Friday, November 29, 1996 | return to: news & features


Magnes will affix mezuzah filled with AIDS blood

by NATALIE WEINSTEIN, Bulletin Staff

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In a highly dramatic act, a mezuzah filled with an artist's HIV-infected blood will be affixed Sunday morning to a temporary door frame in Berkeley's Judah L. Magnes Museum to mark World AIDS Day.

Museum officials, who said they believe this is the first mezuzah of its kind, are aware the installation might provoke an intense public response.

"When I first discussed the idea, it brought such reactions of repulsion and horror from people I mentioned the idea to. People said they didn't want to go anywhere near it, let alone touch it or walk through" the doorway, said Michal Friedlander, the museum's Judaica curator. "A lot of people have asked me if this is a blasphemous piece."

Instead of containing a parchment inscribed with two passages from Deuteronomy, the polished brass container will grip a visible glass vial of blood taken from the arm of Santa Monica artist Albert Winn. Both Jewish and gay, Winn was diagnosed with AIDS in 1990.

The mezuzah, which will be encased in a clear hard plastic cover, will be affixed by Bay Area Rabbi Allen Bennett to a specially constructed wooden door frame.

The ceremony will take place at 11 a.m. Sunday, Dec. 1, marking the museum's first-ever commemoration of World AIDS Day.

Once known as the Day Without Art, Dec. 1 was for years a day on which many museums closed their doors, symbolizing the toll AIDS has taken on the arts and culture. Today, some institutions prefer to mount special exhibits. All contributions made to the Magnes on Sunday will be donated to Bay Area AIDS charities.

Titled "Blood on the Doorpost...The AIDS Mezzuzah," the installation will remain in the museum until 4 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 4.

Museum visitors can choose either to walk through the doorway or around it.

Though the museum has not contacted any local health officials regarding the exhibit, Friedlander said Winn's doctor assured him that there is no public health risk involved in displaying his blood.

"This is completely safe...It's not a danger," she said. "But emotionally, people are so fearful of it."

Though the blood is liquid now, Winn said, it may dry up after it is removed from his home refrigerator this weekend for the exhibit.

Both Friedlander and museum director Seymour Fromer said they hope anyone who is initially shocked can get past their first reaction and grasp the artist's intentions.

"I hope it's not perceived to be just a radical thing. We want it to be taken seriously as an expression of pain and concern," Fromer said. "We're satisfied that it is serving a function to arouse discussion and introspection."

Winn said he is making both personal and political statements with this conceptual artwork.

"This is one way to help me make sense out of what seems like madness -- you have an illness; you're going to die," said Winn, a one-time National Endowment for the Arts fellow.

Since he was diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1989, Winn said he's been trying to find insights in Judaism about the disease and his mortality.

In the past, he has created a dreidel inscribed with the Hebrew letters for AIDS. He has also shot self-portraits, including one of his left arm bound in tefillin and bandaged after a blood sample was taken.

A few years ago he began musing about the idea of AIDS as a blood plague, and about the disease's possible connections to the Book of Exodus. In the story, God inflicts 10 plagues on the Egyptians and commands Jewish slaves to smear their doorposts with lambs' blood to ward off the final plague -- the Angel of Death who will kill all the firstborn whose house doorposts aren't swabbed with the blood.

"I thought: How do I want the Angel of Death to pass by me?" Winn said last week in a telephone interview from his Southern California home.

At the same time, Winn wanted God to take notice of his suffering, to hear his cry.

"It's almost like a trick. I'm putting blood on my doorpost so when You send the Angel of Death, it will pass over me," he said.

Considered a long-term survivor of AIDS, Winn is relatively healthy right now and is taking drugs called protease inhibitors, which have been shown to reduce the level of the virus. He currently has an "undetectable" viral load in his blood, he said.

"I'm very lucky."

The 49-year-old artist, whose work has been exhibited at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles and is part of the permanent collection at The Jewish Museum in New York, also sought a way to rouse the Jewish community.

Though today there are Jewish agencies that offer support and counseling to people with AIDS, Winn said he believes the disease wasn't a high priority within the Jewish world until recently.

"I do feel the Jewish world has responded slowly to the AIDS crisis," said Winn, who describes his Jewish orientation as Conservative.

All of these ideas coalesced vividly one day about six months ago while Winn was having blood drawn. Winn explained his ideas to the technician and asked for an extra vial of blood. The technician complied.

The vial, about the size of an adult's index finger and topped with a purple stopper, has been sitting in Winn's refrigerator since then.

This fall, Winn sent several of his photographs to the Magnes for consideration and got a telephone call back from Friedlander. Soon after, his idea for a mezuzah installation came up in their conversation.

Winn praised Magnes officials for their immediate backing.

"They were so incredibly supportive and understood the concept behind this work. I didn't have to sell them on it," he said.

In addition to the mezuzah, the installation will include three biblical passages stenciled on the door frame and on a false wall attached to the frame: Exodus 12:13, Deuteronomy 6:8-9 and Ezekiel 16:6.

The Exodus verse recalls God's commandment to Jewish slaves to smear the doorposts with lambs' blood, and includes the lines: "When I see the blood, I will pass over you, and the plague will not be upon you to destroy you when I smite the land of Egypt."

The Deuteronomy verses include a line of the Sh'ma traditionally written on a mezuzah scroll: "And you will write them upon the doorposts of your house and on your gates."

The Ezekiel verse states: "And when I passed by you and saw you weltering in your blood, I said to you: In your blood live. Yes, I said to you, in your blood live."

Though the Berkeley exhibition will last for just four days, Winn hopes it can travel to other venues.

Bennett, interim rabbi at Alameda's Temple Israel and former executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Greater East Bay, is braced for the criticism he may receive for affixing the mezuzah.

"This is very provocative. It's intended to be provocative," said Bennett, who was the country's first openly gay rabbi.

But Bennett has an answer for those who consider the mezuzah a "mockery" or "out of bounds."

He notes that the object is "not a true mezuzah" because it lacks the parchment with biblical verses, and that the Exodus story does provide a precedent for placing blood on doorposts.

"If any of my colleagues or cohorts say, `You're injuring the tradition,' I can say that it's open to interpretation and this is my interpretation," Bennett said.

"This is all symbolic. And religion is about symbolism."

Winn will discuss his AIDS Mezuzah at 1 p.m. PST Sunday, Dec. 1 on America Online's Jewish Community area.


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