Next year, when he represents Israel at the 55th Venice Biennale – one of the world's premier contemporary art events – video artist Gilad Ratman will join the ranks of renowned Israeli artists Sigalit Landau and the late Raffi Lavie.
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Art aficionados who want a glimpse of his work before the biennale next year can get a sneak peek of the goods this month at the Braverman Gallery in Tel Aviv, where four of Ratman's video works are on view.
The exhibit, a collaboration between Ratman and artists Ronnie Bass and Carmel Michaeli, is entitled "The Band of the Family of the Bell." It comprises video, music and sculpture, all structured around a mysterious, possibly messianic group called – you guessed it – the Family of the Bell.
Ratman's work can often be perplexing or even disorienting for the viewer, but in this exhibition, three of the four videos complement each other.
In the central video on the ground floor of the gallery, which is projected onto the outside wall of a large wooden hut, Bass appears dressed in sackcloth, singing and playing monotonous, rhythmic music on a flute. A group of acrobats form a human pyramid on a screen behind him. He lies down silently. Ratman and Michaeli stand over him like ominous sanitation workers, or mages, bringing him what appear to be towels or folded shrouds. He shifts some sort of structure resembling a piston that is disconnected from its cylinder. A starry night, maybe the star of Bethlehem, is among them.
In another video, the three artists, wearing yellow life jackets, row a boat in what appears to be a mysterious, ceremonial nighttime journey. A kind of black hole, a massive empty eye, shines above them. At the prow of the boat, the same strange structure from the first video appears to steer it along the stream. The three artists in the boat look like researchers or adventurers in a B-movie, searching for something, an enormous, glittering black rock gains on them, to the viewer's horror. In close-ups, their rowing creates a kind of odd physical performance of rising and falling. A song plays in the background, informing the viewer that they have been in the ground for eight years, 40 years, 60 years. Now, the singer explains, is the time to rise.
Another video is projected in the gallery's lower space. Next to it, a revolving wooden stage fitted with an amplifier, a tambourine, buckets and emergency lights projects its silhouette onto the video. The speakers face the audience. To the accompaniment of the song lyrics "Once we were eight, now we're three," the three artists appear wearing sackcloth and yellow nylon jackets. They look more like a rescue team or a road crew than like three ancient, mystical sages.
The group, or family, engages in nighttime searches with flashlights, beaming light in all directions. They disembark onto dry land, perhaps safe harbor, and gather wooden boards in a forest (Tel Aviv's Hayarkon Park served as the woodlands).
In the fourth video, the style shifts dramatically. We see a trembling human pyramid. All of its participants are quivering, unstable, suspended just before a fall. While at first glance it looks as if their bodies are collapsing under the weight of others and the eternal tug of gravity, each participant was actually filmed separately. The clips were later patch-worked together.
In one clip, an artist demonstrates the positions he performed in the pyramid, creating a bizarre dance. The components of the pyramid's construction, the human flaw, are laid bare.
The video clips of the participants are pieced together in a deliberately artificial manner. The result resembles a studio production, created entirely by technology. It is a metaphor for mutual dependence that exists in humanity: the pain we cause each other pain and weight we heap upon one another. It is better, the video hints, to be at the point of power atop the pyramid rather than bow down on all fours at the base, like a tense, victimized Atlas.
Humanity – stuck in the mud, looking for a way out
The exhibition is, in part, a continuation of the existential metaphors that Ratman often presents: Humanity stuck in the mud, embarking on some sort of exploratory journey. It also pays homage to some of his earlier works and the questions they evoked.
In his 588 Project (2010), for example, Ratman photographed people deep in mud, up to their necks, breathing through plastic pipes. The work, produced on a film set, also contains a stunt element that exposes the clumsy means of production.
In the video installation Multipillory (also from 2010), 12 half-nude subjects are shown handcuffed to a pillory from the Middle Ages. The pillory’s front portion has been transformed into a kind of background for photographs like the ones at local fairs where people insert their heads into an opening in a picture. The video panning around the installation exposes both the comic front of the pillory as well as the cruel and humiliating rear portion.
While Ratman's earlier works presented the artist's role as a central theme, this time, his imagination serves as background. Before, he touched upon the relationship between aesthetics and torture, art and pain. This time, there is no visible violence or hedonism. There is no room to squirm.
Ratman goes so far as to blur the line between allegories of free will and situations involving compulsion, hypnotism or slavery. Without the gurgle of drowning or dirt, there is no symbolic entanglement between art and the suffering, torture and humiliation that accompany its creation. Instead, the worn-out theme of the never-ending journey emerges as the dominant allegory for the act of art.
The exhibition creates a journey, a search for the wonderful, while at the same time exposing the fact that it is only a photographic trick. It doesn't succeed in surpassing what we have already seen in, say, Nick Cave’s video for "Weeping Song." Compared to the immense grace with which Cave rows amid the sea of life, with stormy waves made of black plastic and a spotlight moon, Ratman’s cumbersome, all-too-serious execution leaves viewers feeling slightly embarrassed.
The exhibition endlessly repeats the name of the group, the Family of the Bell – as if that were enough to intrigue the viewer. As if it were enough to depict a cult or a band – a private group whose acts cannot be interpreted by an outside observer, whose internal logic a stranger could never understand.
However, what's missing is the horror, the sense of apocalypse. The transition from order to chaos or vice versa – the shift from government and law to mysticism – is unfounded. The metaphors and analogies remain too general, and are merely a gamble."The Band of the Family of the Bell" is certainly enigmatic, but in the boring sense. It doesn't arouse curiosity in the viewer. Without such a foundation, all of its developments amount to prosaic acts by artists in disguise who appear to be imitating ceremonies that lack true cohesion.
Ronnie Bass, Carmel Michaeli and Gilad Ratman: “The Band of the Family of the Bell.” On view at Braverman Gallery (12 Hasharon Street, Tel Aviv) until July 26, 2012.