Objects and places become authentic and concrete when they are experienced with all senses, actively, reflectively. Some places are devoid of reality, because we know them only from the outside, from a tourist’s perspective, through reading or stories. For many of us, the Wrocław mikvah is such a place. It used to be frequently visited, yet nowadays it is filled with water only a few times a year. It has been an essential place for the Jewish community in Wrocław, unique in terms of architecture, yet it is often absent from the mental maps of the city dwellers, and its ritual function remains vague to them. The mikvah has been a source of fascination to Noa Heyne, an Israeli artist based in Berlin. She has created an installation whose functioning and details refer to the architecture of the mikvah and its history. The work was created from scratch during Heyne’s several-week residence in Wrocław. It is now presented for the first time as one of the elements accompanying the Simcha Jewish Culture Festival.
Noa Heyne’s interactive installation makes the mikvah a physically tangible space. It invites us to the bathhouse and offers an extended experience which engages the senses and triggers more than just visual cognitive processes. The installation is comprised of a hydraulic system and sculptural elements that refer to the surrounding architecture as well as the human body. The hydraulic system holds wooden platforms placed in and around the pool. When the installation is activated by stepping on the platform, the visitor’s weight makes the sculpture move to the accompaniment of the sound of water.
Water plays a fundamental role both in the installation and in the ritual of purification – it is a universal symbol of change and power. Heyne’s object binds both of these meanings together; water set in motion by the pressure makes the floor move. It is possible due to the pipe system hidden under the platforms, inspired by the architectural solutions used in ritual bathhouses, which allows kosher water to be brought into the pool and mixed with ordinary water. The hydraulic system, although invisible, is a crucial element in Heyne’s installation. It enables head-to-toe, multisensory experience that allows us to actually feel the spatial qualities of the mikvah and understand the essence of the place not just through reason.
The installation strongly emphasises the dependence of our spatial orientation on the body posture, whose verticality expresses control over the environment and the gravity. Upright posture also brings a sense of confidence of living in an organised world whose essential part is the ground under our feet – not only as a physical point of reference that is always there, but also as the culturally and psychologically conditioned need for stability. The installation disturbs the pattern of moving forwards and backwards and forces submission to the up-down movement, which triggers associations with being submerged in the waters of the mikvah and literally causes us to lose our foothold. The moving floor introduces a sense of unusualness and destabilisation while referring to accumulated events from the past, or even secrets lurking under the surface. The work evokes sensual experiences, causing the body to adapt to its movement and act accordingly. What results is a kind of sensual harmony and symmetry between the object, space and the participants’ bodies invited to interact with it.
UNDERCURRENT is an intense deep-sea water current which is often imperceptible on the surface. It refers to the invisible power of the seas and oceans, which affects entire ecosystems, regardless of whether we are aware of it or not.
photo & video: Alicja Kielan