Award-winning Israeli Video Artist Takes on the Burden of Civilization With 'Potter's Will'

Unfathomable seriousness pervades Ben Hagari's video work.

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From 'Potter’s Will,' by Ben Hagari.
From 'Potter’s Will,' by Ben Hagari.Credit: Ben Hagari

Juxtaposed to the video work “Potter’s Will,” by Ben Hagari – recipient of the 2015 Chami Fruchter Prize for an Emerging Israeli Video Artist – at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, is the set itself. It consists of a wooden platform holding instruments, finished vases and tools. In this embodiment they become a static installation depicting a work environment that summons up miraculous occurrences such as those seen in the video, in which the objects are animated.

Herein lies the problem: Premature old age seems to have befallen the young artist, who for some reason is taking upon himself the burden of all of civilization. Indeed, he also dresses up as one who rises out of the primeval sludge and is also a kind of Moses. The archaic kitsch batters the viewer like a Hollywood biblical epic. One is driven to ask, “Potter, likest thou pottery?” The project’s abyssal seriousness is comparable to that of Bill Viola, one of the most overblown of contemporary video artists.

Ben Hagari's 'Potters Will'

“Potter’s Will” is a salient representative of an increasingly pervasive formula: art that puts forward a story or a used universal-archetypical image (snake, Golem and so forth) and inflates it to the dimensions of a vast metaphor. The metaphor is ancient – “From dust you came and to dust you shall return,” the Frankenstein monster and the like – but is executed with a technical sophistication that coats it with a patina of seeming newness. So an artist who masquerades as a vase, a creature of mud, or as Moses is taken to possess philosophical heft. This is art that 
creates semi-fantastical images through the use of technical tricks such as duplication, slow motion, delay or reversal. The trick, which heightens the symbolism of the image instead of infusing it with ironic distance, is nevertheless perceived as a clever comment about the medium.

This is art that adopts the honey-coated, quasi-reflective tone of visual exercises that draw on myths. But these myths are part of the consensus, or hint (with an unsubtle wink) that no dissonance exists between archaic universality and contemporary apolitical international art.

Ben Hagari.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

It’s art that does not betray the least sign of a principle-driven inquiry occasioned by distress, frustration, pain or a burning issue. As for underlying anger, there’s no point even fantasizing about that. Instead, we get sentimental, conciliatory homages to creation
stories covered by a veneer of sycophancy and dipped in simplistic semantics. According to a text by the Brandeis University art expert Prof. Gannit Ankori that accompanies the exhibition, the video alludes in part to the connection between man and earth that links the Genesis creation story to the Egyptian god Khnum – conceived as a divine potter who is said to fashion all living beings from clay on a potter’s wheel.

Despite this text, the disparity between the reconstructed site of a pottery workshop that is presented as a sculptural backdrop in the museum space, and its video documentation, does not create a thrilling difference that will induce us to reflect on the nature of reality and its representations. It’s hard to get excited by Rene Magritte-style art that juxtaposes the thing itself and its representation, and reveals to us that it’s not a pipe. After impressive precedents such as “One and Three Chairs” by the American conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth, and the oeuvre of the late Israeli artist Gideon Gechtman – two acerbic artists/linguists whose practice involves exchanging one medium for another – the art viewer is sated.

Besides which, ever since the parodic-erotic kitsch of Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze in the film “Ghost,” it’s hard to take seriously an occupation with the craft of pottery. We will always observe an individual sitting next to the revolving instrument. But instead of being moved by the synergy of the potter and his materials and the sensitive creative expressiveness flowing through his attentive body, along with the other maudlin clichés relating to the potter’s materialistic-philosophic work, we will conjure up the vulgar, soiled foreplay of Moore and Swayze as the wheel goes around.

From 'Potter’s Will,' by Ben Hagari.Credit: Courtesy

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