An Israeli Artist Caught in His Own Trap

Yiftach Belsky’s exhibition 'Traps and Baits' is bursting with expressive power, energy and tension, but lacks sophistication and an inward-looking dimension.

The idea of art as bait has been taken to its barbaric end by Yiftach Belsky in his exhibition at the Minshar Gallery in Tel Aviv. The show consists of a quite dangerous series of traps: just that. Belsky has built a number of large traps (to catch animals? people?), vertical and horizontal, which are laid out in the gallery space with tricky density. The traps are primed, ready to be sprung. They are not camouflaged, but stand as overt sculptural threats; yet even so the viewer might find himself squeezed between them and trip or stumble and be injured. A bow-and-arrow mounted on a branch-like device threatens to shoot arrows if touched; a stone hanging by a rope is liable to crush anyone who passes under it; devices with a knife lying at an angle seem about to lose their balance.

All the traps are made of natural or used materials – logs, carved and sharpened branches, ropes, rusting tin, basalt rocks. Most are mounted on processed industrial wooden platforms, suggestive of exhibits in an anthropological archive. The result is a somewhat psychopathic installation, a highly inventive inventory of structures of cruelty, violence, hunting.

These are not industrial traps, but handcrafted works, each designed as an original, seemingly intended for a specific woman through an obscure compatibility between the sculptural technique and the personality of the intended victim. Each trap is in fact named for a woman, who is represented by a small black-and-white photograph placed on the wall above each device. The traps thus become altars to the intended women of the hunt. “The women contain both death and enticement,” the artist says.

Thus named, the women are objects of errant love, as a yacht is named for one’s mythic beloved. But the women are also the prey. The devices are aimed at them should they pass innocently by, or commemorate them because they are already the victims. These are young women who were “killed in tragic circumstances,” the exhibition’s curator, Oded Yedaya, writes, adding that they are “beautiful but schematic,” like movie stars or models in glossy magazines, “seductive and cold.” What else is new?

Also on view are two video works. One of them, “Frankenstein” (five minutes long), shows Belsky in a dimly lit workshop building a tree out of truncated tree trunks with the aid of screws and nails, creating a living-dead tree topped by a branch with a few dry leaves. The second video, almost 10 hours long, hints at the true identity of the object of the hunt: the artist himself. Belsky is filmed in real time digging a real hole and gradually disappearing from our view as he digs, descending below the surface into the hole-womb-grave. Questions arose during the (incomplete) viewing: What will be the end-point of the act of digging? And when that point is reached, how will the digger get out of the hole?

A silly yet harrowing target is marked in the works, whose effective definer is a loss of structured time in favor of a prolonged present. It’s not clear whether everything has already happened or whether the sculptures and photographs are waiting for what is yet to transpire.

Some masculine models are interwoven into the exhibition. There is the artist as Dr. Frankenstein, inventor of creatures and monsters; and the artist as a “man of the soil,” as the curator puts it, who lives in nature and is nourished by what he hunts. In the winter, the dead season of farming, Yedaya notes, this man of the soil finds himself in an empty mango warehouse, that has now become a sculpting studio, using a simple knife to carve branches he has cut, hammering a log with an ax, stretching wires, testing the flexibility of branches and the weight of stones. All these activities are geared toward a psychopathic purpose of planning appalling forms of torture, of slow and agonizing death.

Practitioner of the Inquisition

Belsky plays at being some sort of early human who is learning how to turn branches of trees into sticks, inventing utensils and discovering the value of application. But he is also a sadistic practitioner of the Inquisition, a Torquemada without ideological or religious justifications. The problem is that all these models are one and the same: the art of muscle, constructive hyperactivity that is rife with a faith-driven power that neither cracks nor falls apart from within.

It is useful to recall Marcel Duchamp, the inventor of the first trap in the history of modern art, his 1917 work “Trebuchet,” a coat hanger nailed to the floor. Here is his description of the creative process that underlay the creation of this “readymade”: “A real coat hanger that I wanted sometime to put on the wall and hang my things on but I never did come to that – so it was on the floor and I would kick it every minute, every time I went out – I got crazy about it and I said the Hell with it, if it wants to stay there and bore me, I’ll nail it down.” (Source: www.toutfait.com/unmaking_the_museum/Trap.html)

Duchamp is actually saying that he was hunted by the coat hanger, that he was consistently tripped up and trapped by it at moments of distraction and inattention; that the coat hanger threatened to bore into him, but that in the end it was the artist who perforated the object and turned it into a doorstop. The device was leveled; Duchamp remained on his feet.

Self-entrapment is also apparent in a 1972 work, “Untitled (Teaparty)”, by another expert creator of obstacles, Bas Jan Ader. As described in www.frieze.com, “In a series of six color photographs arranged in a column, the camera slowly zooms into a sunlit clearing in a wood where Ader, formally dressed, is taking afternoon tea – in the English style – under a large cardboard box propped up by a stick. The camera zooms out again and in the last frame the stick has come away and the box has fallen to capture the tea-drinker like a mouse in a trap.”

In contrast to these harmless games, Belsky’s exhibition projects ostensibly genuine torture – there are knives and knots, life-threatening arrows and real targets. But the show lacks the true inner tension of torment: the trap is not of the self. In fact, what’s projected is the joy of creating, pure therapeutic pleasure derived from the work process.

In the end, the exhibition lacks sophistication. It is bursting with expressive power, energy and tension foisted onto a clichéd hunting plot, but without truly becoming a story about art, without generating an inward-looking dimension that has something to say about the constituent elements of sculpting. It doesn’t transcend the story form, possessing a quality of illustrativeness but without a thin over-layer of doubt.

Because, in contrast to Duchamp’s coat hanger, the functional element of the devices is not emasculated in Belsky’s works, the question to be asked is: What makes them art? Belsky’s traps are sculptures only in the sense that every handmade object, especially objects of tradition, folklore or those that show customs of communities and minorities, possess a certain inbuilt aesthetic value. Latent in them, in addition, is the memory of the work that built them: they are a concrete result of investment and persistence. In this sense, the traps are not a representation of anything. Like scarecrows, for example, they are not sculptures but are what they are: artifacts of trapping. The only metaphoric element lies in the choice of the natural-hunting style, which is genuinely anthroposophic and is utterly alien to the contemporary surroundings, to the gallery, to present-day art, evoking a cryptic, peculiar message from an extinct, forest way of life.

The impact is further weakened by the artist’s decision to add the targeted women. Instead of leaving the target of the baits an open question (the artist? the viewer? the interpreter?), Belsky tells us the story to the end. It’s a story that we know from a variety of television series and movie thrillers, this time served up as the design of a product in the “true detective” mode.

There are only a few more days to view the exhibition, which closes November 6. Minshar Gallery at Minshar for Art, 18 David Chachmi Street, Tel Aviv. Sunday-Thursday 11 A.M. – 7 P.M. Telephone: (03) 688-7090.