Pesi Girsch
'Hand and Foot,' by Pesi Girsch, from 1988. Photo by Elad Sarig
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"The Absent Body," an exhibition that explores body imagery in Judaism and Christianity, presented by eight Israeli artists, is profound. Like an anthropologist, it examines the concept of the body from all directions, through artists of different generations and a wide range of media.

The eight artists participating in the show are Etti Abergel, Larry Abramson, Pesi Girsch, Moshe Gershuni, Erez Israeli, Sigalit Landau, Motti Mizrachi and Michal Na'aman. They offer a variety of artistic renderings on the theme of the body, some of which clearly represent the preoccupation with the body, while others offer a jarring surprise.

"The Absent Body" chronicles the depiction of the human body in these artists' bodies of work. It's a body of bodies, if you will. At the same time, it aims to draw a connection between the body's representation and the representation of God, by examining the dialectic between Judaism and Christianity. The exhibition ranges from the amorphous concept of God in Judaism to the anthropomorphic concept in Christianity.

"These works bespeak the tension between the immateriality of God in Judaism and his concrete material existence in Christianity, while addressing a range of aesthetic and theoretical concerns pertaining to visual representation and its place in Israeli culture," curator Irena Gordon writes.

Gordon's curatorial approach is refreshing, and the museum deserves praise for presenting an exhibition such as this, one that isn't "trendy," but instead demands that viewers stop and contemplate and that delves deep into its subject.

The artworks on display offer diverse representations of the body, which is present in some form even when it is physically absent. Nearly all of them contain some sort of tension -- between holy and secular, between image and identity, and between the mythical and the personal.

Some of the imagery moves between symbolism and conceptualism, like Larry Abramson’s work, while others are physical, sensory and sensual, such as in the work of Sigalit Landau or Erez Israeli. Moshe Gershuni's works fall somewhere in between, containing polarities and statements that reference language, the body, secretions, sacrifice and divinity.

In the video art piece “Three Men Hula” by Sigalit Landau, three men move as one: beautiful, young, shirtless and strong, rotating a hula hoop together in one circular motion. Fans of Landau will immediately recall her well-known photos, in which she swings a barbed-wire hula hoop around her own naked body. In the video work, the physical pain is replaced with the pleasure of connection, like bodies becoming one to create a repetitive circular motion, a sort of ritual dance.

Nearby this display of muscular bodies hangs work by Motti Mizrachi whose focus on the body is deeply connected to the conceptual ideas of the 1970s. “Via Dolorosa” (1973) is a photograph from a performance the artist conducted on the Jerusalem street, along the famous route associated with Christ’s suffering. The work shows Mizrachi crippled, on crutches, with a self-portrait of his face – bearded and looking like Jesus – hanging on his back. His photograph is the cross he bears, ridiculing the very concept of holiness. His weary body is confronted with the large head dangling off of him, and also with Landau’s three men – and with their power and energy. Their infinite rotation is met with the end that is already known – the crucifixion that Mizrahi is leading his victim toward.

Erez Israeli has a wide range of works on display, including works on paper and video art. In fact, his more relevant pieces, which deal directly with the victim – with sanctity versus secularism, and notions of ritual death and the body – are not displayed here, but the works that Gordon has chosen are also fitting. The body is omnipresent in Israeli’s work. Here it can be found in “Star of David,” a static video piece in which five gymnasts contort their bodies into an image of the Star of David, pushing their own physical boundaries.

This is also seen in the work “Kokosh (a self-portrait aged 30),” a piercing and ruthless look at the artist’s damaged torso, which is covered in red spots and blemishes. This piece was made at the end of a video work in which Israeli ripped feathers off of his skin that were attached with hot wax. Gordon notes that “this is the private body experiencing itself through ceremonies of Israeli adolescence and at the same time through the bodies and acts of the Christian saints who fill the annals of art.”

Another excellent work by Israeli is a small piece crafted from ink and cement on paper. A figure pokes out, hands outstretched, from under the cement, which has been smeared on a magazine photograph. The face, like the body, is erased, leaving only the image of a crucifixion echoing out from underneath the layer of concrete.

As previously mentioned, the exhibition includes other artists, and it manages to weave the works together with intelligence and sensitivity, giving the pieces – which are complex to begin with – an added dimension. The prism through which the body is examined connects it to a sort of a divine manifestation.This approach, which views the body as something autonomous, as just a receptacle or casing, is more than legitimized by the works of art on display.

"The Absent Body" – body imagery between Judaism and Christianity in the work of eight Israeli artists. Runs until November 15 at Beit Hatfutsot: The Museum of the Jewish People.