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Present Tense

There are moments in life when natural time pitches into mechanical time, inevitably causing turmoil. In these moments, the familiar, the orderly, the lucid, the logical and the sequential slip behind the scenes and make way for the present in all its chaotic glory.

The current exhibition “Side Effects” reflects a shift in Esther Naor’s work. Here the present tense erupts into the symbolic space and declares the victorious presence of the tangible – loss of control for the sake of capricious nature.

For many years, Naor has worked with rice. Dry or wet, raw or cooked, rice was the basic material for the bricks with which the artist constructed her surroundings. During the years 2006 to 2010, she created installations in which rice constituted the building blocks for a house, table and bed, bunker, well, altar – the materials out of which we construct our lives, our grand beliefs and our individual fears. Sometimes rice was the basis for writing, for prayer, for confession… culminating in the video work “Between Me and Myself” (2010), with rice serving as a boundless living space – a kind of “rice desert” in which the artist danced, growing up from or disappearing within it, while only her gentle movements testified to her separate existence.

Rice, as a material, essence, or childhood memory, became a close friend upon whom social and political positions could be loaded. It surrendered to her whims; it was flexible to her desires. As clay in her hands, it offered itself passively, prepared for any attack of activity from the artist. Until the moment the artist came face to face with the inevitability of passivity.

In this exhibition, physical destiny determines the act of signification even more intensely, until the point where any hopes of precision are drowned in bewilderment and ambiguity. We enter a Luna-park, an enticing funfair of entertainment booths, but each one, while tempting us, also expresses moments of powerlessness and loss of control.

Ostensibly, this is the pleasure-pain offered by every Luna-park ride, from the Carousel to the Ferris wheel and the Rollercoaster – the bounding pulse and sweet terror rising from the gut to the throat and erupting in a liberating scream.

Still, nobody goes to a Luna-park to stand as a target in the duck shooting range. Sniping at a tin can means far more than winning a teddy-bear – it engenders the intoxicating sensation of achievement and control of our fate. Here in the exhibition the artist illustrates the change in roles, like in a horror movie, from controller to controlled, from hunter to target. The ducks on this range are portraits of the artist, and the rifle will eventually hit one… They go round and round, making us dizzy, like the sensation we get from another work in which a white horse, upside down, rises and falls. In earlier works, it was the material that caused this discomfort, like in the work “You Are All Red, and So Very White” (2011): white gauze daubed with a red substance created a threatening sensory and experiential space. Were we observing bleeding udders? The red tent of Jacob’s tribe? Menstruation, a flowing wound, milk adulterated with dripping blood? But here, the material remains dumb: most of the works in “Side Effects” are made of polyurethane rubber, painted in a single opaque color. “Context” has replaced material, and the discomfort has passed from the viewer to the artist, who is ingrained in her work through her portraits.

However, I am not suggesting the artist has changed her spots. Her current works continue her intractable urgency to express women’s experience in a man’s world. This sentence must be clarified: I do not mean she carries forward the radical-feminist separatist tradition of Judy Chicago or Yocheved Weinfeld, ostensibly hinted at in her “blood” installation (“You Are All Red, and So Very White”), or the expression of victimhood of a woman liable to be seen as such, for example in the melting wax portraits of “I am forever fog” (2012). As a former hi-tech employee, Naor is not alienated, nor does she distance herself, from the patriarchal system of symbols in which she lives and its various expressions. Her early works, like her later works, take a postmodern stand which displays the schism and gap between the body and the signifier.

One outstanding example of Naor’s exceptional sensitivity to this system of symbols within the gender and artistic discourse is her series of photos (2005-6) which cite the style of American artist Sandy Sherman. In one photo the artist appears in a blonde wig and in the other she appears with her natural hair. The blonde figure (Self-portrait as a Blonde, 2005) gazes at the viewer, and appears as yet another representation of the feminine ideal from within the endless advertising arsenal. In the second photo, the figure appears relaxed and pensive, and does not gaze into the camera lens. The title, “I was not Raffi Lavie’s student 2″ (2006), may hint at another form of signification of the feminine, this time from within the local art discourse in which the signature of the well-known master has become a vital and sought-after symbol in Israeli art. This series presents a reformulation of the dichotomy of the feminine signifier: either blonde or student of Raffi Lavie. At the same time it shows how critical representation enables the artist to evade the clutches of the signifier.

It seems that until “Side Effects,” the artist oscillated between “feminine abjection” (the body’s insides, its secretions and noises) and male signifiers of femininity. In some works she emphasized the dissonance between the two, for example in the video work “The Gender of Language” (2006) in which the text presented and the voice heard are not coordinated and thus underline the gap between them.

In the current exhibition she continues offering fascinating expressions of the predetermined, familiar gap but it seems the feeling of the present within her newer works serves as a glue to connect the two sides (reality and fiction, body and image, the I and the reflection) and enables the tangible to burst forth from within the imaginary and symbolic order. Her new path is not orderly and homogeneous but eclectic and unruly. In some of the works, like “How Can You Contribute to the Success of the Treatment?” (2012), or “Be a Good Girl” (2012), the tangible erupts through the illusion, like when a hologram’s illusion disappears as we touch it. This moment of disruption and turmoil in our perception of reality is a constitutive moment when the rug is pulled from under our feet and the ground quakes. It is thus not by chance that the white horse has a gold horn or that the lips of the “duck” portraits are painted cherry red. This is a wonderland of unicorns and shining beautiful women, which is revealed to be an empty, flat hologram.

In other works the method changes, like the corner work “I love Mom and Dad” (2012), in which she piles up “memory cubes.” Each cube is made of fur, and on one side a photo of the artist from her childhood is affixed. These are “ready-made” photos from the family album which have been re-photographed in black and white, and in which she appears in costumes for the Jewish festival of Purim (clown, Japanese girl, gypsy girl, dwarf…) or dressed and kitted out for a kindergarten party for one Jewish holiday or another (a bouquet for Shavuot, or a crown and candle for Hanukah). These biographic details, private moments for the artist yet so familiar to anyone who grew up in Israel, are comprised of two different elements enfolding a double meaning. The fur invites touch and offers a pleasing sensory experience, while at the same time is liable to provoke a shudder and rejection (the fetishistic element). The black and white photos are likely to remind viewers of the past and draw them to a warm, pleasant, nostalgic place, but such pictures may also evoke the troubling sensation of death in recalling old photos of children such as those of Anne Frank. The fur and photos become a new link in the chain of works in which the physical (tangible) and the symbolic (the construction of an Israeli girl within the patriarchal, Zionist and Jewish system of signifiers) draw closer to one another through the double nature of memory: the physical memory and the cognitive memory.

The way she offers the viewer moments from her life, like capsules of memory that become a tactile child’s game of building blocks, recalls in some ways the pile of objects of the Cuban American artist Gonzalez Torres: in each artist’s work, the tangible erupts from behind the symbolic screen. In Gonzalez’s work, we can take a candy from the pile, unwrap it and experience a moment of sweetness… a kind of joint sensory experience that raises both personal and collective memories. In Naor’s case, we would like to sit in the corner and build a tower from the “bricks” she offers us. The reconstruction, the moment the visitor sits down and builds “his” tower, is an important deconstructive moment in Naor’s new process, since the dismantling of the “text” she presents and its changing reconstruction from visitor to visitor undermines any single significance of the “text” and makes any stable meaning crumble.

In other works, Naor manages to deconstruct another kind of gap, this time between the magical and the scientific. As in all self-respecting funfairs, here too the crystal ball has a place. How would we meet our future without it? After drawing aside a curtain of beads, we enter an alcove in which the “crystal ball” is placed. As we gaze at the ball, we discover the artist pulling faces at us! (“It’s Okay to Stick Out Your Tongue,” 2012.)

Instead of the seductive gesture we have grown to expect in such works, such as the video work “Theme Song” (1971) by American artist Vito Acconci or the projection of talking faces onto objects in the video works of Tony Oursler, for example “Sofa” (1994), here Naor does facial physiotherapy. The projection onto the ball distorts her face, casting doubt on her identity along with her therapeutic actions. In another video work (“Controlled Release,” 2012) she presents a triptych of monitors showing an EMG graph. In the central monitor we see the artist’s face as she reads a list of the side effects of a certain medication.

Illnesses, like kids and dogs, always move the viewer in some way – a turning point in the plot. The side effects of medication, on the other hand, are a non-issue from the point of view of dramatic effect; it is even considered annoying if one complains about them – side effects are unavoidable, but one should really suffer in silence. In other words, side effects become a metaphor for women’s experience – like them, women’s experience required silence throughout patriarchal history, and if it raised its voice it was perceived as a nuisance – hysterical, marginal and superfluous.

One of feminism’s fundamental aims is to shift central experiences in the lives of women from the margins to the center of the discourse. Naor has chosen an experience that is not necessarily feminine, and thus has a wider identification, but she nonetheless continues to bring what had appeared to be irrelevant into the limelight. Rescuing the significance of the incidental makes it relevant and enables it to make its way to the center of the discourse. In this sense, Naor’s works represent the contemporary feminist position in which perception of the other and the marginal does not isolate itself within the “feminine situation;” instead, it puts forward a wider critique of the arrogance of the central discourse and the stronger community towards the phenomena and expressions of those pushed to the margins.


Larnaca Biennial of Art 

Larnaca, Cyprus

October 2021

Still on View

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