in mourning, the ritual bath, brachot recited all day long for every little thing, their blessings of gratitude (not prayers that ask for anything). I am reviving my foremothers in my art as they are keeping me from walking out on Judaism.

Do you think your art that expresses Jewish themes translates to a non-Jewish audience, and does this matter to you one way or the other?

The Torah is an embarrassment to me because I am unnerved by the way G-d is portrayed. I am uncomfortable when G-d supposedly says that we should wipe out Amalek (the nation that attacked the weakest among the Israelites as they fled from Egypt) and have no pity. If God is omnipotent, he could do the wiping out on his own, the way we were wiped out with the Holocaust. Why make the “promise” of a Promised Land begin with bloodshed? What kind of gift is that?

That’s why I wanted The Liberation of G-d to be for Jewish eyes alone. I knew I had to face this discomfort because, if I didn’t, someone like Farrakhan would. But when the work traveled from the Jewish Museum to the Armand Hammer in LA, the Ackland Art Museum in North Carolina, and the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, I learned that it was actually good for me not to do the ostrich thing as though I don’t know that we have a G-d that tells us to kill newborn babies in Egypt and fight our enemies in wars. It’s better, after all, to allow my self-conscious position to be “released”—for example, when we boast that we are the “Chosen” and “A light onto the world.” If we are silent, then we agree. It’s that silence that could bring on the anti-Semitism more than the admission of uncomfortable feelings to the non-Jewish world. And, finally, I felt that I kind of stuck up for G-d (whatever the unknowable G-d may be) and rescued this G-d from being misquoted and spoken for.

You are known as an artist. Would you like to be known as a memoir writer as well? How was the process of creating this book different for you than creating a work of art?

Yes, I’d like to be known for my memoir, as it explains my sources that compelled the making of the art. How powerful it would be if there were to be a retrospective with the art that’s discussed in the memoir. Words, more than art, convey ideas with precision. I have to understand full well what I am saying when it comes to words. Through art I learn something I did not know I knew.

What one question do you wish you could be asked about the book, and what is your answer?

The question I wish I could be asked is, “Would you like to be part of Oprah’s second book club?” and the answer would be “Yes!” [laughter]

About the Author

Helène Aylon
Helène Aylon, author of Whatever Is Contained Must Be Released: My Jewish Orthodox Girlhood, My Life as a Feminist Artist (Feminist Press at CUNY, 2012), is a visual, conceptual, and installation artist and eco-feminist whose work has been exhibited around the world, including at the Whitney Museum and the Jewish Museum in New York, the Aldrich Museum in Connecticut, the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, and the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. In 2012, Aylon was a part of a groundbreaking exhibit in Israel, Matronita: Jewish Feminist Art, works by women who come from a traditional Jewish background.


  1. Jackie Lipton July 25, 2014 Reply

    Interview Helene! Also loved the memoir and the context it creates for your art. That is, the opportunity for an even fuller understanding and that’s great!

  2. It is a pleasure to read about the process of an artist’s work by including her lifelong experiences. Looking at art and enjoying it is quite subjective, but reading Helene Aylon’s narrative helps put it into a certain perspective. Thank you for this interview.

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