Coren Rau, MFA AC+D '13, organizes a nationally juried show of traditional sukkahs.
Coren Rau, MFA AC+D ’13 began his internship with the Oregon Jewish Museum (OJM) in mid April of 2012. A short six months later he had successfully organized and mounted a juried art and architecture exhibition with entries from across the country. The final exhibition, SukkahPDX, showcased six original and modern interpretations of the traditional Jewish sukkah.
A sukkah is a temporary dwelling built each fall during the weeklong Jewish holiday of sukkot. Sukkahs are explicitly temporary shelters, and are meant to be fragile and permeable. Sukkot is a harvest holiday, and the sukkahs are considered reminders of the time the ancient Israelites spent wandering in the wilderness.
In Judaism, Sukkot is considered a joyous occasion for eating, celebrating, and gathering with friends, family, and guests.
“You dwell in it as you would your home,” Rau explains. “You’re supposed to eat as many meals as possible in it. Part of my responsibility was seeing that the sukkahs were both designed and used. Spirit of the holiday is about the structures being occupied.”
But building a sukkah can be complicated.
“There’s a complex set of rules, laws, and traditions that govern how the sukkahs should be built,” explains Rau. “They must have a minimum of three walls, but those walls need to meet in certain ways. It has to be sturdy enough to withstand a normal wind. It has to be close enough to the ground to keep goats out.”
Additionally, the roof needs to be made of a natural material, cut from a growing plant. The structure should provide more shade that sun, but you should be able to see the stars through the roof.
Proposals for sukkahs in the SukkahPDX exhibition came from the East Coast, the Pacific Northwest, and California. In the end, Rau and a panel of jurors, which included artists Allen Wexler and Barry Pelzner, scholar Sylvia Frankel, and architect David Hyman. Ultimately, the jury selected six of the submissions, five of which were constructed at OJM during sukkot, in early-October.
They were the focal points for a weeklong series of events that sought to encourage awareness of contemporary questions around homelessness, food access, and resource sustainability.
From the OJM website, “Explicitly fragile and permeable, these shelters pose ancient questions of protection and enclosure, of transience, displacement and domestic space that remain highly relevant in the 21st century.”
“The events around SukkahPDX were about the precariousness of domestic comfort,” says Rau. “We planned a series of events that opened up that conversation.”
These events included presentations on food security, discussions on housing justice, an evening of improv performances, a Shabbat service and potluck meal, and an afternoon street fair with live music and local food.
The SukkahPDX exhibition was part of a larger series of events sponsored by the Oregon Jewish Museum to engage a younger audience. Each of the events in the series, SIX: Social Playground, was planned or curated by a different OJM intern. Rau was responsible for organizing and executing Sukkah PDX, the final event in the series. The exhibition was a partnership between OJM and the joint MFA in Applied Craft and Design program (AC+D). Other events in SIX included a film festival and music series.
“I got so much out of the experience,” says Rau. “It was a real hands-on, start-to-finish experience addressing all the details of a major, complex event like that. I was at center of drafting all the text. It was a really interesting process.”
He continues: “OJM is a really dynamic organization to work with. Immediately, I felt that my voice and insight mattered in the process. It was really useful to me.”
This inaugural exhibition was a success. “Based on the people who showed up to help install events, says Rau, “it was clear that we had reached a set of people who don’t often come to the museum. Created an awareness within the Portland design community and in Jewish community.”
Rau’s own studio work explores themes of displacement and fragility.
“Conceptually, a lot of ideas embedded in the sukkah have been in my work. Able to think about them in a different context,” explains Rau. “In fact, JP connected me to the project in part because he knew I had built a sukkah as part of my fall studio work.”
“I’ve been thinking a lot about how to create certain qualities or experiences of space that can exist regardless of place.”
You can view more of Coren Rau’s work on his portfolio.