Portrait of an Israeli Artist as a Garbage Picker

Shai Ratner creates provocative structures out of everyday material and sets them against an old Indian tale about desire and sexual fulfillment.

Shai Ratner’s exhibition at the Alfred Gallery in Tel Aviv is like a meeting between Marcel Duchamp and Indian mythology. The physical subjects are machines, desire and the city but when paired with an Indian cautionary tale, they come alive with fire and significance. The exhibit builds on the tension between nature and industry, "between the physical and the architectonic, between the fluid and the solid, and draws its inspiration from the curves at the fringes of urban reality,” writes Tali Tamir in the text accompanying it.

One of the central pieces of the exhibition is a structure made of three elements: concrete cells built in the gallery, an improvised fountain made of bicycles on their sides and a large system of metal pipes. The concrete cells block the gallery's entrance, forcing you to use a side door and making you feel a bit like an intruder or voyeur for doing so. The blocks, which are essentially the same with a few variations of surface textures, look like dividers you might find behind the bleachers at a stadium or a mall, the kind of places used for a quick sexual encounter or for taking a leak.

The cells are blocked by deer antlers that stand upright like branched phalluses, a splendid symbol of nature and territorial masculinity. But the nature they represent is a baroque style, castrated and displayed like an old hunting souvenir. Their presence brings a bit of magic and mystery to this coarse, secular, urban environment. 

“The gap between the curls of the antlers and the straightness of the pipes is like the gap between the modest function of the urethra and the extroverted haughtiness of the sexual organ,” Tamir writes. In essence, they are a dead example of life. 

Round holes in the walls, where pipes used to be, are filled with newspaper and trash. Water trickles from them to the floor, which is an accumulation of dust and dirt, ash and a broken lighter, all of which flow toward the drains. The metal pipes poke out of a high window in the gallery, like they're bursting in from the outside and their path along the wall, with its joints and curves, looks like both a crawling creature and a church organ. 

A bottle of fish sauce is stuck into one of the wheels of the bicycle fountain, which leaps and bubbles inside a green plastic jerry can. It's less a fountain, really, than a leaky faucet. It too riffs on the theme of nature that has become a man-made creation. It's also the weak point of the exhibit with a prankster quality that doesn't mesh with the rest of the installation. In illustrating an overused theme, it comes across as a joke.

Each of the three elements of the space invokes some sort of piping or drainage; perhaps we can call them sculptures of plumbing. 

Behind all this is a background story called "The Curse of Pandu," which was borrowed from ancient Indian folklore. King Pandu, we're told, is an excellent archer who one day shoots a pair of mating deer. For this crime, he is doomed to perpetually unfulfilled desire. In other words, he is cursed with the desire for sex but unable to act on it – to do so is punishable by death. In the words of Duchamp, the transfer of his material to its destination is impossible, and thus, his desire will lead to barrenness.

Like Duchamp, Ratner’s sculptural language is barren. These pieces are machines of desire, but their mechanisms show fulfillment as failure. This isn’t an artistic act of unified, monolithic sculpture but rather endless flowing and sudden stops. But his exploration of the language of plumbing is an interesting contribution to the existing cultural conversation. 

Moisture is the key here: New life can be created out of dead, abandoned or used materials through moisture, either real or metaphorical. All of that water – in the pipes, the ground and the fountain – represents the male's sexual release. But we know that, according to "The Curse of Pandu, "this is the moment after fulfillment, orgasmic pleasure, and thus, death.

Unlike Duchamp, Ratner doesn’t deal with the production of the products and therefore doesn't engage the viewer politically. On the contrary, he's more interested in a renewal of aesthetics. As a member of the culture cursed by Duchamp’s legacy to be eternally stuck in desire, he is actually seeking pleasure.

What is particularly interesting about the exhibition, which at heart is compact and allegorical, is that the observer is granted different points of view. A sideways glance, looking at a floor from above, standing across a wall full of holes, like a wall of tears, requires the viewer to focus on nuances, which creates different emotional reactions. Therein lies the richness of this exhibition.

“Cell No. 4,” Shai Ratner. Curator: Gidi Smilansky. Alfred Gallery, 19 Ben Atar Street, Tel Aviv. Tues.-Thurs. 5-9 P.M., Fri. 10 A.M.-2 P.M., Sat. 11 A.M.-3 P.M. Until May 10, 2013.

Yael Gesser
Yael Gesser