The Mikvah Project
at the Spertus Museum, through October 21
One portrait in the middle of “The Mikvah Project” captures the show’s essential stillness. Untitled, as are all 40 color and black-and-white photographs in the collection, the image draws the eye up from the indigos at the bottom through the soft grays in the middle toward the light and warmth of the sepias at the surface of the water. These tones merge with the pale skin of the submerged woman, her russet hair mingling with the burnt umber of the water’s surface. The line between bare skin and water is sometimes indecipherable in this image of isolation. The very top of her head breaks the surface, and the viewer is left wondering whether she’s sinking or rising, whether she’s at the beginning or end of the rite.
“The Mikvah Project”–a traveling collection that originated in Houston in 2000–is centered around the Jewish ritual of the mikvah: renewal through total immersion in “living water.” Photographer Janice Rubin depicts men and women, young and old, Orthodox and nontraditional; Leah Lax’s wall texts (based on interviews) give the reasons behind the practice. Historically it’s been a ritual imposed on women to cleanse themselves after menses; some have called it regressive, repressive, or flat-out misogynistic. The project sets out to address the multiple issues–historical, spiritual, and personal–that circulate around the practice of total immersion, often debated in both religious and feminist circles: how can such a seemingly archaic custom continue to hold sway?
These liberating photographs and the accompanying statements strive to divest this rite of separation and renewal of old associations between menstruation and impurity, even contagion. As several Jewish feminists have declared, the point of looking at the mikvah is to give Jewish women in particular the tools they need to make an informed choice rather than relying on uninvestigated stigma.
According to Rubin, her subjects were models in simulated rituals because the goal was to evoke the rite, not record it. Bold images, some filled with large blocks of light and dark, reiterate not only the quiet and stillness of floating but the meditative calm of the gallery (empty on the evening I visited it). A good number of images are shot underwater, making the spectator part of the ritual along with the subject. The mixing of light and water simultaneously focuses and distorts the image, magnifying the reflective properties of water, especially its role in self-reflection.
In one black-and-white photograph a completely submerged woman has closed her eyes and holds her hands in front of her face as if to pray. The stark white background of the bath’s tiles and the water’s surface above surrounds and isolates her in space. She’s clearly a being alone with herself: hovering above is her reflection on the surface. (From underwater, all is inverted, one’s reflection transplanted overhead.) It’s as if her self-reflection were made visible in the image. Another underwater photograph shows a pale body falling to the bottom of the bath followed by escaping air bubbles and a frond of black hair floating upward, waving over two-thirds of the image. The composition–large black and white blocks–is active, yet the water still supports the body in a relaxed pose that would be impossible without the surrounding medium. The effect is of ease and calm, of release.
Shot after shot makes plain the simplicity, almost austerity, of the baths. Undecorated, they resemble large white- or plain-tiled bathtubs with stairs and railings. The Jewish laws surrounding the mikvah stipulate that the water must be “living” (mayyim hayyim); that is, it should come from a river, stream, or ocean. For indoor baths, this requirement is met by making a certain percentage of the water pure rainwater. The rest can come from the tap.
Two photographs taken outdoors create an even greater sense of contact with the natural and spiritual than the indoor shots. In one, a woman chest-deep in a pond moves toward trees lining the opposite bank. Small patches of sunlight fall through the canopy of leaves and reflect off the water’s surface. The rings from her steps move away from her body and begin to merge with the ripples in the water’s surface, bringing all elements of the scene together. In the other outdoor shot a woman swims toward the camera. Her body, the splash of her entry, and her overhead reflection–which make up the only white in the frame–mark the moment of immersion, of separation from the everyday world. Her eyes are closed, and she reaches forward, fingertips turned up slightly. The water is almost invisible, except for the ripples that mark her dive. She hovers between the surface and the lake’s floor, quiet after her entry, moving ahead without seeing, yet calmly.
Of course photography is a silent medium. These photographs, though, render the image of silence, making it visible. Given the taboos associated with the mikvah–of blood and the death associated with that blood, of uncleanness and contagion–and the stigma it placed upon women, the
silence surrounding the rite has historically been the silence of a secret. It was not discussed, and its details were not shared with outsiders.
In these beautiful, contemplative photographs, the silence of the secret is transformed into a silence of reflection, reawakening, and transformation. And by positioning the spectator with the subject, this silence becomes a silent sharing.