Sentimentality and pathos mar Raida Adon’s 2013 video work, “Woman without a Home,” currently on view at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and touted as the artist’s “first solo exhibition in a museum.” The film, according to the guest curator, Dr. Rona Sela, “stems from a complex, enigmatic personal biography and deals with Adon’s split identity, which shifts between two conflicted nations, between two societies that are intertwined yet preserve power relationships and domination.”
The film is a kind of magical fantasy about a search for identity and place. The artist herself plays the part of an allegorical woman who embarks on a quest for belonging across a panoply of landscapes, gradually collecting a group of followers, perhaps a chorus of keeners. She pushes a bed in snow, across a desert, through the alleys of her hometown of Acre, and finally reclines on the bed as it floats raft-like in the sea. The pathos that permeates the work is primarily a byproduct of the metaphorical world of religiosity, heightened by the film’s clear symbolism. A case in point is the woman, who wears a nightgown, thereby signaling that she is alone, occupied with herself, conducting an interior dialogue, obsessively perhaps. On top of this, there is the shearing of the woman’s hair at the start of the film, a familiar cinematic code for shedding personality, embarking on a quest, going insane, undergoing a metamorphosis, thumbing one’s nose at “society.” There is the girl who views a version of her adult self as though asking, “What will be?” There is also the woman who hangs from the city wall, arms outstretched as though in crucifixion, as church bells peel. Afterward she is on the ground, as though thrown outside the wall, a possible suicide. Perhaps she puts an ear to the ground and listens to the trembling earth. There is the woman in white who lies on a bed and suddenly “leaves her body” and floats passively in the air. The woman from whose pregnant belly birds burst out and flutter in a closed room. The bound women (“imprisoned by religion and history,” the curator writes), the women who eat apples like a coven of Eves (“the woman has no need of the serpent in order to speak her mind”). All these – and there are more – are empathy-wringing visual images, but they are themselves wrung out and worn out. In fact, most of Adon’s visual images are clichés so hashed and rehashed that what they symbolize is no longer amenable to reuse or alternative recharging. Yet, they are obviously being taken in all seriousness as a powerful statement, though long since voided of meaning by overuse.
Another central element of the work is the artist’s casting of herself as everywoman. Adon is meant to represent an eternal woman, lacking name, words, time, identity markers or cultural and social references. She is a kind of priestess in a robe that recalls the Iranian visual artist Shirin Neshat, Rapunzel with her super-long braids, as she simultaneously leads a search party (on a quest for inner tranquility) and waits passively for rescue. The priestly posture as such is the crux here, as a mood of inspiration, a particular mentality or an inner state of heightened attention, though no attempt is made to clarify the question: priesthood over what?
An additional building block of the work is the pictorial world of images fashioned by the mode of the photography, which sometimes looks like a clip from the 1980s in slow motion. So slow, in fact, and so steeped in reflective pauses that everything seems fateful and fraught with meaning. The camera’s movement follows the ceremonies from the outside, not from the viewpoint of a narrator or a speaker with a personality. What comes across is something of an allegorical panorama that imbues the events with a heightened lyrical quality.
The film’s course of events is not structured thematically or contrapuntally, but springs from a desire to underscore beauty, deriving from the work’s blatant ideology. Aesthetically, the thrust is toward the meta-temporal, even the mythic; in the curator’s words, “an unknown land, places with no local features, lacking a clear identity, even though they are suffused with the spirit and sounds of the East.”
The depictions of the conflict or the split identity that are overlaid on the film from the outside are also awash in poetic, cosmic language, creating a pervasive atmosphere of melancholia. Surprisingly, the work avoids mentioning the Nakba (a historic home that was lost vs. a psychological-metaphysical sense of non-belonging) or artistic precedents that might be relevant and act as structural scaffolding (Louise Bourgeois’ “Woman House,” the dresses of Annette Messager, the absence of a home in Larissa Sansour and the body extensions of Rebecca Horn are only a few examples).
The artist’s appeal is to the viewer’s emotions, not to shared knowledge. The dominating pathos emanates from a lack of awareness, from things ignored and repressed or posited as new and original without being so. It is the voice of authentic naivete, without irony, duality or dialecticism but redolent of religious rhetoric.
“A woman moves between the town where she was born and the town where she lives,” Sela writes. “Akka (Acre), the root of her being, is woven into her search ... And opposite this – her present home, Yaffa (Jaffa), the Bride of the Sea, rising out of the waters, and together with her, weaving her fantasies.”
What is the home that Adon misses? In other words, what Palestine does she yearn for? What topography and terrain are forged and sketched through this yearning? The answer that arises from the film is that Adon’s fantasized home is a kind of Macondo. Purely a literary place.
“Woman without a Home,” Tel Aviv Museum of Art, until November 29