Exhibiting in Tel Aviv: 'Ich Bin a Mensch'

Motti Mizrachi finds wisdom and strength in the image of the exilic Jew.

Eitan Shuker

Motti Mizrachi, an artist who is continually being reborn, has a new exhibition at the Gallery at Nitzana (11 Nitzana Street, Tel Aviv). Because of his poor health – Mizrachi, 68, has been hospitalized for the past four months – the show was organized by his wife and close friends. The 
curator, Killy Koren, also curated an exhibition by Mizrachi in 2011, which focused on the veteran artist’s 
shamanic side (in the late 1970s, Mizrachi was considered a guru by some and acted as a healer for a group of people). Though the new exhibition, titled “Ich Bin a Mensch” (“I am a Human Being”) contains a number of early works, it is far from being a retrospective.

Most of the works on view derive from a series of drawings the artist has drawn since 2010.

There are 21 framed, square drawings of medium size. Some, done with a black Rapidograph (a technical pen used by architects and engineers), represent objects in the form of dense dots. In the background, a recording is heard of Mizrachi singing in Yiddish. The exhibition also features a number of figurative sculptures done by the artist in recent years. In one, an homage to Primo Levi, a reduced figure of Mizrachi appears. There is a polyester sculpture of the biblical Samson as a “pitiful” weight-lifter, along with sculptures of flies with glinting crystal eyes, among other works. Also on view are some of Mizrachi’s well known early works, including the staged photographs of himself as Moses, Herzl, Jesus and the bound Isaac.

The focus in the current exhibition is on the image of the exilic Jew, in whose weakness Mizrachi finds wisdom and strength. The figure of “Shimshon [Samson] the Pitiful” is the antihero to the past decade of the artist’s life. Mizrachi’s ghetto-style figure “carries on its bony shoulders an iron ram that gores the wall of insensitivity and the social antagonism here and everywhere in the world,” Koren says.

She describes Mizrachi as an artist who battles the power centers and refuses to cooperate with the mainstream, which has often left him behind in the Israeli art scene. “He is, in this sense,” she notes, “a protagonist who expresses his views in the face of globalization, power and control.”

Indeed, from the outset of his career, Mizrachi followed the path of the avant-garde and the subversion that were characteristic of artists in the 1970s. In 1973, for example, during his final year as a student at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem, he exhibited a work in which he and his girlfriend are seen having sexual intercourse while wrapped in dough. A year later, he did a street performance as 
Jesus on the Via Dolorosa, and in 1980, in his “Year of the Dove” performance, he urinated on a sprinkler as children freed doves in all directions. Mizrachi later 
devoted himself to figurative sculptures, some of which can be seen at public sites in cities of central Israel.

According to the curator and art historian Dr. Gideon Ofrat, who spoke at the opening of the exhibition last week, the turning point in the recognition of Mizrachi’s work came in 1988, when he and the artist Zadok Ben-David represented Israel at the Venice Biennale (curator: Adam Baruch). From that 
moment, Ofrat said, there was a tendency to view Mizrachi as a representative of the “oriental” communities, and his work as an authentic manifestation of that ethnicity. Ofrat, who has been a witness to the entire span of Mizrachi’s artistic evolution, was also his teacher at Bezalel, where he saw that “he was not taken seriously – not only because of his name and his skin hue, though the attitude was not entirely free of that. There was some sort of disdain for what he represented.”

Ofrat observes that it was a tremendous missed opportunity to identify the artist with the Mizrahi world, i.e., that of Jews from Arab lands. When Mizrachi, on crutches, followed the path of the Via Dolorosa like Jesus, “my tendency and that of others was to say that Motti was a physical and social victim,” Ofrat says. “But we missed the fact that he was a duality – both victim and messiah.”

According to Ofrat, in Mizrachi’s 2011 bronze sculpture depicting Herzl meeting the German emperor, who is on horseback – both emperor and horse are split down the middle, like Damien Hirst’s split calf in formaldehyde – “one understands that Mizrachi is interested in encountering power ... more than in discussing Orient and Ashkenaz. ... he is occupied with falling, with violent pioneering, with the great promise and its fracture, with the potency of the 
vision and its loss. When he addresses the great social promise of Zionism, he also factors in his physical limitations as an allegory.”

Mizrachi contracted polio as a child and remained disabled. His condition is present in his works, without self-pity. Ahead of the current show, Mizrachi held long talks with the curator from his hospital bed about the spirit and character of the exhibition. In another early work, he attached a dove’s wing to his ankle, like Hermes, against the background of the Temple Mount. Here, Mizrachi functioned simultaneously as victim and messenger of the gods, as an artist who is a hero but whose body is broken – “the myth and its fall,” as Ofrat puts it.

As a total artist, a social-political artist and an artist of ideas, Mizrachi’s recent preoccupation with Yiddish culture is devoid of irony, in Ofrat’s view. He sees the “pitiful Samson” as a comment on Israel’s militaristic society, “but it is also Mizrachi in the image, with a reckoning of age and death. He is occupied with the Israeli situation, mirrored in his body and life.”