‘a sukkah for our times’: City centre installation by PhD researcher Max Munday and local Jewish community

2022-10 'a sukkah for our times' Drawing - Image credit Max Munday
a sukkah for our times
Wednesday 12 – Friday 14 October 2022
Sheffield Winter Garden

You can hear audio of this text being read out here: a sukkah for our times audio.

a sukkah for our times is an art installation and event-space created for the festival of Sukkot by PhD researcher Max Munday and members of the local Jewish community, including Ken Awele Okafor, Chella Quint and Ruth Nicholson.

Inspired by the shelters of the ancient Israelites as they travelled in the desert having fled slavery in Egypt, a structure in Sheffield’s Winter Garden will serve as a temporary space in which our city’s diverse public can take refuge, consider where we have been and what is to come.

All are very welcome to join us and to creatively explore our relationships with pasts and futures, our memories and hopes.

a sukkah for our times has developed from recent and experimental postgraduate research taking place at Sheffield Hallam University working with themes that draw on performance, dance scholarship, Jewish studies, critical theory and fine art.

Why a ‘sukkah’ and why Sukkot?

A ‘sukkah’ is Hebrew for ‘booth’ and is a key feature of the Jewish festival of Sukkot – which this year is 9-16 October – in which Jews remember the shelters that the ancient Israelites built as they travelled in the desert having fled slavery in Egypt.

The ‘sukkah’ then is a temporary space in which to take refuge, consider where we have been and what is to come. It is often decorated with items that hang from a roof, which itself can be made through the arrangement of leaves or foliage. In different Jewish traditions, space is left in the shelter for the spiritual presence of significant ancestors.

Why in the Winter Garden?

The Winter Garden provides a space of calm in the city centre – somewhere that is open for anyone; a place that is both inside and outside, with its glass walls and ceiling and beautiful plants. Like the ‘sukkah’, you are sheltered but can look up and see the sun through vegetation.

Locating the installation in Sheffield’s city centre is also important symbolically. Jewish life, both current and historical, is not a prominent feature in the public life and consciousness of Sheffield. There are only two public displays that recognise Jewish experience: one is a religious event for the winter festival of Hanukkah in which a large menorah (candelabra) is displayed in the Peace Gardens and the other marks the Nazi murder of Jews and other groups in Holocaust Memorial Day. a sukkah for our times offers a space for the living knowledge and multiple identities of local, young Jews to be brought into a generative encounter with the diverse public that uses the Winter Garden. It is not a ‘show and tell’ event about Judaism; it is a space of performance, creativity, connection and imagination, starting in these Jewish experiences but expanding out around universal themes.

What happens in a sukkah for our times?

In a sukkah for our times, the public enter an intimate space in which they are welcomed to connect to their pasts and to the futures that they hope for. Coming in, visitors might hear the sounds of Between bodies, a sound piece composed by Max with the breaths, resonances and movements of human and instrument bodies. 

In Jewish tradition, the sukkah holds the presence of multiple bodies: family, friends and guests who come into the structure to reflect on where they have been and where they are going. Welcomed in alongside them are the ghosts of leaders of the Jewish people from the ancient past. Our structure, offering universal sanctuary, welcomes all people, and any of the ancestors and past experiences that our visitors might need or want to attend to.

The sukkah is also a future space; a place to pause and to think “where am I going?” The ancient Israelites sought a home having fled oppression and enslavement. That destination was a land, but the hopes of those in this sukkah might be around visions of a better community, city, country or world that we can contribute to from where we are.

The structure is an art installation but it is also an ‘event-space’, which is a way of suggesting that what is important is whatever happens in the structure. There is an openness to what emerges and the connections, expressions and interpretations we make are all valid.

As in the research, there are different ways for the public to express themselves, but here it begins with a blue thread. Each person takes a thread and as they consider questions of their relationship with pasts and futures, they tie a simple knot onto the structure of the ‘sukkah’. Visitors continue to make knots as they reflect about the role of the past in their lives and how they want their future to unfold. They might do this silently for themselves or share this in conversation with others. Then visitors can choose to put their words down on paper that will then be hung from the structure’s roof. Through words and the knots and lines of people’s threads, the space will be shaped by our memories and hopes.

We hope that this temporary structure offers a creative opportunity in which we can connect to pasts and possible futures, and that these contributions can be interpreted and explored further in art-making and practice-based research in the coming months and years.

2022-10 'a sukkah for our times' Drawing - Image credit Max Munday

a sukkah for our times drawing – Image credit Max Munday

Background of the research project that has inspired a sukkah for our times

Max Munday is in the third year of his PhD at Sheffield Hallam University. In his project, Max explores Jewish identity and memory through arts-based methods working with movement, sound and mark-making.

Starting with the complexity of issues like identity and how we relate to the past, Max’s work pushes at the rigid frameworks of how Jews are represented, by starting with the movements of the body.

In research that involves him and a small group of volunteer participants, this experimental approach has used activities based on improvised methods of creative expression. It has drawn on personal histories, subjective understandings and relationships with Jewish culture, and has made connections to Jewish ritual, pasts and mythology, and imagined futures.

Max’s research ranges in its methods: from workshops in which participants danced with the gestures of their ancestors, to weaving bodies and stories together, to creating new forms of communication formed through improvised movements and sounds.

a sukkah for our times is the second public art event that has developed out of his doctoral research, following his video projection and performance pieces as part of the summer exhibition When Space Becomes the Screen at S1 Artspace alongside fellow PhD artist-researchers. Read more about When Spaces Becomes the Screen on the Blog here.

Max Munday is an artist and doctoral student at Sheffield Hallam University and studies on a Vice Chancellor’s scholarship. His art practice draws on his experience as a musician, dancer, broadcaster and political activist.

Starting from his complex Jewish identity and heritage, Max’s practice-based research uses the affective and relational aspects of sound and movement to connect with other Jewish subjectivities. He seeks to create an experimental research space to question fixities and open possible better futures.

[Image credit: Max Munday]