Tommy Hartung’s Tel Aviv Exhibit: A Playful Look at the Myths of Creation and Destruction

American artist Tommy Hartung's 'Lilith' adds a whimsical comment to the non-human condition.

Tommy Hartung, 'Lilith', 2015.

We are living in an apocalyptic era. What was once the preserve of the Temple Mount Faithful, star gazers and astrologers, prophets of doom or seers of visions has now become the outcry of the most sober-minded of rationalists. How is it that humanity, which believed so mightily in reason, in its ability to develop and in its self-sovereignty, is turning backward, shedding its achievements, choosing the dumb and the terrible, treading toward an abyss? Interestingly, if not unpredictably, it’s the humanists who are now in mourning (in this paper, too): lamenting the strengthening of religion, the renewed hegemony of primal myths, the entrenchment of false beliefs. They see a bleak future, are preparing themselves for the worst of all, for defeat in the final war, for humanity’s Doomsday.

Two forces, they warn, are flanking humanity in a pincer movement: the gods in the heavens and the machine within. The force of theology – belief in the separated and the hidden, in a sovereign that is not man; and the force of technology – the movement of inertia, lacking direction and will, bereft of sovereignty. Both appear to exceed the dimensions of the human, both can bring about man’s end.

“Lilith,” Tommy Hartung’s exhibition in the Braverman Gallery in Tel Aviv adds a whimsical comment to the non-human condition. Anxiety is treated playfully. Hartung, an American sculptor and animator (born 1979), has been occupied for years with myths of creation and destruction, which he downscales, normalizes, updates in terms of current events and presents happily. About two years ago, he exhibited an hour-long video work titled “The Bible,” with excerpts from an oration by Osama bin Laden; a statement in court by Chelsea Manning, an American soldier convicted of leaking army documents; and animated dolls were connected to a moving rendition of a Psalm. A short work called “BB” (available on Vimeo) imagines the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem intercut with Netanyahu’s election-day cry, “Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls.” (Netanyahu’s image is like a distorted puppet caricature, more ridiculous than malicious.)

Tommy Hartung, 'White Devil 3.'
Kirsten Kilponen

The exhibition at the Braverman Gallery consists of three types of objects: white clay sculptures of human heads mounted on pedestals, on which boldly colored geometric forms are projected; two-dimensional prints of heads that have swallowed the coloration within themselves, have grown thicker, and are decorated with ribbons as hair and discs as eyes; and, on the gallery’s lower floor, a video work in which forms, objects and images move about in a kind of dance to the sounds of vigorous, intensive drumming. Cumulatively, they constitute an interesting take on the essence of the human.

At first, the head sculptures seem to be human heads, offspring of a long tradition of the shaping of the face as an opening to the human psyche and interiority, to man’s senses and feelings, to his or her condition. However, these sculptures – one upside-down on its axis, another on an incline – are too skeletal and model-like to act as a window to humanity’s inner core. Their eyes are missing or empty, their shape is hard and sharp, they are impervious; they do not respond to viewers in a movement of mutual identification. The colors are projected onto them as though on three-dimensional exhibition bases. In contrast, the printed collages depict facial augmentation and ridicule: they are overburdened mannequins in a silly, childish window. Neither the reduced nor the excessive aims at the human – the sculptures are called “white devils,” one of the prints is titled “Fairy.” They cast a magic spell, but one whose relationship to us is in doubt. They are not copies of us, and they do not signify human artifacts. They are distant – like everything magical – and hollow, self-enclosed.

Fraught with theological meaning

The video art concludes the work of uprooting the human from artistic representation: The symphony of toys is conducted in the artist’s studio, from which all traces of the artist have vanished. The use of stop-motion animation creates the illusion that the objects are moving on their own, in a space that is now their exclusive preserve. At first they are simple lines and forms, afterward dolls and figurines, matches and boxes, all immersed in phosphorescent colors and in a distinctly unnatural venue.

Works by Tommy Hartung.
Kirsten Kilponen

The internal relations that are woven between the objects demonstrate a delight in assemblage and a joy in being. The animation itself here reveals preciselya mechanical action, quasi-autonomous. Everything is fraught with theological meaning. The rattling sounds are taken from a voodoo exorcism ritual, and the title of the work, “Lilith,” bespeaks an alternative tradition for man – mating with the other woman, a childless female demon that from the outset aborts the historical continuity.

However, the devils, fairies and Liliths pose no threat. They are implanted in a familiar, conventional space – the studio, the room – in the course of being downscaled and neutralized. Nothing remains from the fear of the ceremony: Its sounds are those of domestic objects such as are found in the kitchen, the bathroom, and in fact in the children’s game room. From the metamorphoses of the spirits and the deceptions of the magic there remains an amusement created by a simple, long-known technique. The technological and the theological do not generate anxiety about the end of man, who is absent from them; his freedom, of which he has been divested; his sovereignty, of which he has been deprived. They are thoroughly digested and delimited, conciliatory and enjoyable. Perhaps this is a good way to dissolve anxiety, perhaps only a way to bypass it.

Tommy Hartung, “Lilith,” at the Braverman Gallery, 12B Hasharon St., Tel Aviv (03) 566-6162; Fri-Sat 11.00-14.00; Tues-Thurs 11.00-19.00; until March 21