Drama of Identities

Opening: July 09, 2009

Exhibition Curator: Irena Gordon

“Drama of Identities” – an exhibition of drawings, paintings, photos and videos of various artists, examining issues of Jewish and Israeli identity through ironic, theatrical and poetic references.

Artists: Raya Bruckenthal, Zoya Cherkassky, Gary Goldstein, Assi Meshullam, Roee Rosen, Sala-Manca, Dafna Shalom, Shahar Sarig, Ronen Siman Tov, Keren Shpilsher, Pavel Wolbeg, Maya Zack.

Curator: Irena Gordon.

click here to view the exhibition film (by 2team)

Who is a Jew? This culturally, historically, politically, and socially loaded question is at the base of Israeli reality, in both overt and concealed ways. The day-to-day ramifications of this issue, its relevance, and its aggressive nature all have a material and metaphorical influence on the individual and collective search for identity of citizens of the country and non-citizens alike  those excluded by the Law of Return. Given its centrality, this search for identity understandably has many manifestations in contemporary art in Israel. One of the most intriguing is the creation of alternating personas and fluid subjects that take shape through narratives of gender, body, sexuality, violence, East-West relations, etc. Not a single , clear, and conformist super-narrative, but many, frequently altering stories.

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Dafna Shalom, “Arvit” (evening prayer), single channel sound + video installation, 2008

The exhibition focuses on artists for whom the question of Jewish identity is an intrinsic part of their work. Some relate to the subject as an inseparable part of their overall examination of Israeli identity; and all of them confront the various manners in which selfhood is established in light of its continuous undermining. The works present a drama of identities and reincarnations of identities. They offer a new, subversive interpretation of religious concepts and objects and their daily uses. The works bring to the fore new contexts for religious texts and for traditional visual imagery, conducting a dialogue with aesthetic questions and contemporary reality while expressing personal insights into ceremonies and customs, which in turn change their meaning and validity. In all these ways, the works constitute an ongoing contemporary discourse regarding the concept of “being a Jew.”

This discourse is not a new one. Its roots can be found in the beginning of Zionism, with the establishment of the Bezalel School of Art at the beginning of the twentieth century, with artists such as Moshe Lilien and Boris Schatz, and later on in the 1930s with artists such as Joseph Budko and Jacob Steinhardt and their discussion of the “old” Jew of the traditional Jewish town and the “new” modern Jew. The discourse continued with the artistic movement of “New Horizons” and with the modernist approach to Judaism as a way to reach the abstract and the sublime in art, with artists such as Mordechai Ardon and Arieh Aroch. Simultaneously, these artists researched local paganism and native cultures. Artists of the 1970s, among them Michal Na’aman and Yocheved Wienfeld, dealt with Judaism as a basis for conceptual action and as a starting point for thinking about gender, body, and politics. From the 1980s onwards  following the downfall of political and social ideologies, alongside the emergence of a post-modernist and psychoanalytical orientation, and with the representation of the self in the international art scene—the discussion of Jewish identity became a central means for artists like Moshe Gershuni and Michael Sgan Cohen to create an examination of the self through a focus on Jewish heritage at the expense of the Israeli ethos.

In recent years, facing growing splits and fragmentation between the world of the “self” and that of the “other” in Israeli reality, more and more artists relate to selfhood through an examination and revision of their Jewish identity and the physical and emotional borders it sets for them. The exhibition “Drama of Identities” is comprised of works by artists whose subject matter is the very inquiry into the legitimacy of the definition of “who is Jew” in Israel and its meaning for them, exploring the aggressive usage of the definition and looking at its mythology in a variety of fields and contexts: the conflict and relationship between religious experience and biological experience; consumer and advertising culture alongside prayer verses; concepts of messiah and sovereignty as a manner of self searching; fluid boundaries between spirituality and aggression; and the encounter with other cultures and myths  Christian, Muslim, and pagan. Above all they create fictional biographies that relate to the history of art and of the Jewish people, while simultaneously challenging the conventional sets of signs surrounding these histories. These fantastical identities, which create liminal situations of the definition of the “self,” seek to propose a different kind of language and thought.

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Keren Shpilsher, Don’t call me Shirley Temple, 2005

Through the use of surrealist, expressive, and conceptual approaches in a variety of artistic media  painting, drawing, photography, installation, sculpture, and video  the exhibition weaves together a variety of theatrical, ironic, and poetic gazes. These gazes are assembled, dismantled, and reassembled in the works of the twelve artists to generate fictional, misleading, and profound alternatives.

Raya Brukenthal uses the Hassidic “shtreimel” to create an extreme investigation of nature-culture relations. In the series “She Wolf” she traces the shtreimel’s origins in the animal itself, namely, in its fur. She deals with the Roman myth of the birth of Rome  the wolf nursing the two children Romulus and Remus, founders of the city  and turns it on its head: the woman, and not the beast, nurses the man-animal, whose recognizable features are the fur hats, the shtreimels. In the “Kosher Style” series (a term for American food with a Jewish orientation, though it is not kosher), Brukenthal continues to investigate religious trappings, this time in the form of pop images (for example, the Campbell’s can with the kosher sign) and their connection to the signified, i.e., the religious believer.

A macabre examination of animal-man relations vis-à-vis Jewish identity, alongside a confrontation with the sources of violence and its transgression, is at the center of Assi Meshullam’s work. Meshullam creates visual and linguistic images that demand a direct look at evil and brutality, using narratives taken from fictitious Jewish texts and a revised interpretation of the Jewish iconography of victimhood and sacrifice. The paintings and the objects from “Iscariot,” the drawing from “Rir,” and the book “Ro’aHem” oscillate between the familiar and identifiable and that which is foreign and detested  the Other whom we do not recognize as ourselves. All these provide the artist with the conceptual and physical material for a critical phrasing of the violent and dark sides of Jewish identity.

At the center of Roee Rosen’s work, which revolves around the fictional figure of Jewish Surrealist artist Justine Frank, is a critique of the patriarchal construction of Jewish identity and its aggressive use by the Zionist establishment. A large part of Frank’s provocative, sexual, and violent work, created in Paris of the 1920s and 1930s, is included in “The Stained Portfolio,” a small part of which appears in this exhibition. The research about her private and professional life is presented in the film “Two Women and a Man”; the tracing of the ancestors of the fictional artist as reaching back to the mysterious Sabbatean figure of Jacob Frank. All these works and artistic actions form a philosophical and artistic ensemble that expresses a unique and radical confrontation with male and female identity via Jewish identity, while constantly undermining the aesthetic, cultural, and political values that dominate Israeli discourse.

In 2003, Maya Zack created a collaborative project with eleven high school students. The project, entitled MOCKUMENT 2003, included an installation of twelve drawings and a sculpture. As in the mockumentary genre (a fictional cinematic work which pretends to be a documentary film), here too is a pseudo-scientific experiment that presents an ostensibly neverending copying process based on the famous photograph of Anna Frank. The copying process goes according to instructions passed on to the students by the artist. The alienated and functional nature of the instructions simulates the pedagogic process of Holocaust education and the discussion of Jewish identity in educational institutions in Israel. With each drawing, the image is changed, distorted, and blurred, as is its value as a cultural and historic symbol, until it is emptied out of its value and transformed into an abstraction.

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Maya Zack, MOCKUMENT, sets of school chairs, mixed media, 2003

Lea Mauas and Diego Rotman, the Sala-Manca group, persistently deal with the modes of formation of Jewish cultural identity through various acts of translation and through the creation of alternative, fictional histories that hold up Diaspora culture as a critical and emotional mirror to Israeli culture. They create performative video and sound installations alongside cinematic and theatrical works, whose nature is ironic and full of parody though always centered on the particular human subject. At the center of “Eternal Sabbath,” the installation prepared especially for this exhibition, are electric candles—a family heirloom. The story surrounding them poses questions about Jewish and Socialist traditions.

Zoya Cherkassky’s oeuvre takes place in the space between Jewish and Israeli identity, while at the same time dealing with the notion of Modernism in art and its aftermath. In her new works exhibited in this show, she links pop and conceptual art with the common graffiti inscription that marks an independent and aggressive route on the Israeli landscape: “Na Nach Nachma Nachman Me’Uman.” This inscription has in recent years become a violent, domineering graffiti slogan that reflects the increasing force of missionary and messianic Judaism in Israel, trying to take over contemporary discourse. The presentation of the inscription as a bluish neon sign, reminiscent of both conceptual art and consumer and advertising culture, generates a critical act that demands a response from the spectator who is not allowed to remain indifferent.

The contact between secularized daily life and religious practice is one of the characteristics of the works of photojournalist and artist Pavel Wolberg. Wolberg puts forth a unique way of looking at Israeli identity and Jewish identity by shooting daily occurrences—military, political, and social—as well as the insular world of religious communities. His works cast sharp and aesthetic light on Israeli identity and Jewish identity, locating the most deceptive, compassionate, and tragic of situations. The light and the composition in his photographs sharpen the incomprehensible theatricality of life, in which people live and change identities from the depths of the militaristic and wartime experience, of secular-urban life, and of the national religious and ultra-orthodox communities.

Keren Shpilsher’s 2009 comics series “Keren Kayemeth LeYisrael” (Jewish National Fund), as well as the 2005 collage series “Don’t Call Me Shirley Temple,” deal with self identity through a visual conglomeration made out of a wild inventory of Jewish and Israeli signs: The Menorah, Sabbath candles, verses from the Bible, symbols of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the settlement of the land, and the Zionist ethos of revival, personal experiences, preoccupation with femininity and beauty, etc. The colorful paintings, incorporating stickers, are created upon and in response to the black-and white photographs published by the JNF in the 1950s. The Western Wall, the sacrificial altar, Jesus and Maria, the compassionate Jewish nurse, Moses descending from the Mount with the tablets—all establish a fictional narrative filled with humor and anxiety concerning the figure of the artist itself.

Shahar Sarig deals with perceptions of selfhood through expressive, dense paintings that evolve into collages and assemblages until they appear as an installation in the center of a space dealing with the Wandering Jew. Scenes from the religious-Jewish daily life of prayer and study combine with Christian motifs; sexual scenes are intertwined in aesthetic searches of nude studies and musical motifs. The merging of worlds is in fact an internal split, an unsettling emotional-mental state that painfully and poetically unfolds in front of the spectator, raising questions about the essence of “being” in the world.

Gary Goldstein’s “Hals” series is based on printed images: pages of books with black and white reproductions of paintings, primarily portraits, by the Dutch artist Frans Hals, a contemporary of Rembrandt’s. Goldstein’s series includes seventy-four drawings, twenty-four of which are exhibited in this show. The drawings form a shadow theater of figures and images taken from legends and children’s stories and out of American comic books and ads from the 1950s and 1960s. These are set alongside verses from Psalms that deal with humanistic and universal themes. Goldstein’s oeuvre creates a narrative with no beginning and no end, which confronts the complex and contradictory nature of Judaism, through a comics, surrealist, and popish visual language that recalls fears, anxiety, and violence alongside playfulness and beauty.

The works of Ronen Siman Tov take their inspiration from Jewish kabbalistic and midrashic texts. His paintings and drawings search for the meaning of contemporary Jewish identity and for the basic qualities necessary for a humanistic and faith-based existence in a daily reality of mass media, advertising, and consumer culture. Siman Tov’s works are an ongoing interpretation of central ideas in Jewish mysticism and mythology, amongst them: the sparks of good man must search for within the evil in the world; the tree of knowledge and true understanding of the world; the commandment “love thy neighbor as thyself”; and the search for the figure of the Messiah, the Prophet, or the King through the figure of the artist.

Dafna Shalom’s “Arvit” (or “Evening Prayer”) video installation belongs to her “Time-specific” series. In these works, elements of sanctity and religion become places of rupture and power relations. The figure of the woman in “Arvit” signifies the passage between day and night. Her eyes are tied with a cloth, on which verses from the evening prayer are imprinted. These are slowly revealed in a circular movement and structured order of reading, observing, singing, and silence. The covering of the eyes, the very denial of vision, is a dispossession of power that hints at the use of force on political prisoners in the country. The enigmatic image and the feminine vocals of the singer Dikla, which mix Hebrew and Arabic, charge the work with a tension between modernity and tradition. They also enable the work to challenge the dichotomy of “Arabness” and “Jewishness” and to suggest a spiritual continuity free of violence and force.

Irena Gordon, exhibition curator

Curator in Charge: Hagai Segev