Elsewhere, Anywhere, Here
Esther Naor’s newest work continues to probe themes that have long been part of her life. These include migration, boundaries, cultural displacement and nostalgia, and shifting definitions of what constitutes community and otherness accompanied by an equally shifting sense of self, of connection and estrangement. Naor, who lives in Tel Aviv, reflects inevitably, if at times obliquely, upon social, psychological and political conditions in an area of the world that has become increasingly unstable and violent, its societies in conflict. Offering multi-layered narratives across a range of media that are often presented as installations, it is her striking, idiosyncratic and, at times, startling images that make her projects so memorable. Naor’s lens is sensitive and insistently personal, focused on the complex history and cultural heritage of her family, Iraqi Jews who immigrated to Israel in the early days of its statehood. Invested in the land as a daily reality and as metaphor, an uneasy sense of place animates her work and gives it traction. Naor’s topical production spins emblems of evil into good, good into evil, often circling the superstitious and magical thinking as ways to invoke relief. In a time when reality has become increasingly unbearable and resolutions elusive, she urgently questions the potency and impotency of art as well as the limits of human reasoning, even as she depends upon them.
The central installation in the exhibition are three whitened, life-sized plaster figures, stripped except for tall conical hats, inspired by the gleefully weird witches of Goya, in particular the androgynous, sorcerer-capped creatures of his painting, Witches’ Flight (1797-98). Naor also calls her curious figures witches, but she likes to twist meanings and transform expectations, in this instance turning them into beneficent beings, early responders to disasters whose job is to rescue victims, not to harm them. Like Goya’s supernatural creatures, the trio—the number three, which can symbolize stability and completion, is significant to Naor—hovers in space. Called How Far Would You Run with a Piece of Lead in Your Heart? (2014), two of the figures balance a bright orange stretcher between them while a third witch in There Wasn’t a Man, Woman, or Child I Could Lift a Finger for (2014) clutches a lifesaver, in striding position; all three are ready to spring into action.
Associations thread the separate works together by content, image, material (often ready-mades) or all three, creating a more resonant narrative, a more immersive installation. Earth, for instance, is the major constituent of Any Other Place (2015), a corner mound of locally acquired dirt. It recalls works by Robert Smithson and Walter De Maria with a nod to Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ piles of wrapped candies. Bringing the outdoors, or nature, inside into a gallery, the heaped soil undergoes a transformation, re-cast as art. But its identity is not static, and it also remains stubbornly, emphatically what it is. To underscore its equivocal nature, the mound is made to breathe, inhaling and exhaling, as if it were alive or concealing something alive underneath. Both nurturing and threatening, soil is a matrix for growing things, for life, and for death, for what remains after catastrophic acts of destruction, natural and unnatural, as generations grind themselves into earth, into a dust that ultimately reclaims everything.
Soil is also integral to I Do Not See the Sky (2013). Consisting of three full-sized windows, each topped by a lunette, it is a variant of Duchamp’s Fresh Widow (1920). Naor paints the frames a brilliant Mediterranean green-blue to make it more regionally evocative and fills in the space behind the clear glass planes with earth instead of the original black leather. While referring to perception, to what we see and do not see both optically and conceptually, Naor is again intent on transformation, turning the viewer’s space into a cross between an underground shelter and a tomb, a secret place of safety or somewhere suffocating, without an exit. The view from the windows, blocked by dirt, by earth, also suggests the eruptive geopolitics of the Middle East and elsewhere, anywhere, where clarity of vision and justice is blinded by the fiercely ideological contest for land that is believed by all who claim it to be their sacred right.
There is a video in the exhibition that documents a ritual to avert the evil eye that was practiced by Naor’s grandmother and other relatives in Iraq. A bowl is filled with tap water; fragrant herbs and kitchen matches are stirred into it. It is then held over the artist’s head which is canopied by a protective towel reminiscent of a headscarf, reprising the fleeing, similarly covered figure in the Goya painting cited above. Melted tin is thrown into the bowl, exploding into irregular, constellated shapes. The ritual is repeated three times—the number three again. These shapes function as protective talismans, to be placed under a pillow and slept upon for, yes, three nights. She then mounted these chance configurations, these moments of time, as a series, Whenever Wherever Whatever Has Happened Is Written Down on the Waters of Babel (2014-2015), with another similar, digital print series, Any Minute Something Can Happen (2014), evidence of ancient traditions and emblems of protection that attempt to control the uncontrollable, she said.
Prefacing the series’ title, My Worry Beads (2014) with My, she explained, underscored the fact that worry beads were traditionally a male prerogative, the incessant, reflexive thumbing of them a male pastime to ease anxiety. Greatly enlarged from the size of a string of real worry beads, hers are made from floats for fishermen’s nets, another image of succor. Some are colored amber or coral, which are what beads are often made from, they represent another Iraqi custom from her grandparents’ lost way of life, not only because of displacement but also because that world itself has changed. Naor consistently charges her work with multiple meanings and visual puns. Fashioned from buoys that keep things afloat, her worry beads, given their scale, might be doubly lifesavers, offering both physical and emotional aid. In addition, worry beads recall the prayer beads used by practitioners of many of the world’s religions and while worry beads are not an implement of spirituality, they also provide comfort.
Naor is deeply interested in transitions, in the space that she calls In between: in between reality and the supernatural; science and magic; skepticism and belief; the (Middle) East and West; culture and geography; tradition and the contemporary, the technological; her images double-edged, cutting a multitude of ways. Out of this space, Naor has evolved her own ambivalent, uncertain rituals of recovery that are deliberately naïve, intimate as well as sophisticated, rituals she believes in and does not, attempting to find alternate ways to solace and rescue those who have been lost, overlooked, damaged.