Wandering Tales for Contemporary Storytellers

Pierre-François Galpin

While growing up, we as children then adults understand that folk and fairy tales are not merely stories of wonder in which the Good get rewarded and the Bad punished. The tales’ characters can haunt our imagination for ages, as they reflect the archetypes of humankind, and embody eternal, or one may say, universal stories. A number of scholars in cultural studies, sociology, and psychology have proven the deeper meaning of such tales, such as psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim in The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (1975). Bettelheim introduced his research on the importance of tales on children’s psychological development as follows: 

through the centuries (if not millennia) during which, in their retelling, fairy tales became ever more refined, they came to convey at the same time overt and covert meanings—came to speak simultaneously to all levels of the human personality. [1]

Indeed, beyond the first-reading of a tale’s magical, fantastic, and entertaining dimension, a tale, as an imaginative story, is by definition a product of the human mind, that is to say a story deeply embedded in a social context, a psychological disposition, an identity-driven story. 

Folktales distinguish themselves from fairy tales in the way that they are shaped and re-shaped by being retold many times by different storytellers. “Folk” is precisely defined as relating to a certain tradition and culture of a nation, a community, an identity. Bettelheim (being one of the most famous theorists on tales) primarily analyzed tales from the Western tradition, written by famous European writers such as Charles Perrault or the Brothers Grimm. With the rise of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, these tales had become more universal as European nations settled the world. However, many other traditions and stories have come to us through the ages from different parts of the world and diasporas. The very rich Jewish folklore, thousands of years old, is the source of inspiration for this exhibition. Finding a single source, among the numerous anthologies of Jewish folktales, is not the easiest task; as folktales are being passed down from a generation to the next, the versions evolve, change, and the “original” story all of sudden does not exist anymore. We considered many anthologies written by folklorists Ellen Frankel, Beatrice Silverman Weinreich, and finally Howard Schwartz. The latter’s anthology Leaves from the Garden of Eden: One Hundred Classic Jewish Tales (2009) compiles one hundred tales from many different places (Poland, Yemen, Morocco, Spain, etc.) and times (from the fifth century to nineteenth century, and more undated), reflecting the vastness of the Jewish diaspora and its attachment to the intergenerational transmission of stories. Schwartz points out in his introduction the different aspects that make Jewish tales distinct from other folklores: “an interesting amalgam of the magical and the spiritual,” involving “invisible creatures—angels, sprits, and demons,” great quests and divine interventions. [2]

In researching the way stories and folktales have been shared, told, and repurposed through the ages, the figure of the maggid appeared. A maggid was a wandering storyteller, sometimes a preacher, who would travel from village to village, sharing stories and tales from Jewish folklore and the Torah. In a secondary interpretation from Jewish mysticism, “the term maggid was used to indicate a celestial entity, usually an angel, who delivered mystical secrets to a kabbalist.” [3] A storyteller as a maggid, and by extension an artist, became an analogy for this exhibition. Jewish Folktales Retold: Artist as Maggid started then with the dilemma ofprompting contemporary artists to create new works based on Schwartz’s collection of Jewish folktales. Artists find their inspiration in many different ways and sources; sometimes they are stories, other times they are historical anecdotes, memories, paradoxes, etc. As curators, we usually leave the inspiration to the artists in a way that respects their creative independence freed of any restrictions. But for this exhibition, we did choose a given constraint—only one—that the artists we invited to submit proposals would be inspired by one or more Jewish folktales. To our surprise, most of the artists enjoyed working within this constraint and had a very compelling take on the tales they were given: twisting, extracting, confusing, conceptualizing, and eventually modifying the narratives, their meanings, and characters.

Fairy tales and folk stories have a particular attachment to the structure of narrative. Traditionally, a narrative consists of five elements: “an exposition, a development, a complication, a climax, and a final resolution.” [4] In different folklorists’ views, the form of a folktale does not change while its content can change in many different ways. Every storyteller, or every person telling or writing the tale again, adds their own variations within the limitations specific to the original narratives, characters, concepts, and elements: in other words, recreating a story and not retrieving the original. The artists in the exhibition complicate the retelling even more because they freed themselves from the narrative structure: by singling out a specific character or element of the story, by using satire, by conceptualizing a passage of the narrative, or by making open-ended works that allow the viewers to decide for themselves what the meaning of the story is. The original folktale(s) that the artists chose, despite being their inspiration, often act as a springboard to explore varied and divergent ideas and themes. The artists expand upon the storyteller’s practice of repeating a story while changing its focus, if not its form and content. As art and literature historian Émilie Sitzia pointed out, contemporary artists retelling tales in their works, “engage the viewers with the [original] text on a whole new critical level” [5] exactly because of the independence their medium affords them.  

Young Suh’s photographic project Scenes from a Forest, realized in collaboration with poet Katie Peterson, is inspired by the tale “The Souls of Trees” in which Reb Nachman advises a couple who cannot have children to plant twice as many trees as they had cut down around their house, because these trees are the souls of people. In cutting the trees, the couple scared away the angel of conception, Lailah, because of the moans and cries she heard from the tree-souls, cut too soon. Suh and Peterson created a series of portraits of families in forested landscapes, and provide a contemporary, environmentalist reading of the tale, where trees equate to human lives. This connection between human and tree is inherent in playing on the idea of family trees, as well as in using forests as a symbol of a hope for a kind of immortality and longevity. They also re-frame the idea of an “extended family” suggesting a place in which people and trees share the same space within a photograph, employing the trees’ vertical lines (a traditional representation of lineage), but also with horizontal rows, rethinking the family portrait beyond hierarchy. These portraits document families at a given time, and aim to represent family as a larger, encompassing notion including families of people not biologically-related, of mixed raced, and chosen families. In the light of today’s society, they suggest that the traditional concept of family might need reconsideration.  

Dina Goldstein also presents the tales she chose in a contemporary, and often satirical, context, in her series of eleven photographs that she titled Snapshots from the Garden of Eden. Goldstein has been creating large-scale photographs with a distinctly cinematic, at times surrealist, aesthetic borrowing from the film genres of fantasy and pulp, for a decade now. With her black-and-white photographs she conceived a fantastical, very dark world of supernatural stories that investigate themes of destiny, temptation, justice, wisdom, blind faith, and circumstance. She is using specific passages from the tales she chose, continuing the tradition of illustrating a narrative while imagining audacious ways the mythical characters would look and behave today. In her photograph Dybbuk, Goldstein depicts the tale’s complication moment: the malicious spirit as a dark cloud possessing a woman on a hospital bed, in excruciating pain, while the nurses and doctors look at her both horrified and disapproving. The passage only reads: “when the doctor arrived he found the woman lying in bed with her eyes closed and her mouth open, like a body without a soul. [. . .] and they realized, to their horror, that she had been possessed by a dybbuk.” [6] But Goldstein’s reinvention, and contextualization, of the spirit’s possession scene is a twist on the many possible meanings of the tale today, such as comparing medicine to exorcism, a possible critique on the harsh conditions of hospital practices, and the ambivalence of human beings’ judgment capacities. As a contrast, her photograph Ibbur shows a benevolent spirit, the opposite of a dybbuk, protecting a young girl sitting on her bed, as if it were coming out of a tablet computer and in the form of a white light circling around the girl’s chest. With this work, Goldstein questions the goodwill of technology toward our children, at once hypnotizing and caretaking, but its future consequences still unknown. 

By updating the context of the stories, Goldstein offers new insights into what the tales and their characters might mean to a twenty-first century audience. In a similar way, Tracey Snelling’s contribution to the exhibition, Lilith’s Cave, is a depiction of the tale’s exposition and development—its stage—with a twist. Snelling was influenced by the tale “Lilith’s Cave,” in which a teenage girl is possessed by demoness Lilith’s daughter and is being rejected by her father because of her promiscuous behavior. Very shaken by the archaic vision and message about women’s social roles in the tale, Snelling created this work as a reclamation of female strength, defiance, and sexuality. Playing with archetypal and diminutive feminine attributes, Lilith’s Cave gathers a miniature representation of the teenager’s bedroom, whose mirror is the portal to Lilith’s cave next to the house. The mirror plays excerpts of films where women are shown as bold, strong, violent, and sensual characters, as Snelling’s way of paying homage to the many Lilith heroines in popular media. In presenting a different, contemporary take on the original story, Snelling repurposes the idea of a folktale as an educational tool with a message, which Bettelheim described as teaching how “a struggle against severe difficulties in life is unavoidable, is an intrinsic part of human existence—but that if one does not shy away, but steadfastly meets unexpected and often unjust hardships, one masters all obstacles and at the end emerges victorious.” [7] Snelling intends her work to illustrate the narrative and reinterpret the tale, while offering empowering messages to the viewers, and conveying that nothing is as one-sided as it may appear; there is always another side to a story.

Other artists in the exhibition chose to single out a specific object recurring in some of the tales, and use it as a metaphor for something with greater meaning. While reading the Jewish tales anthology, Mike Rothfeld was inspired by the many travels that the characters experience. In particular, some of them are transported through time and space via mystical passageways and caves, in tales such as “Milk and Honey” and “The City of Luz.” His piece It is tomorrow we bury here today is a polystyrene foam and papier-mâché cave-portal that viewers can pass through in the gallery—being in essence transported to nowhere—from one place to the same one, unless they are willing to believe in the portal’s magical powers. Rothfeld’s lo-fi, almost-clumsy sculptures recall set pieces and props for 1970s science fiction films, referring to an era of visual effects that required viewers to suspend their disbelief to be able to imagine an alternative reality. In his writings, he has identified the portal as the ultimate representation of capitalistic time efficiency, in which the solution to loss of time and power is a compression of time and space. It is tomorrow we bury here today is not only an iridescent depiction of the tales’ portal, but also an invitation to envision alternative futures for ourselves and question reality. Simultaneously, the work is an open-ended work that requires the viewers’ interaction, and willingness to interpret what that journey to nowhere might mean.

In that sense, Rothfeld’s work operates within literary theorist Roland Barthes’ analysis of the narrative: “narrative as object is the point of a communication: there is a donor of the narrative and a receiver of the narrative.” [8] The works inspired by these stories depend heavily on the receiver-viewer’s point of view and interpretation of the story, as delivered by the donor-artist. Similarly, other works in the exhibition require the viewers’ imagination and system of belief to open up for amazement and bewilderment. Forests and trees populate a number of stories from Jewish folklore and particularly caught the attention of Andy Diaz Hope and Laurel Roth Hope, interpreting the forest as a haven, as a passage to go through on a character’s journey, or as a character itself. The tale “The Souls of Trees” is the main inspiration for their work The Woulds in which trees are inhabited by the souls of people, connected to both the earth and heaven. Their installation gathers tree-like sculptures made of wood, mirror, and glass whose shapes are in-between geometric and organic, as a way to integrate the human-made environment with the natural. In some other stories, souls are described as birdlike, and the Hopes have imagined how the forest would appear to a soul-bird that can see between spaces, times, and spirits, flying from one branch to another. While mesmerizing, their installation is also meant to be visually immersive and convey a spiritual experience to the visitor, almost ready to believe that souls and trees can be one.  

Other artists in the exhibition, like Michael Arcega, chose to represent a specific, usually decisive, moment in the tales when the “magic” happens and a character’s fate is forever changed. Arcega’s work The Enchanted is inspired by the folktale “The Enchanted Island” in which Rabbi Wolf Kitzes, after having been lost at sea, finds himself in a dream alone in a mansion and discovers an incredibly long table; he is then asked to choose between two objects on the table: a shofar and a horn of plenty. He chooses to eat from the latter, but his choice will have consequences he does not anticipate. He wakes up floating on a wooden board, just in time to be rescued. When he returns home, he learns that if he had chosen to blow the shofar, he would have had the opportunity to end the suffering of his people; he could also have had the horn of plenty and been able to end hunger forever. Arcega’s piece is a sculpture in two parts with one end a twisted wood board representing Rabbi Wolf Kitzes’ experience of being lost at sea, and on the other end a wooden table suspended in the air. Viewers encounter the work from different perspectives: from The Museum’s stairwell one can see under the table, and while one goes up the stairs, the whole sculpture is revealed. Like the tale’s protagonist, the viewer is presented with the two objects, placed on the suspended table far from their reach, rendered otherworldly through his use of glitter, mirrors, and lights, and the way Arcega chose to make the objects abstract. The gravity of the Rabbi’s situation is stated to him in the tale’s climax: “and it was within your grasp to do so, so that all our waiting would come to an end.” [9] The Enchanted is a sculptural embodiment of the tale’s magical and crucial moment of decision-making, reflecting on the power and impact of choice. 

Julia Goodman also used a specific moment as source of inspiration for her work, 200 Year Present. Her hanging installation explores human connections, life cycles, and symmetry between the celestial and the terrestrial comprising eighteen concentric circles of handmade paper. The layers are cast from a wooden mold utilizing a complex diagrammatic plan and are installed symmetrically with the largest pieces in the center. Goodman was inspired by the final resolution of “The Bird of Happiness,” which reveals a young king’s daily ritual of spending an hour inside of a shack, dressed in the rags in which he grew up, looking at his reflection in the mirror. As the young king says: “When I go into that shack, I put on the rags I was wearing when I came here, and I stand before the mirror so that I can remember where I came from. For only then can I know where I must go.” [10] In conceptualizing this moment in the tale, Goodman invites the viewer to stand in the center of her sculpture and, like the king, have a similar moment of introspection and reflection on time, humility, and leadership. She also invokes American peace activist Elise Boulding, who proposed that leaders think in terms of centuries and generations when making decisions. With her work, Goodman not only represents the essence of the tale but also conveys her own ideals and meanings, free for the viewers to reflect on further.

In his 1936 essay “The Storyteller,” philosopher Walter Benjamin writes that “the storyteller takes what he tells from experience—his own or that reported by others. And he in turn makes it the experience of those who are listening to his tale.” [11] Benjamin emphasizes the particular roles of the storyteller and the listener, and by extension the artist and the viewer.

The multiple renditions of the same story that are manifested each time the story is shared constitute the essence of Jewish Folktales Retold: Artist as Maggid. Before being storytellers, the artists also were readers, and therefore had to imagine a new and personal way to represent the tales with which they chose to work. The digital exhibition catalog goes deeper into the meanings the artists created, most notably in the videotaped studio visits that were shot during the course of their production, allowing viewers to investigate and learn further about their artistic process, role as storytellers, and intentions. While the tales were collected and written by someone else, they are made the artists’ own in the form of works of art, which are then shared with an audience of listeners and viewers, both children and adults, who will in turn create their own versions of the stories. 

Pierre-François Galpin is a contemporary art curator and the former assistant curator at The Contemporary Jewish Museum. His interests overlap between photography, new media, and installation art with a focus on conceptual art and storytelling practices. His recent exhibitions include Jewish Folktales Retold: Artist as MaggidFrom Generation to Generation: Inherited Memory and Contemporary Art; and The Yud Video Project at The CJM. Prior to his position at The CJM, he has curated exhibitions at the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts and Proxy SF. His writing has been published in such media as The Exhibitionist, Art Practical, and exhibitions catalogs. He holds an MA in Curatorial Practice from the California College of the Arts, San Francisco and an MA in Urban Policies from Sciences Po, Paris.

1. Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. (New York: Vintage Books, 1975, 1976), 18–19.

2. Howard Schwartz, Leaves from the Garden of Eden: One Hundred Classic Jewish Tales. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 6–14. 

3. Yoram Bilu,“Dybbuk and Maggid: Two Cultural Patterns of Altered Consciousness in Judaism,” in AJS Review, Vol. 21, No. 2. Cambridge University Press. 1996, 349.

4. Émilie Sitzia citing Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale in “Narrative Theories and Learning in Contemporary Art Museums: A Theoretical Exploration,” in Stedelijk Studies, no. 4, 2016.

5. Émilie Sitzia, “Beyond the Book in the Glass Coffin. Muzealization of Fairy tales: from Theme Parks to Museums?,” in: Interférences littéraires/Literaire interferenties, 16, “Literature at the Museum: The Muzealisation and Exposition of Literature”, Marie-Clémence Régnie (ed.), June 2015, 137.

6. Schwartz, Ibid., 290.

7. Bettelheim, Ibid., 23.

8. Roland Barthes, Image – Music – Text. (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), 109.

9. Schwartz, Ibid., 354.

10. Schwartz, Ibid., 45.

11. Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov,” 1936. In Dorothy J. Hale, Ed., The Novel: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory 1900-2000. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), 264.