For Chanukah 2020, visual artist Olivia Guterson crafted a paper lantern menorah as a public installation to illuminate the issue of homelessness. For Passover 2021, Guterson again merged her brilliantly detailed artistry, her Judaism, and her keen awareness of social and environmental issues.
At Our Table, an installation at Detroit’s Museum of Contemporary Arts, invoked iconic emblems of a Passover seder table — all assembled from single-use plastic.
Reboot and the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit commissioned Guterson to create the installation for Plastover, a campaign to get people to give up plastic for Passover. The installation was also part of CANVAS’s Dwelling in a Time of Plagues, a collection of new artwork created for outdoor exhibition.
“I want to put everything on there,” Guterson said, while working on the piece. “Elijah’s cup and the seder plate. I’ll have the haggadah and the wine. I want to have everything.”
While the Passover-themed items on the table were identifiable to Jewish viewers, Guterson conveyed a universal image of warmth and togetherness in her installation, one that welcomed all audiences. (You can see images of the completed installation on MOCAD’s website.)
“A dinner table is something anyone can understand,” she said. “What does it mean to set a table? What is that level of care? What does it mean to gather in this time or to gather in other times?”
To reflect that last point — the experience of holiday observance in a year of COVID — Guterson’s table was twenty feet long with “four settings for socially distant guests.”
“We’re living in a time of plagues layered over each other,” she said.
Guterson began work on the installation by asking for plastic on social media and “collecting plastic off the ground and weaving it together to give it a different value.” Guterson’s handiwork is highly detailed, and she didn’t want to “obscure the material so much that people can’t recognize that it’s plastic. I want the material to be very visible to the viewer.”
Guterson also came across an unexpected item that proved to be beneficial: conference banners with company logos.
“They have the best vinyl,” she noted. “Most conferences have dates on them, so they throw them away.” By painting over them, Guterson could repurpose them as placemats or tablecloths.
Guterson’s approach to layering patterns and materials pays homage to artists on both sides of her family. “I’m looking at a lot of my [paternal] grandma’s quilts. She was a prolific quilter and embedded a lot of different stories in them. She had china and quilts that she brought over from Russia. On my mom’s side, I grew up with rich textiles and brooches. My family came up from the South, and there are so many beautiful patterns and Sunday hats. I grew up on the Navajo nation in New Mexico, so again just beautiful pattern work. All of that influences the language I’ve created.”
Guterson also found inspiration in the work of contemporary artists, citing Dianna Cohen from the Plastic Pollution Coalition.
“There’s also an incredible artist in Seattle, Alfredo Arreguín who’s of Mexican descent. I’m also really inspired by Kehinde Wiley — his ability to depict the Black body in very vulnerable ways but with so much power and dignity.”
History and identity are central to Guterson’s work, particularly at a pivotal moment in her own life.
“Being a mom for the first time makes me think about how I want to embed new values in everything,” she said. “I want to secure a different type of future for my son and for all people. So it’s a calling for me to examine my own life and the choices I make. And what sacrifices I can make to move to a better space.”
Similarly, the process of creating At Our Table created bonds in her community. A local mother contacted the artist to say that “she wants to go before our city council to petition for city businesses to eliminate [plastics]. I had another person reach out after attending the virtual opening and share, ‘I felt so happy to see your beautiful heart and strong vision so powerfully at work in a world that needs repair.'”
Moving forward, Guterson intends “to turn this work into something that has a sustainable second life, either as an education tool or through becoming ecobricks.”
Guterson also was gratified to work with CANVAS on Dwelling in a Time of Plagues.
“I was empowered and supported to create honest work that platformed an issue that I deeply care about, and to engage in a larger creative conversation situated in this complicated time. The intention of the project around site-specific, outdoor works and being able to create this work and know that my community could safely interact with it really meant a lot to me.”