Maya Zack’s Tel Aviv Exhibition Is Genius Marred Only by Self-restraint

Tal Niv
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Maya Zack's figure of the scientist-researcher “Mother”
Maya Zack's figure of the scientist-researcher “Mother”Credit: Courtesy
Tal Niv

1. She is lying on the floor – in this drawing, “Trace,” which describes a crime scene – and the ink stain is a bloodstain. This is the image of Maya Zack herself, in all her physicality. This is also the woman that Zack has portrayed in her video works, “Mother Economy” (2007) and now “Counterlight.” A feminine character based on that of Friederike Schrager, mother of the Jewish, Romanian-French poet Paul Celan, who wrote in German.

She is a woman who resembles the actresses in Zack’s video installations, whom the artist resurrected from the Jewish-European enlightenment that was obliterated, and out of the theoretical work about remembrance and analogism. And I identify that woman.

"Trace" by Maya ZackCredit: Courtesy

I am thinking: Bloody hell, Zack. This is an exhibition by a genius woman. And in my mind I compare – even though the comparison to a man’s artwork is problematic, when it is a woman depicting herself – her richness of artistic expression and technical aptness with those if William Kentridge. At the opening of her exhibition, “Counterlight,” at the Tel Aviv Museum, standing there in front of the huge canvas. Wow, I am thinking, Maya Zack, you’re like William Kentridge. Piquing our interest, exercising total control in all disciplines of the plastic arts, from illustration to cinematic expression. I do not share her wish to put speech and speaking at the center of history, but my heart nevertheless skips a beat.

Maya Zack has drawn a woman here who is drawing herself in blood that flows from her brain and oozes out of her mouth. The drawing is not a “study,” a visual preparation for something, but a raising to the nth degree of the line that distinguishes between existing and not existing at all.

A room from Maya Zack's exhibition "Counterlight"Credit: Courtesy


Intelligence at the Tel Aviv Museum. Zack’s drawing is hanging on the wall at the entrance to the exhibition, which is also an archive complete with high shelves, from which a huge plastic sleeve leads to the realm of the real created as the inner exhibition space of the reconstructed world. I know that the symbolic, the imaginary and the real are all layed out for me so well. Zacks’ three-dimensional objects shown at the space are breathtaking. Looking at Paul Celan’s mother – the woman whom Zack recreated (in her own image) in her video and her drawings, and whom Zack reflexively placed inside the pleated bellows of an old-style camera. Inside a world of ideas, like the sephirot of the kabbala.

I am standing inside the huge archive room that Zack created. And the bloodstain, and the hair, and the hairstyle, and I know her eyes are brown (and see that later, in her videos), and the death, and the reflexivity – as intellectual phenomena, as emotional disorder, as a glance of apprehension – all are there across from me. Maya Zack reacts to her intellectual environment and to the fact that research and knowledge have been perched at the top of the pyramid of expression.

But still, through the distance she has gone, through her intelligence (although knowledge is a prerequisite for her), Zack has turned her hand into an ink brush and her mouth into blood. A woman lying totally alone. A woman whose hand is drawing herself, dressed in order to cover up, not to emphasize anything; a woman whose hair is curls and waves and dark and held together. A woman whose libido is all but untamed.


Scene from Maya Zack's exhibition "Counterlight"Credit: Courtesy

I walked into the Maya Zack exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum and was embarrassed that I had once written an adulatory review about a single work of art that appeared in an amateurish and embarrassing group show, like the one once mounted there about Walter Benjamin. Photocopies of documents were displayed as if they were authentic documents, as if the curator hoped the visitors would not notice.

And here, on a completely different level, was a perfect work of art, a neatly turned phrase that was constructed like a world inside a world, and Celan’s mother inside the bellowing folds of the camera. As if in a personal adaptation of Plato's allegory of the cave.

At the entrance space, I read, “Years. Years, years, a finger feels its way down and up” – poems by Celan. And then I see that in “Counterlight,” Zack cast, once again, a slender and dark brown-eyed woman, a woman who looks like her. And I walk into the exhibition space through a passageway built to resemble a bellows, a black lung. And in the second space, three-dimensional objects are displayed on a table. And there’s a screening of Zack’s “Mother Economy,” in which a woman from 1940s’ Europe is measuring and marking, making a cake as if in a laboratory, sketching as if in an architect’s office. And I am thinking – feeding of the intelligence. Food for thought. Where are the children who can eat this food?


I know that Zack calls this figure of the scientist-researcher “Mother.” The idea is to address the issue of nurturing. But I cannot see sentimental motherhood here. It is a magnificent exhibition, of an intensely talented, inquisitive and practical woman, about whose ability adjectives are inadequate.

Maya Zack's figure of the scientist-researcher “Mother”Credit: Courtesy

A coldness blows through the bellows installation through which I passed to the other side. A coldness I can understand. It is focused on an enlightenment movement that stumbled. Focused on an elitism that may induce anxiety or alienation in others. Zack holds up for view a pre-contemporary woman, an anachronistic pioneer, like Madame Curie – or, in my mind’s eye, Anna Freud, a daughter who preserved her father’s archive, served as a conductor and regulator of the knowledge, and a caretaker of her own research work. She is in control.


The drawing is part of a much broader array that Zack has created, interestingly enough, around a man: Paul Celan. I am still thinking about the question of whether this is dependence on a “subject,” in other words an inability to relinquish a history that has already been investigated. The bio written on the wall says that Celan committed suicide at 49, but it does not say he had a son. One child. Who survived.

I stand before this drawing and understand the skill of its creator, and see myself lying on the floor. And I think, an untalented woman cannot be murdered while she is writing. So the pencil has to be dipped in blood. The drawing here is also related to the concept of mathematical infinity. With which Zack is also familiar, and this can be proven with mathematics in the second room. After all, that which is infinite cannot be forgotten or disappeared, but will return. The drawing is large enough to be considered life-size.

Nili Goren curated, and Maya Zack is Dr. Frankenstein. The woman is her monster. “The engagement with absence and memory also links me to Celan’s work through the experience of losing his mother, who was murdered in a forced labor camp, and the unrealized farewell with her, hinted at in his poems,” Zack told Goren in a conversation that appears in the catalog. “My mother died when I was 20. While the circumstances were very different, she too was far from me when she died (shortly after she fell ill, she went to Venezuela, where she passed away). Her death left me with a constant desire to illustrate the incident, so as to bid her farewell. The various scripts, which haunted me in my dreams, attempting to fill the void, may be resolved in the project ‘Counterlight.’”

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