Esther Naor: The Raft of Memory
Esther Naor writes with images.
The art of writing arises in my mind when the artist tells me that the present display of works of art is to be envisioned as the conclusion of a trilogy of recent exhibitions –a format that brings certain literary works, or movies to mind. This type of construct introduces ideas of continuity and change over time –including the time it takes the artist to re-think her position, as she builds her next body of work on top of the metaphorical shoulders of the previous one, and the time sandwiched between the exhibitions, which dims the memory of the earlier ones, for the lucky few who have been able to witness these. Exhibitions are ephemeral, unlike many texts and many works in film. The latter allow us to return to the preceding parts to remember what was stated and to see how we can tease out new meanings as we seek to reinterpret the completed work.
A cycle of exhibitions that is to be understood as a totality -in a way that a chronological succession of exhibitions by a given artist most often can not- does not allow such freedom. Indeed, most of us will need to rely upon reproductions of the works included in the earlier exhibitions, catalogue essays, press releases, lists of images, exhibition reviews, and/or eye-witness accounts, in short upon the interpretation of others, in order to obtain an understanding -which will be by definition incomplete- of an exhibition conceived in three installments.
Thus, Naor’s trilogy poetically evokes the cycle of life -namely youth, maturity and old age. We can no longer retrieve the former once we have reached the latter. We rely upon others, or upon other resources than the aging heart and mind -such as letters and photographs- to fill in the gaps; but the longer we wait, the thinner the thread becomes. Memory is central to Esther Naor’s enterprise. This artist’s work engages -like the work of, say, Nancy Spero, Leon Golub, Magdalena Abakanowicz, William Kentridge, Doris Salcedo, and Walid Raad, to limit myself to recent expressions in the visual arts- with the challenge of living in a time of crisis.
As a Jewish person of Iraqi descent who was born and raised and who lives and works in Israel, Esther Naor is something of a connoisseur when it comes to crisis. In her recent body of work, she looks at the responses of anonymous individuals to moments of maximum duress, a subject defying time and place. As the span of our memories is quite short, we trick ourselves into believing that we must be living in the worst of times, though an ever so cursory glance back at, say, 20th century history suffices to remind us that our age is far from having a monopoly on horror. This is one of the reasons why the past matters so much. The past can serve as a corrective. When we think that we cannot go on, history tells us that yes, we should and can go on.
Today, however, tragedy comes to us far more rapidly, and in more formats and variations, than ever before, thereby giving us the impression that we are engulfed in catastrophes, when we are not pelted with nonsense. Today, everyone who carries an I-phone around is a potential photojournalist, and anyone who has access to the Internet can become a self-publishing commentator on a seemingly worldwide scale.
The last volume of Naor’s trilogy includes color photographs, shot in close-up by the artist, of people who are turned into themselves or are hugging others while in a state of considerable distress. Over these compositions, Naor superimposed a diaphanous image of a thermal blanket, before printing the whole on top of bright rectangular sheets of aluminum (all but one of which are horizontal). The distraught individuals who are depicted in these works were photographed by the artist moments after they were separated from the young men and women who were to begin their long and hazardous service in the Israeli army.
The thin, wrinkled surface of the thermal blanket -which object is used to cover and protect trauma victims- and the pale palette of the seemingly underlying imagery of heads, limbs or clothing, lends a delicate and ephemeral quality to these compositions. Time flashes by. The mostly young men and women seem prematurely aged. The parallel lines in the blankets, running across the entire width of the panels, give these the appearance of charts upon which the ebb and flow of life will be recorded.
We project meaning onto these truncated images filled with drama, gleaned from the information we have been bombarded with in recent weeks: Yet another shooting, yet another terrorist attack, yet another war, yet another ecological or industrial disaster leaving physically wounded and emotionally traumatized individuals behind, or causing people to be displaced to other areas, which will inexorably lead to new tensions and more incomprehension and, inevitably, additional waves of violence.
The photographs as light as watercolor surround a statue of a man who is hunched over as he strides forward, holding a thermal blanket over his head, shoulders and back, as if shielding himself from the rays of the sun, or from a downpour of misfortune. This figure’s pose is drawn from Goya’s painting of the Witches’ Flight in the Prado. Goya, a painter and draftsman whose profound humanity still strikes us with awe, is a universal artist -a man for all seasons. The figure he has invented remains, sadly, forever pertinent: A man in flight, pursued by despair.
Esther Naor creates ensembles in which works in different media reinforce one another across time and space. Thus, the three levitating figures in the top half of Goya’s picture appeared in Naor’s previous exhibition titled A Sudden Dark Breeze Over My Uncovered Skin (New York City, April-May 2015), as pale, life-sized, levitating acrylic plaster female nudes, with tall white cylindrical hats, opening up at the top, crowning their heads. Two of the women hold an orange ready-made stretcher and the third, somewhat farther back, an actual buoy. The latter work is titled There Wasn’t a Man, Woman or Child I Could Lift a Finger For (2014), which sculpture coupled with this title brings to mind the waves of refugees from Africa and the Middle East who cross the Mediterranean Sea at great peril to reach Europe, a supposedly safer place where possibilities for peaceful existence are -hopefully- more plentiful.
The leaping and striding and forward-leaning solemn women bear instruments of rescue. The title of the work cited above informs us, however, that they are ultimately powerless. The other composition, comprising the women who hold the empty stretcher, is titled How Far Would You Run With a Piece of Lead In Your Heart? (2014). In a video featured in that same exhibition, the artist appeared hunched over under a white towel, thereby evoking the man moving diagonally across the bottom of the painting by Goya. The emotional tenor of the third installment of Naor’s trilogy is increased through the links that are established within the cycle itself, as well as beyond it, namely with the world of culture and the more heart-rending chapters in contemporary life.
A series of small works comprising photographs of saucers stained with spills of thick black coffee, printed smack in the center of square orange fields like bull’s eyes set up for target practice, is titled Any Minute Something Can Happen (2014), thereby heightening the level of dread. The act of enjoying a sip of coffee seems brutally interrupted; the spills of dark matter may allude to the loss of blood.
Café culture constituted, for a long time, a vital way for people to interact with others and exchange ideas in the public sphere. That too is disappearing in too many places in this age when people sitting opposite of each other at a table cannot stop checking on everyone who is not there, via social media, as they ignore the person within arm’s reach. Significantly, it is gathering places, including cafés, that are often chosen as targets for attacks –for the larger the number of victims, the better, and the more pleasant the circumstances, the more distressing the outcome, by contrast.
But why should I bring up attacks as we go over Naor’s trilogy? The reason for this is to be found in the tormented expressions of the men and women in the artist’s most recent body of work, and the repeated use of the image of the thermal blanket, which insulating device we associate with people who are being tended to shortly after being struck with disaster.
The final volume of Naor’s trilogy colors everything that precedes it. My Worry Beads 1 (2014), a significantly over-sized rendering of a band of worry beads, the elements of which are continuously flicked across a short distance of string or chain by fidgety fingers, hung nearby the female nude holding a buoy clasped against her torso, in the exhibition of 2015. Naor lets us know that she is anxious about what lies ahead. She is not alone.
You Are All Red, and So Very White (2011) is the germ from which Naor’s trilogy sprung forth. The image of blood-loss is explicit in that installation, with its clumps of coagulated red matter seeping through suspended lengths of white gauze, like coffee dripping through paper filters. This macabre, process-oriented work, which pulls certain relics of Vienna Actionism into its wake (think Rudolf Schwarzkogler and Günter Brus), was followed by a set of melting, white, black and grey wax female heads, with the eyes and mouth closed, as if asleep. The latter compositions suggest injury and gradual disappearance into the formless puddles spreading at the bottom of the heads (I am Forever Fog, 2012), a motif inflected by Surrealism.
The softening of the facial features in these dissolving configurations brings the virtuoso carving of the Late Baroque white marble Veiled Christ by Giuseppe Sanmartino in the Sansevero Chapel in Naples (1753) to mind, in addition to other 18th century veiled figures in marble sculpture by the likes of Antonio Corradini and Innocenzo Spinazzi. The motif of the veil takes us back to the image of the thermal blanket, and the dead Christ -who shed his blood, as the Bible emphasizes- to the suffering of man. I am Forever Fog also establishes links with the Symbolist blurred heads, modeled with wax over plaster and coming out of Impressionism, of Medardo Rosso (late 19th century), and Janine Antoni’s self-portrait busts, one made of chocolate and the other of soap, titled Lick and Lather (1993-1994).
From this sequence of works of 2011 and 2012 emerged the first installment of Naor’s triad of exhibitions, titled Side Effects (Tel Aviv, November-December 2012). Be a Good Girl (2012) depicts seven times the same bald yellow female head, namely that of the artist, with softened facial features, with the eyes closed and the lips made bright red, arranged in a circle one behind the other on top of a table with a rotating circular top. A rifle filled with capsules of medicine is pointed towards the heads. The repetition of the exact same head, the little tail at the base of each skull, and the yellow and red palette evoke rubber ducks bobbing about inside a stand at a fair ground, and ready to be taken out. Are we all sitting ducks?
The exhibition aptly titled Side Effects touched upon illness, which constitutes yet another threat, by way of the body of the artist –rendered bald, with yellow skin tone, and with eyes closed in Be a Good Girl. Naor had re-presented herself in an earlier exhibition wearing wigs in disguised photographic self-portraits, including as a blonde (2005), and as the celebrated American artist Kiki Smith (2006), with her abundant head of silver-colored hair. In the context of Naor’s developing oeuvre, the wigs hint at mortality instead of vanity or religious observance, as wigs –which constitute protective blankets of sorts- are frequently worn by people who have lost all of their hair after undergoing treatment for cancer.
A work in Side Effects featuring syringes is tilted Stabbing (2012), and a video installation is titled Controlled Release (2012), bringing once again treatment for cancer to mind, which powerful subject connects with the bold, in-your-face work of the feminist artist Hannah Wilke. A heavily protruding polyurethane rubber stomach, sticking out of a wall, is titled Neither a Boy Nor a Girl (2012), thereby suggesting that the swelling is caused by illness, as the title of this work tells us that we are clearly not looking at a pregnancy.
In I Love Mom and Dad (2012), large furry cubes were placed in a heap in one corner of the gallery space, with a different black and white photograph of the artist as a child printed upon fabric upon one face of each cube –a collapsed memorial to a happy existence, now long gone, within the sheltering capsule of the family. Life resembles a game of dice, of which the outcome remains uncertain. This idea takes us from the beginning to the conclusion of Naor’s trilogy, which touches upon the difficulty of living in difficult times. The figures appearing in the photographs on aluminum in the final volume of this trilogy constitute a silent chorus of mourners.
Goya reminds us that the sleep of reason produces monsters. By citing the Spanish master, Naor seems to be condemning, through her own work, intolerance of every stripe, which, like a terrible illness, destroys life.
 Full disclosure: The artist sent me as reference material to assist me in writing my essay, a photograph of one of the victims of the November 2015 attack in Paris, standing with a cellular phone to his ear, a thermal blanket thrown over his shoulder, and his white T-shirt stained with blood, as well as a reproduction of the painting by Goya.