Born in 1975 in Jerusalem, Israeli artist Tamy Ben-Tor moved to New York City for her MFA at Columbia University (2006), and has lived and worked there since. Ben-Tor’s latest works are currently on show at the Zach Feuer Gallery in Chelsea, where her provocative videos are projected on one gallery wall and on three separate TV screens. Ben-Tor’s performances are known for being “fiercely funny” (Artnet Magazine), yet during my visit to the gallery, the only other person laughing apart from myself was my friend Kathryn Shearman, a performance and sculpture artist based in Ithaca, New York. Within the gallery, her laughter became a constant reminder of the silence of the other spectators. Why such silence?
One reason might be that while Ben-Tor deals with very sensitive issues by using humor and irony, she is also always reminding us of the tragic and dark elements that inform her characters. In her most recent videos, the Holocaust comes up again and again in different stories and in her performances. In a section of the film projected on the gallery’s wall, Ben-Tor transforms herself in an older Hassidic woman with very ugly teeth who talks somewhat nonsensically about not leaving Egypt and the contribution of Jews to the greatness of America. The character is hilarious: partially annoying and partially wise, a caricature of someone familiar and yet completely absurd. The woman, reminiscent of a witch from a children’s fairy tale, performs with a bleak, post-apocalyptic forest in the background, a setting which gives a sober tone to the whole piece: a reminder of the tragic historical landscape that has given rise to the American Hassidic community.
In the same film, Ben-Tor takes on an Eichmann-like character with hexagonal glasses, a man who can only speak unintelligible words. This black and white section of the film brings us back to Eichmann’s post WWII trials, in which he repeatedly attempted to deny responsibility for sending Jews to concentration camps. Simultaneously, however, Ben-Tor’s facial expressions and the overall performance of the character are reminiscent of a minor character in a slapstick comedy, making the section more confusing than funny. Throughout this exhibition, Ben-Tor uses forms that are light and familiar: comedic caricatures, fairy tale characters and story lines, children’s music, etc. The subjects of her work and her approach to each piece, however, create a contrast that inhibits pure laughter in the viewers.
Video might also create a sense of detachment that is somewhat counter productive to emotional investment. While, for instance, a live performance plays off of the spectators’ energies, Ben-Tor’s films are looped and keep going independently of the reactions of the viewers. The two TV screens have headphones for listening, so that people become aurally isolated from the rest of the gallery every time they engage with one of the TV films. In addition, in the large room where one film is projected onto the wall, sound is not so good, and many of Ben-Tor’s words are lost. Maybe as a result of this, it is harder for viewers to become completely involved in the artist’s playful performance and in her subtle use of language and sound.
At the same time, Ben-Tor’s performances and visual compositions are so overwhelming that it might be a lot to ask of an audience to remain light hearted. Even in the lightest piece of the show, in which Ben-Tor impersonates a very busy character from the contemporary art world, the tone and rhythm of the piece is quite aggressive. In the piece, Ben-Tor heavily references not only the vocabulary of the contemporary art world (“this panel,” “it’s a local project,” “it’s a community project”, “it’s political”, “let’s close the deal,” etc.) but also the attitude and manner of an overly busy, overly dramatic, and email addicted contemporary art persona. Ben-Tor’s Warholian character, (white wig, pink shirt, light blue background), cannot seem to stop emailing and leaving voice messages. In what is basically a soliloquy that lasts about ten minutes, Ben-Tor confronts the viewer with a nightmare of modern communication that finally leaves the character exhausted and slows down the video as well.
In her work, Ben-Tor brings to the forefront racial, ethnic and historic stereotypes, creating characters and stories that are abstract and specific at the same time. Unfortunately, the exhibition currently taking place at the Feuer Gallery cannot recreate the same energy and dynamism present in Ben-Tor’s live performances, yet her video work is still successful in confronting the viewer with powerfully nonsensical performances. Ben-Tor’s experimentation with video is promising and has the potential to open up new questions about performance art on film.
Zach Feuer Gallery
Through May 3, 2008