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A Portrait of the Artist as a Sitting Duck

Esther Naor’s current exhibition reveals a body of new works formulated and consolidated for the specific space in which they are exhibited. As such, it seeks to be experienced first and foremost as an installation or as installed works with a joint theme. However, the various parts of the installation also stand independently, as if they were different offsprings sharing common genes. The exhibition deals with the body’s betrayal, with its aches and diseases, and with the complex physical and emotional confrontation with the slow healing process. In this context, yearnings and childhood memories emerge and rise to the surface, while questions of identity, aging and femininity are reexamined. This is Naor’s most personal exhibition to date, and it is the culmination of an artistic process that began two years ago. The process began with an installation and sculptural works of an abstract appearance using white gauze cloth dipped in red wax. The shape, material and color led to associations of severed, bloody internal organs refusing to be bandaged or covered. Following these works, Naor created other, more figurative works composed of wounded wax heads with a marble appearance, in colors ranging from black to white. The features in all these faces were identical and generic, but the artist’s treatment of each one gave them a unique appearance, expression and “character”. Positioning them on tall stools with wooden legs, one next to the other in a single room, made them look like patients in a rehabilitation ward, where subjects gathered together for joint, serial treatment which blurred and obscured their identity.

The current installation constitutes the third part of the trilogy, but is in fact a totally new creation. The contents are similar and bear witness to the ongoing investigation and interest in the issues that trouble the artist. Their new version, however, is indicative of a new turn, a development in these works. This installation also includes heads and features, yet this time they are shaped in the form of the artist. Her self-portrait is reflected at us as if through mirror fragments, and is charged with new substance and context in every work. In the past Naor would reveal herself indirectly, in costume or behind a mask; but it is here, in works created from a condition of vulnerability, that she exposes herself in the most direct manner, with her own face, body and voice. The exhibition examines three different stances towards our place in the world: a place of ownership and authority over those smaller and weaker than us, a place of equality and equilibrium, and a place of weakness and fear from that which is big and menacing. It seems to me that the movement back and forth between these three positions is an excellent characterization of human behavior, and is expressed in the exhibition on three central axes, three bodies in space that are surrounded by satellite objects.

Standing on one axis is the work entitled Be a Good Girl, in the center of which is a round, glossy black board that rotates on its axis. Positioned in a circle on the board’s edges are heads similar to bath rubber ducks, with faces in the image of the artist. Located at a certain distance from the board is a rifle on a tripod. The entire work looks like a duck shooting range in a Luna park; the heads / ducks try to evade the rifle aimed at them, but they are trapped in a closed circle and are sentenced to be targets for the anonymous shooter over and over again.

The violent situation takes a turn when we realize that the rifle is loaded with other capsules – various medications. The injury and the medicine are mixed, they interchange as if role playing, in a manner that focuses and clarifies the duality of our attitude towards medicine, the blessings of healing with the undesirable side effects, and from a more general point of view – confronting complex situations. The duck represents innocent, vulnerable victimized creatures which are treated with disdain, serving as rural pets or as hunting targets. In this work, the artist’s duck portraits are reflected on the glossy surface, creating a perfect likeness, a tactic that sharpens the identification with the image and recall’s art’s founding, legendary myth – the myth of Narcissus, the beautiful Greek youth who was punished for his vanity and found his death when trying to kiss his likeness reflected in the water of a lake. An echo of the endless loop in which the heads / ducks are caught can be found in one of the most well-known depictions of the Narcissus myth, Caravaggio’s painting from the end of the 16th century in which the youth and his reflection create a closed circle with the palms of their hands in a way that emphasizes the deceptive, trapping situation.

The concept of beauty and the concept of death are both present in the exhibition, which is characterized by great beauty and meticulous, precise execution. The work How Can You Contribute to the Success of the Treatment? is at the center of the second axis, and reinforces the warped amusement park atmosphere. We see a beautiful, pearl colored horse going up and down to the faint sounds of carousel music. The horse is upside down, perhaps objecting to having a rider, perhaps fighting for its life, and the mechanism operating it is exposed to the viewer, as if to shatter the illusion and magic. This is a single- horned horse, reminiscent of the pure, mythical unicorn, yet its horn is on the side of its head, not the center, like a genetic deformation recalling the location of the injury on the wax heads in previous works. This is a subtle hint at the identification of the horse with the artist, even if it lacks her facial features. The up and down movement loses its associative power, and the metaphor of the blissful ride disintegrates before our eyes as if in a sudden process of maturation. The horse represents nobility and strength, and our attitude towards it is one of honor and equality. The reciprocal relations between horses and humans are rooted deep in history; in art, the horse and its rider are usually depicted together. Here, however, the rider is missing, as is the shooter behind the rifle in the work described above.

Queen Esther, a work depicting a fur carpet made of some type of animal, is the third axis of the exhibition. The beast’s claws are exposed, long and menacing, as if the animal refuses to accept its fate. Its golden head is human, a copy of the artist’s head. Here also we are dealing with a hybrid creature, a beast-woman, similar to the works described above. The identification here is complete, as also indicated by the title, with beauty and death finding their perfect union. The predatory beast, representing the frightening and dangerous, has become insignificant – a doormat. The human-animal pairing has numerous references in art, and usually symbolizes the clash between the natural and wild against the cultured and tamed. In this instance, we find another echo of Greek mythology and hybrid creatures such as the minotaur, centaur and siren, reinforcing the allegorical dimension of the entire exhibition. From here on we have no doubt that Naor is weaving a super-narrative that is subordinating images with an autobiographical dimension, but is also the story of us all.

Alongside these three central works, the exhibition includes complementary works, each constituting another tier in the super-narrative. The long wall of the exhibition space displays a video work spread over three screens. Seen on the central screen is a photographic portrait of the artist, this time sharp and clear, without any blurring or manipulation, and she speaks to us, guiding and warning us, yet in fact reciting a set text from a medication information leaflet. In the context of the exhibition, this acquires greater meaning, such as to pay attention to the exhibition viewing dosage and be aware of the significance and the side effects that may stem from them. A snakelike twisting signal, typical of monitors in laboratories and examining rooms, moves across the horizontal axis, passing from screen to screen, and as it progresses it crosses her head, going in through one temple and out the other in an endless orbit. The work functions in this space as a key indicator, as if the eye of the “Big Sister” is watching over the other works, and seemingly also keeping an eye on the viewer, following his movements and outlining his way. The subject of the head and its vulnerability is a central issue in the exhibition, a guiding light and connecting thread between the various works. In a slightly concealed niche, the artist’s portrait appears once again, sculptured in realistic style, half of it embedded in the wall and above it is a transparent helmet. Our association here is once more of a neurological examination, but also of a soldier in a helmet, reminiscent of the soldier drawn on rice bricks in an earlier work. The work is a preface or introduction to the video installation in the next room; there, we witness actual neurological imaging, with the artist effectively inviting us to enter her head which becomes the arena of some kind of computer game. The projected image recalls Druksland, the 1970s series of self-portraits by Michael Druks. While Druks mapped his face cartographically, making a political statement about nationality and territory, Naor keeps her statement personal and shares her personal pain with us – perhaps in a passionate attempt to find relief, perhaps as a humorous, bittersweet way to confront the pain, as she also does in the childish mural composed entirely of syringes, located in another part of the exhibition space.

The images of illness and methods of healing and treatment are contrasted in the exhibition with images of childhood, as Naor’s mature portrait is confronted with her portraits as a young girl. These contrasts are characteristic of the entire exhibition that draws a complex and non-linear line between childhood innocence and the necessities of adult life. Childhood may appear healthy and free of worries compared to maturity, which is burdened with responsibility and existential anxieties, but nothing is so clear-cut. Double meaning and dialectics are emblematic of many of the images in the exhibition: a rifle shell and a medication capsule, a syringe and an arrow, a hunter and the hunted, caregiver and patient, neurological examination and computer game… thus also the super-images at the foundation of the exhibition: the medical-therapeutic environment and the playing environment, the hospital and the Luna park. The amusement park was chosen as an image that complements the hospital because it is contrary and contrasting. Conditions of fear, dizziness and vomiting occur in both settings, but the amusement park enables us to confront anxiety and fear, such as the fear of confined spaces or height, and the loss of control and connection to the ground. It releases inhibitions and legitimizes childish desires.

Despite the melancholia prevalent in quite a few of the works, the exhibition is also characterized by humor and seeds of hope. Nearly all the works, and certainly the central ones, have a poignant, touching side, as well as an amusing side that puts a smile on the viewers’ faces. Naor looks life straight in the eyes, with a steady gaze that is defiant and sometimes challenges conventions and norms, but is always deeply compassionate. Like a child yearning to be captivated by a magic trick, yet at the same time longing to discover the ‘trick’ and dissolve the magic, thus she creates sets of images and dismantles them, sprinkles stardust and blows it away


Larnaca Biennial of Art 

Larnaca, Cyprus

October 2021

Still on View

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