Moshe Dayan in Drag? An Artist Explores the True Meaning of Romantic Love

Ruth Patir’s video project shows the former defense minister wearing the dresses designed by his first wife’s fashion house – and somehow provides a lesson for us all

Maya Asheri
Maya Asheri
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Moshe Dayan in Ruth Patir's video project 'Love Letters to Ruth, April 2018.
Moshe Dayan in Ruth Patir's video project 'Love Letters to Ruth, April 2018.Credit: Ruth Patir
Maya Asheri
Maya Asheri

When artist Ruth Patir talks about Moshe Dayan, she refers to him as “Moshe.” She never met him – he died before she was born – but the first-name-basis seems to come naturally to her as if she were talking about a good friend. She’s even started referring to her five former boyfriends as “Moshe.” “They’ve totally turned into him,” she says.

Dayan and her exes more or less meet in her video work “Love Letters to Ruth,” which is featured in her solo exhibition of that name that opened two weeks ago at Tel Aviv’s Hamidrasha Gallery. If Dayan and Patir’s exes seem like a strange combination, it’s no coincidence. The 20-minute video, which is being shown through May 24, addresses a wide range of themes: technology and control, the link between the public and the personal, and the dynamics of gender and sexuality.

Using a computer program used by gamers, Pati and animator Jonathan Wasserman have remade Dayan as a virtual but very realistic character. The film has six scenes; in each the digital Dayan reads one of the love letters he wrote to his first wife Ruth – letters that were compiled in the Hebrew-language book “Love Letters.” But the voice reading the letters isn’t Dayan’s but the voices of Patir’s exes.

Nor is the former defense minister, even if he looks realistic, exactly the man engraved in public memory; he’s wearing dresses – that is, dresses in the style of Maskit, the fashion house that was headed by his wife. Oh yes, and in one scene he’s totally naked and dancing, once could say, like a woman. In most of the scenes he’s surrounded by the antiquities he dug up and kept throughout his career – he caresses them, rides them and shatters them.

Vulnerability with complexity

The letters start out filled with romantic love but also express darker sides – jealousy, insecurity and anger. Together they form a fascinating and heartbreaking narrative of a toxic and disintegrating relationship, even though the marriage lasted a long time – from 1935 to 1971.

“A lot of people thought this was some kind of vengeful act against his image, against what he represented, but I actually think the opposite. I think that to expose him to a type of vulnerability with complexity that only wants to stay in the shadows – that’s the opposite of humiliation,” says Patir, who is 34.

“After all, I could have done anything to him – I could have cut him in half so you’d see his intestines bleeding. I could have had him masturbating or pissing in his pants. There’s no lack of three-dimensional works that do that,” she adds.

“But to use this to bring out softness and intimacy and something that would feel very sensual feels like much greater wisdom, I think – the subversion or real criticism is about how power behaves. Yes, there’s a portrait here of heterosexual masculinity that feels very real to me, but also frustrating is Moshe’s inability to cope with his weakness, with being vulnerable.”

Patir, who usually does more traditional video work, was inspired by the technology. “The catalyst for this whole thing is VR software that is used mainly by game builders to create characters ... basic woman, basic man, basic child,” she says, referring to virtual reality.

“Let’s say Moshe is ‘Old Man Body 4’ or something like that; he has ears that are a little pointy, so his ears are 20 percent goblin, the patch comes from a pirate figure,” she adds.

“These banks [of stock figures] are terribly disturbing; all the girls’ clothes are leather straps, nightgowns, lace panties; the mother of all clichés in one super-gendered bucket. The basic body of a woman is silicone breasts, a round butt and a flat stomach. There was a moment when I said it was amazing that this supposedly new world just recycles all the old stereotypes.”

Artist Ruth PatirCredit: Meged Gozani

According to Patir, she associated this insight with the seminal 1984 essay “A Cyborg Manifesto” in which Donna Haraway argues that we must help technology not repeat the historical injustices of human culture.

“The cyborg, representing the ultimate other, is the best platform through which to think about the blurring of identities, nonbinariness,” Patir says. “That’s where the idea came from to create everything Dayan dealt with from zero – accessories, clothing and environments.”

She related herself and her relationships to Dayan’s letters.

“I read the book and was amazed first of all by the fact that my name appears there all the time – Ruth, Ruti. It was all full of love, jealousy, paranoia, insecurity, accusations, so many emotions,” Patir says.

“I read it and simply heard my partners. One of my exes who was involved in the film used to talk a lot about how he wasn’t a family man. And Moshe had around three years in which all he talked about was that he wasn’t a family man. So the marriage of technology and the letters spawned this work.”

Sex, lies, Barack and Hillary

Patir came back to Israel six months ago after doing a master’s degree at Columbia University. An earlier video of hers, “Sleepers,” won first prize for experimental cinema and video at the Jerusalem Film Festival last year. It, too, dealt with the space between the public and the intimate while examining questions of gender. It focuses on what looks like a group therapy session sharing sexual fantasies about Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

But the new work marks the first time Patir has inserted herself into the story.

“Somehow I’m never in the picture. Here it’s about me, and from my perspective that’s the scariest thing that’s happened here,” she says, laughing. “But the moment my responsibility increased – the moment I brought someone dead back to life using hyper-realism – I felt I had to bring myself as well. I like keeping a distance, but I felt that this is what I had to do.”

Moshe Dayan in Ruth Patir's video project 'Love Letters to Ruth, April 2018.Credit: Ruth Patir

During the reading of the film’s last letter, the virtual Dayan is suddenly found in a familiar setting – the archaeology wing of the Israel Museum sitting among the famous sarcophagi he excavated. As he furiously castigates his wife, the sarcophagi break apart one by one.

“One of my exes who was here at the opening and who had very much broken my heart saw the film and said, ‘Wow, I’m so sad.’ And we stood and hugged and it was simply sad,” Patir says. “The letters are essentially the most basic love story.”

In our conversation, I noted that there’s a lot in them that isn’t love at all.

“Yes, but that’s love exactly, no?” Patir says. “The fear of changing, the insecurity – ‘Surely you’re enjoying yourself more without me,’ ‘Don’t be so proud of yourself.’ That’s all part of it; it’s a basic guide to a relationship."

Then of course there’s the narrative in the work that ends in total destruction.

“Of course,” Patir says. “As I said, a classic love story.”

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