Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Beasts of Burden

Examining art, religion, and nationalism.

By Cory Dugan

OCTOBER 19, 1998:  Does art have a nationality? One is tempted to assert that it does only if the artist is nationalistic. By the same token, art has religion only if the artist is religious. If religion and nationalism are nearly inseparable, and virtually mandated, as is the case in a state such as Israel, how can an artist deny it in his or her work?

The exhibit “Long Memory/Short Memory,” at the University of Memphis Art Museum, would propose that an Israeli artist (defined by the exhibit also as a Jewish artist) bears a burden – the Holocaust – that finds expression one way or another in his or work. This burden is the long memory of the title, one that predates the birth of the majority of the artists in the exhibit. The short memory is that of life in Israel, a nation officially in existence only 50 years, where existence – in the words of curator Nella Cassouto – “is shadowed by the perpetual threat of destruction.”

There is no direct reference to the Holocaust to be found; in much of the art, there is nothing palpably Judaic or Israeli. But there is nonetheless a link, an undercurrent. This is a dark-humored exhibit, by turns morbid and ascetic. The work is literate, studied, and for all its stylistic differences, remarkably cohesive. Whether this is evidence of the curatorial thesis or merely a product of curatorial bias is debatable.

The only appearance of an overt Holocaust image is in The Sixth Day, a work by Moshe Gershuni wherein two coffee cups are emblazoned with crude swastikas; they flank a plate which bears an inscription in untranslated Hebrew along its edge. One might guess a reference also, from the title, to the Biblical Creation myth. Gershuni’s paintings are equally ambiguous. Painterly abstractions with landscape overtones and marks suggesting Hebrew calligraphy, they leave little entrance but that of formal consideration; on that front, they are powerful images, defined by strong shapes and forceful brushstrokes. But they beg for elucidation that is sorely missing in the catalog.

Hebrew text appears also in Ilana Zuckerman’s Real Time in a Sealed Room – scrawled sideways, alternating with lines of English, on the walls of a hallway enclosed at one end by a “wall” of fabric. Within this “sealed room” (a tiny construction on the wall stands in for a sealed doorway) is a gallery bench, a pair of audio speakers, and the (obligatory in this sort of installation) residue of a couple of crumpled garbage bags and a roll of duct tape. The piece is billed as a sound installation and the sound portion of the piece – a medley of voices spoken through gas masks, broadcast news reports, and other memorabilia of the Gulf War – is thought-provoking and well-executed (if a little tedious); the rest of the installation is superfluous, meaningless, and sloppy.

Yochoved Weinfeld’s History Series is a work of flawed genius. The genius is the concept; the flaw is the execution. The theme of the piece – “History, it seems, for the uninitiated, consists of just a few words” – is inscribed on each of the five works in the series, along with a few of the few words. Words such as: forest, milk, wolf, child, train, war, etc. War appears in all five pieces; child and train appear in three. The evocation of an appropriated oral history of the Holocaust – Weinfeld was born in Poland in 1947, to survivors who rarely spoke of their experience – is striking in this simple listing of words; it conjures humor and pathos and Freudian free-association. Each actual piece is assembled from multiple panels of paintings and photographs. One wishes they were as poignant as the words, as the idea; they are instead clumsy, heavy-handed, and severely lacking finish.

The remainder of the exhibit, for good or ill, could be from anywhere. Ayana Friedman’s Silent Environment – photos of a woman pressing herself against glass, enormously enlarged and printed on quilted fabric – is an image we’ve simply seen before (from various performance artists and – even worse – mimes), one that would perhaps be less trite without the extra symbolic baggage. The baggage breaks the porter’s fragile back in Ariane Littman-Cohen’s Virgin of Israel and and her Daughters (terrific title): a small gallery filled with beehive boxes, emptied of bees and outfitted with dim red lightbulbs and a convoluted mixed-metaphor symbolism involving Hebrew wordplay, honey and the dead, the myths of Zeus and the Golem, and prehistoric matriarchal societies.

Moshe Kupferman’s paintings on (and also titled) Industrial Cardboard are gorgeous, gooey abstractions. Daniel Sacks’ gooey fetus sculptures are psychobabble made physical, easily mistaken for a Randall Terry wetdream. Mani Salama doodles on old book bindings; they look artsy and neo-romantic and stuff, but I just wondered what happened to the rest of the books, the important parts. Micha Ullman makes blandly handsome minimalist drawings and sculptures – Donald Sultan and Joel Shapiro with rust and red dirt.

The portrayal throughout this exhibit of Israel (and its incumbent Jewish majority) as a victim of oppression is historically and horribly accurate, a lamentable lesson for mankind. But to portray Israel today as a modern-day victim is little more than propaganda. An honest artistic appraisal might consider the consequences of the oppressed becoming the oppressor; there are certainly Muslim and Orthodox Christian artists in Israel who could address that issue, given the opportunity and the forum granted these state-sanctioned artists.

With that thought in mind, I close with a look at the work of Elisha Dagan. Western 4 (Go...D) is an elegant, thought-provoking piece. It consists of four large, black vertical boxes with hinged lids; the first two and the fourth are open, the contour-fitted contents on display in front. These contents are letters, more accurately replicas of lead type from an enormously oversized press. As the title suggests, the letters spell out “GO…D” with the third box closed and still concealing its contents. What could it be? God could be good. God be even be good as gold.

Or, as recent history suggests, God can be used to goad.

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