Esther Naor: You Are All Red and So Very White

I became acquainted with the works of Esther Naor only recently, through the installation “You Are All Red and So Very White”, presented at gallery “Florentin45″ until 29/10/11. White strips of cloth, stretched in space, re-define the front entrance. Red, soft stalactites also drip downwards, creating small “ritual baths” of red substance between the sheets, simulating clotted blood, bleeding internal organs, life and death, defilement and holiness. “Is this a scene of violence … or is it an opening into a place of inner pain, spreading out like an ancient landscape…?” writes curator Irena Gordon in the accompanying text. Violence and pain seethe below the surface yet remain occupied with beauty and the formal aesthetics of the installation. However, I believe the location of the installation in the entrance space, lacks something. An invisible barrier allows viewers to remain distant and not absorbed within the thin white sheets and drops of blood. A larger space would completely swallow the viewer, not leaving him room to breathe.

There is something about feminist art, which makes it “always relevant”, even if it appears that the use of blood, shreds of white cloth or talking about the female menstrual cycle has already been done, in the world and in Israel: “Feminism is always in fashion”. Consider for example the works of Yocheved Weinfeld, or the works of art featured in the exhibition “Feminine Presence” at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art (1992). Also consider the contemporary works of Shira Richter that deal with motherhood, works by Hilla Ben Ari, or the loaded works of Dvora Morag, Dana Gillerman, Galia Yahav, and others, which all seem to have a contemporary quality, fully existing in the present.

Naor’s work is rooted in the same context as Hagit Molgan’s exhibition, “Not Prepared”, presented at Kibbutz Beeri Gallery, 2004, and as such, should be considered in conjunction with it. Yet, in the context of Hagit Molgan’s work, the sacredness of the menstrual cycle is highlighted more by her use of “sanitary cloth” (examination cloth) and reference to the processes of purification through menstruation. There are no fresh ideas inherent in these works, rather they testify to a deeply feminist essence with a long tradition; yet for the majority of people, (speaking of) the female menstrual cycle remains taboo. It is hard to imagine a high school literature lesson teaching the poetry of Yona Wallach’s “Eros” (Subconscious Opens Like a Fan, Pg. 154): “And a whistle blew / and flowers bled / beginning to shed blood / and all the flowers / began to ooze blood / and a large crowd / came to collect the blood / and everything dripped in blood / and the sky turned red and darkened / and a little boy went underneath it / and the sky cleared and turned blue/ after dripping blood / and purified itself and turned blue / and a huge gold cup decorated / leaves and flowers of gold / larger than the sky / filled to the brim with blood / and blood dripped / and a gold cup decorated / with leaves and flowers of gold / shows itself full / and drips blood from its lips. ”

One can draw a connecting line between the song and the exhibition through several fundamental themes: providing aesthetic beauty (the poetic for Wallach, the formal for Naor), and making private situations public: “and the huge crowd / came to collect the blood”, analogous to the audience in the exhibition. In “You Are All Red and So Very White,” there is a strong sense of privacy being forfeited, of specifically entering into a scene involving a person’s own blood, we are being exposed suddenly to “inner “, hidden bodily fluids. The eroticism in Wallach’s poetry is evident in the title of the song, and this erotic dimension is also found in Naor’s sculptural installation. The name of the exhibition, “You Are All Red and So Very White” is also taken from the poetic words of Luce Iriguary, in her book “This Sex Which Is Not One”, a book that creates a fascinating “dialogue” with Yona Wallach. As highlighted by Irena Gordon, Naor’s installation is not only focused on the theme of the female menstrual cycle, but spreads out into a broader context. It also conveys blood-soaked bandages, hospital scenes or scenes of war, or, as written in the exhibition text, “a scene of violence”. All these charged sites, from the physical arena of the female body to specific sites, such as a hospital, or an event that can occur anywhere, like war or personal injury, are held together by “the white cloth – the red stains. ” However, from this simple and garish icon, Naor has created a delicate and silent aesthetic environment. The pain does not shout itself, but it is found in the space, in the air that surrounds it. A retrospective look at Naor’s works reveals a preoccupation with the question – “what is femininity?” echoing throughout her oeuvre. In another series of photographic works, highlighting two polar extremes of femininity, Naor dresses in the style of Cindy Sherman, appearing as a bored American suburban housewife (Self-Portrait As a Blonde with Carré Haircut, 2005) and then portrays herself in the image of feminist artist Kiki Smith, who deals with prohibited images of bodily materials. Naor checks her own image in front of female icons, a deceptive process of the loss of self-identity and finding it again inside other women. In other works, Naor uses rice, transforming everyday materials into artistic materials, giving it a magical transformation. In another photo, Naor shot a self-portrait under a mask of rice. The concept of the “Mask” as coined by the post-colonial theorist Franz Fanon, is here engendered with a feminine dimension, in a very tangible way. Do women look out beyond the mask of rice? In Naor’s previous work in the group exhibition “A Season in Paradise” (Florentin 45 Gallery, curated by Irena Gordon) she exhibited an altar made of rice, upon which was placed a fresh fig leaf every few days. The altar also was exhibited in an international exhibition curated by Jan Hoet, in 2009, located in a Christian Church – an excellent context.

The Altar of Rice gives a feminine interpretation of the usually smooth structures of men. The rough texture creates deliberate imperfections, and the rice itself informs you of the Sisyphean work of millions of women – who deal with both the growth and preparation of food for their families. The women themselves seem to be the ones who are sacrificed upon the altar.

In an exhibition at the feminist gallery A.I.R, New York (curated by Susanne Altmann), Naor exhibited a wall of rice made of squares, treated and painted, small works of art which concealed charged emotions, attesting to various emotions, from deprivation, oppression, and exploitation to the personal feelings of failure and homelessness. In the work “Her Home”, the two words are inscribed on a surface of broken rice, which divides them in red. Other rice surfaces portray paintings of female figures in different situations, holding above their heads a black or red square, larger than their slim selves. On another rice square, HELP or WILL DIE, is written in English. These charged words disassociate rice from being a “delicious dish” and give it a repertoire of completely different associations. In 2009, Naor created a whole room consisting of furniture made of rice: a desk and a bed, under the title “The Other Room “. The use of rice also featured in a video she made projected onto a “screen of rice”. The film itself presents a dancer (the artist herself) dancing a spiraling, ritual dance. Naor’s art is a profoundly feminist art, interesting, painful. This is the art of looking at the status quo, “drowning” in rice, or blood, and looking at the loss of identity through physical matter, whether through a repertoire of different attributes forming a different identity, or through disguise, or through the investigation of specific materials, highlighting gender.

(Review from Erev Rav Web Magazine, 8.10.2011)


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October 2018

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© Esther Naor 2015