When reviewing a show, one concern is how much or how little to refer to the press release. As a rule, these texts are not generated by the artists involved, and they proffer descriptions more restricted than the work itself. The recent collaboration of performance artist Tamy Ben-Tor and painter Miki Carmi, however, requires translation. Ben-Tor’s performances and video work here are conducted in several languages, including the little-spoken Georgian. The nature of the artists’ collaboration is unclear even with the aid of outside texts; the release’s claims that “It is through irrationality that the senses grasp truth” and “The performance of the poet is a daily act of repetitious rituals that embodies the intensified condition of being,” do little to penetrate the confusion. The show is accompanied by an artist’s book put out by Regency Arts Press in 2009, where the artists’ intentions begin to take shape.
Performances at Salon 94 and Zach Feuer overlap with the exhibition “Disembodied Archetypes” at the latter gallery. Together, the formats presented a battery of characters begging to be heard. Ben-Tor acts each of these personas herself, using props and costumes on the gallery’s floor. In foreign languages culminating with a cappella pidgin, Ben-Tor gave monologues in a slew of personas. Reminiscent of Japanese Noh players in their stilted gestures and theatrical disguises, each of the half-dozen characters addressed concerns of Jewishness or ethnicity, insider-outsider cultural status, and the limits of communication. A story told in English during the performance (reproduced in Hebrew in the accompanying book) describes a German-Jewish woman returning home to find that her house has been commandeered by a pig and a cow. This allegory, haunted by the accounts of Holocaust survivors from whom homes and belongings were stolen in their absence, is colored by the woman’s wonderment at the creatures who have seized her apartment. They are not human but animals, and she cannot decipher their logic.
In exhibition form, the physical manifestations of old wounds are the concern of both artists. Carmi presents this ugliness literally. His painterly portraits of elderly skin hover near the surface of otherwise blank canvases. Ben-Tor’s monologues perform this unseamliness more efficiently. Hers is an ugliness born of presumed good intentions, enacted by characters insisting to be heard and sympathized with, but who do not allow for the possibility that this is impossible; characters for whom misunderstandings have curdled to bias. During the performance I witnessed at Salon 94, much of the crowd was fluent in one or several of the languages spoken, but many more were not. The penultimate persona spoke in English. In the guise of a blonde Midwestern tourist, the artist described an ambiguous art event as witnessed by a bemused outsider. “It was just fascinating,” the character repeats again and again, and one senses his desperate need to be “in on the game,” a cosmopolitan world traveler open to all the myriad voices of the wide and wonderful world. He is fooling himself, and one watches uneasily the arrogance with which he “takes it all in.”
These characters enjoy their ignorance. Near the end of the book in which the texts appear is a fable. In English and German it reads: “We thought the moustached man was nice… We thought our neighbors left us their homes… We were drunk. We are still drunk. We will always be drunk.
“Why not? Live a little.”
BEN-TOR AND CARMI HAVE ALSO HAVE A TWO-PERSON EXHIBITION AT STUX GALLERY, THROUGH MAY 1.