Theatrical Therapy

Michal Heiman's `Test Number 3,' to be presented at Acre Fringe Theater Festival next month, explores the psychological processes involved in reading and interpreting art

A visit to Michal Heiman's studio on Bialik Street in Tel Aviv leaves no room for doubt: Heiman, a well-known and esteemed artist, is a compulsive collector. The front room in her apartment is devoted to the classifying and mapping the materials that come into her hands - mostly texts, photographs and newspapers. From there they are sent to other storage places in the other rooms of the apartment, in scores of packed drawers, cardboard boxes and cupboards. There is also a contraption where about 500 brown envelopes hang, containing portraits she shot years ago when she was working as a press photographer.

Heiman's studio is a faithful reflection of her works - a great deal of visual material that is under control, packed in a box, from which she tries to formulate insights into herself, her work, creative work in general, history and thought processes - insights into life. She has been doing this for years, ever since she had a nervous breakdown in New York, went for psychological testing and was exposed to the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT).

The test is based on a box containing a set of 32 images which are shown top the subject, who is then asked to respond to each of them. The interpretation of the responses helps reveal the main urges, the feelings, emotions, the complexes and conflicts that make up the subject's personality.

Two of Heiman's previous works that were shown at Documenta in Kassel in 1997 and the Herzliya Museum in 1999 were based on boxes of images that she created under the inspiration of the test. In Kassel this was a light blue box in which there were 32 images - some of them from Heiman's collection "Photographer Unknown," some of them from her family album and some of them by other photographers.

The test was accompanied by a manual written by curator Ariella Azoulay. The subjects sat opposite the tester, a student from Camera Obscura who had been trained in Israel, and were asked what they saw in each of the photographs. In "Test Number 2," Heiman replicated a treatment room at the Herzliya Museum, and invited the subjects to lie on a sofa. They looked a photographs of women that had been taken by unknown photographers and kept in a green box, and were asked to tell a story relating to the pictures.

100 volunteers

"Test Number 3," which was produced by the Center for Digital Art in Holon, will be presented at the Acre Fringe Theater Festival beginning next month. This time Heiman has expanded the number of participants in each test, has replaced the still photographs will video works and has transformed the test into a kind of theater with many participants - "group therapy," in professional terms. Six volunteers, women and men, will lie on sofas in the space, opposite television screens and microphones.

About 100 volunteers have already been located, and others will be able to step forward during the festival itself. During the test, which will be held several times a day, the six will view a short video work, together with a psychologist (moderator), a video editor, a stenographer and an audience sitting opposite them. At the end of the screening the volunteers will begin the work of interpretation, in an attempt to fulfill the artist's request to "write one version of what they have seen."

The video works that will be screened were created by Israeli artists (Heiman is not interested in revealing their identities), and what all the works that will be screened have in common is that they are open to different interpretations. "These are layered, ambivalent films that deal with questions of ethics, the stance of the observer and the stance of the artist. She hopes that after watching the works and the attempts to interpret them, a discussion, and perhaps even an argument will develop among the volunteers, the audience and the moderator. "There is nothing easier than expressing your opinion and sticking to it," she says, "but there is something very difficult and threatening about the attempt to listen and persuade. I think this work will make is possible to see how people speak here and in what language."

Fresh insights

Itai Citron, the director of the Acre Fringe Theater Festival, sees the work as "a breakthrough in the perception of theater. In it there is a concrete and simple, yet unusual, task that is imposed on the participants," he explains. "The process of carrying out the task is the source of the dramatic tension, and it is also the subject of the work. The work formulates a fascinating alternative to the significance of narrative and plot and to the roles of the actor and the spectator and the relationship between them. It draws lines of imagination between the theatrical act and the therapeutic act and offers fresh insights that will contribute to all of us in the further work and watching of theater."

Heiman's "Test Number 3" also presents an interesting and unique contribution to the understanding of the connection between the spectator, the artist and the work of art: It makes it possible to follow in real time the fascinating process that is usually hidden - the reading of a work by an "ordinary" spectator," i.e. someone who is not an artist, curator or critic.