What Would Freud Say About the Art He Inspired?

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Elham Rokni, 'Shot of Color,' 2015.
Elham Rokni, 'Shot of Color,' 2015. Credit: Elad Sarig

“1980: The Primal Scene,” an exhibition at the Genia Schreiber University Art Gallery in Tel Aviv, addresses a concept from the realm of psychoanalysis that is transferred to the process of artistic creation. The curator, Eran Dorfman, invited three Israeli artists born in 1980 – Elham Rokni, Ido Michaeli and Assaf Gruber – to create an art project that is the equivalent of a Freudian thesis concerning subsequent memory. This aspect of memory, Dorfman notes, relates to the reconstruction of the primal scene, which is incomprehensible in real time, for we were not present at the moment of our genesis, and it is only in retrospect that we can try to understand that moment.

This process is triggered by means of a later stimulus, a second event that foments, in retrospect, the trauma that had not yet occurred but was waiting like a ticking bomb. With the aid of the artistic process, the curator wants to reorganize the relationship between the inaccessible source and the present. The idea, Dorfman writes, is to express both a personal and a generational statement about the ability to arrive at an original scene and a stable identity.

The three artists have created reconstructions that are in large measure inventions, fictions, conjectures about the past. Their works are mediated to the viewer as three test cases that demonstrate, according to the curator, that the primal scene entails temptation and enticement, a promise of wondrous remembrance and motivation to investigate. Without the assumption of the primal scene’s existence, Dorfman maintains, there would be nothing to remember, nothing to conjure up and nothing to create in analysis – the patient would be left with his symptoms without a way to extricate himself from them.

Mélange of styles

Ido Michaeli draws the inspiration for his work from a 1902 New York Times report about the hunt for a panther that escaped from the Bronx Zoo. This sensational item becomes the basis for preparatory drawings for a tapestry that will be created from a drama of the wilderness encroaching on the tranquil urban space. Employing a mélange of styles, Michaeli produces a rich re-creation, packed with opposites, of the rampaging creature – a panther that is a Black Panther (from the U.S. protest movement) that is a Negro who has escaped from the plantations that is a 1970s activist – and similarly in regard to the attempts to capture it, in order to protect the (white) public, in an act that entails taming and domestication.

A piece by Ido Michaeli, 2015.Credit: Elad Sarig

Michaeli’s images are copied from a variety of sources. One drawing shows mounted cavalrymen in helmets and blue uniforms encircling the black beast, which snarls menacingly at them. Another portrays the animal quilled with arrows, wounded and roaring. One drawing is designed as a coloring book, and there’s one of a Black Panther defending his family against a club-wielding policeman. The styles range from the graphic designs of coins and emblems, to folkloristic ornamentation and the realism of paintings of hunting scenes. It is actually the deconstruction of the complete tapestry image into its preparatory images that uncovers the complexity of the relationship between wild and domesticated, escaped and pursuer, threatening and hunted, that undermines order and the ethos of liberation.

Elham Rokni’s video work focuses on her parents’ wedding in November 1978, in Iran. It consists of footage of the event shot by her uncle with an 8 mm camera, archival segments and clips from films about the revolution in Iran, with narration interspersed. Rokni tries to trace the story of the wedding party, which was canceled and held at home amid the disturbances and curfew. But the members of the family find it difficult to remember the order of the events and the exact date: Was the party held before the regime plunged the city into fear, or was it canceled because of the tempestuous demonstrations? Was the date set according to the bride’s menstrual cycle or according to the availability of the banquet hall? Did the original film contain forbidden footage that was censored by the authorities when the family left Iran? (The answer is no.)

These and other questions serve as an attempt to transform a banal, standard event into something mysterious and enigmatic, like a work by Sophie Calle, through the disconnected details, the holes in the plot, the contradictory accounts. But in contrast to Calle, in Rokni’s work everything is dragged out, prolonged, vitiated by an exaggerated tendency toward explanations. Elliptically, the possibility arises of political life’s intrusion into and debasement of private life; but this remains more a sense of atmosphere, emotional and nostalgic in quality.

Rokni’s central image shows her parents dancing in the living room; her uncle holds up a spotlight to illuminate the scene but creates a moment of blinding dazzle. The romantic, kitschy image is replicated over and over in drawings, seals and templates, repeating itself with variations at different levels of relations between black and white, lucidity and vagueness.

Assaf Gruber presents two video works. In one of them a young man speaks with sexist arrogance about a woman who, it turns out, is a nurse in a private clinic to which he has come to be circumcised (castration anxiety!). In the other, the actor Rami Baruch plays the part of a mysterious lawyer in a hotel between flights who gets upset at his friend – the likeness of the artist – who is smoking and using a lighter that has a drawing of Yasser Arafat on it.

A piece by Assaf Gruber, 2015.Credit: Elad Sarig

The curator’s text contains therapy-like dialogues that were recorded in meetings and conversations he had with the artists. They talk about their intentions; he provides analysis and interpretation. The artists are placed on the sofa, so to speak, and treated as patients with unconscious motives who are undergoing processes of which they are unaware. They are helped (along with those who view their work) to decipher these motives, as though they were 19th-century Viennese “wolf (wo)men,” as in Freud’s famous case. It’s not certain that all this is the last word in 21st century artistic discourse. The curator’s decision to adopt the stance of therapist is itself a symptom, perhaps of abandonment anxiety.

The Freudian terms are served up verbatim, without updating that would make them applicable to the present-day cultural dialogue and persuade viewers that they are an important prism through which to understand art. The curator’s rhetoric makes the artists test cases for treatment, and the exhibition comes across as an art therapy exercise that is given an expert’s consideration. The projects themselves lack the power of a traumatic, formative fundamental event. They consist largely of small preparatory or partial works that are stretched far in excess of their size across the gallery’s walls.

What is intriguing about the exhibition is its handling of missed opportunities, what the curator describes as interaction in which something goes awry and replicates itself by means of doubles and secondary representations that circle around an empty center. In fact, the exhibition itself is just such a missed opportunity.

Genia Schreiber University Art Gallery, Tel Aviv University (03) 640-8860; Fri. 10-2, Sun.-Thurs. 11-7; until Jan. 31. 2016

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