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Between Man And G-d And Art: Installing Jewishly Merav Ezer’s Plastic Arts

In a sense, the history of the Jewish people is a history of installation art. The thunder and lightning, booming shofar and floral assortment at Sinai were intense aesthetic experiences. The Yom Kippur service where the High Priest zigzagged through the curtains and entered the Holy of Holies, burnt the incense on the ark and left the room filled with smoke was a dramatic encounter. Even for those who don’t remember Sinai and who were not fortunate enough to serve in the Temple, ritual Jewish practice in its everyday sense relies heavily on installation. Because it necessitates so many props of all sorts – menorahs, lulavs, matzah and a wide array of others – Halakhah requires its proponents to surround themselves with functional objects and to interact with them.

This relationship of what the Talmud calls heftzah (object) and gavra (body) epitomizes the experience of what many art schools call four-dimensional design: artwork that allows viewers to experience the pieces in a way that casts time and space as fundamental components in the relationship. Though other religions suggest sets of objects culturally affiliated with their theological identity, Judaism insists on objects with practical and inherent roles. The sukkah and the four species associated therein serve functional purposes but also create an aesthetic experience that borders on drama. Entering the space of the sukkah surrounded by decorations, looking up through the sekhakh to see the stars and shaking the esrog double as experiences that use a creative vocabulary.

Israeli artist Merav Ezer creates her work within this framework. “My objects, when created, are often site specific: I reflect on the energy that exists in the space and create pieces with this energy in mind,” she says. Over coffee she tells me that she sees her work as metaphorically “Bein Adam La’makom” (between man and G-d). HaMakom, literally “the place,” oftentimes refers to G-d, as in the condolences offered to the mourner. With an intentional irony, G-d is referred to as The Place, though He clearly transcends temporal topology. By using time and space to create dialogue between her work and the location, Ezer meditates upon a certain type of spiritual relationship with the Divine.

Beyond exploring time and space – all good sculpture should – Ezer’s work relies heavily on material. “Much of my work utilizes different types of wood (organic) and either weaved or translucent plastic (inorganic).” Imagine a still life set up on a table, and then imagine shrink-wrapping it. Ezer “shrink-wraps” (think vacuums) objects in plastic with help from a 400-degree oven, and the results are startling. The plastic delineate the contours of the objects, but the objects are removed, so the finished pieces represent footprints left behind, or ghosts. By using such an artificial medium as plastic, Ezer engages notions of dispensability and environment as well. The works are not biodegradable, and they have a feeling about them of packaging, of surface and of malleability.

In “Vacuum Memories 2,” which Ezer exhibited in the Makor “Baalil/Evident” show, which hung through December of last year, Ezer vacuumed a pair woman’s high heeled shoes. The plastic shoes, or traces of shoes, sit atop a light box that casts a blue light over the shoes. According to the press release, the “Baalil” show was a group exhibition “dealing with the notion of place as a reflection upon the human conditionThe notion of ‘site’ comes to evoke a wider notion of place.” Surely, there is no other People for whom the notion of “place” is more pertinent and pressing. For Israelis, in specific and for all Jews, in general, locating ourselves in both the temporal and spiritual realms is paramount. And in a way, the image of the empty shoe recalls the practice of halizah, by which the uninterested brother-in-law chooses not to honor his late brother by marrying his wife and providing offspring in his name, and the widow then spits into his shoe as a symbolic scoffing. In a way, that practice is as much about the physicality of the shoe as it is about the symbolic movement of spitting upon the foot that used to be in the shoe, the absence of which used to occupy the space.

“The Tree” (1997) sat in the Ein-Hod forest during the international biennial for sculpting. The Ein-Hod forest houses 300-year-old olive trees, and it lies near the artists’ village Ein-Hod, located on the foot of Mount Carmel and on the road to Haifa. Ezer covered one olive tree with 20 kilograms of raw linen, and the linen seems to lend the tree the hair of a sloth or a monkey. The idea of wrapping an olive tree; a symbol of both peace in general, a national Israeli icon and a focus of contention with the Palestinians, makes wrapping it with canvas material a very ripe concept. The linen looks like it might almost strangle the tree and draw out its last breath after 300 years, or conversely, and yet the linen suggests a long distinguished beard that the tree has earned in its long tenure.

If New Yorkers still have Christo’s “Gates” on the brain (and wrapping in general), Ezer’s work addresses a vital component that Christo never addressed: the tree has a large hole in it. “All of the work has a hole,” Ezer says. “The hole represents a penetrating object as well as a receptive one.” This almost Kabbalistic mapping of space as simultaneously empty and full, of an object that is lacking something and yet that is well equipped to receive further material manifests perfectly in the ancient olive forest.

Ezer is now working on a film concept that draws in part from the recent movie “The Matrix,” where the main character, Neo has a mechanical bug that gets under his skin. In a display of downright awesome video technique, the audience watches the bug moving through Neo’s body and the bulges in the skin suggest the bug’s movement, though the bug is hidden from view. Ezer is working with a similar contortion and distortion of portraits in her film, which she will exhibit at the Makor Gallery in early June. As one can see from the video, the subject sits in a chair, framed by lights, and he is captured on two screens. This attention to space and to alternate perspectives surrounding the body, develop the body-object relationship discussed above. And in a way, this is what Ezer’s work has been about, all along: getting under the skin of whatever object she considers; and rattling about underneath to figure out what it is all about.

By wrapping the olive tree in linen-hair and by working so prominently with the hole as entry into the tree’s bowels, she pushes the viewer to consider surfaces and innards. If the tree trunk takes on a different consistency (linen), but the surface is still distinguishable as tree, there must be something inside the tree that dictates its “treeness.” If one can shrink-wrap shoes and then removes them, can the imprint in plastic help interrogate the basic form of the shoe in a new way? Can this very modern kind of shoe fit those linked to tradition? The holes that Ezer leaves literally offer a microcosmic technique of interpretation that forces the viewer to transcend the particular form and to walk right inside. And that, of course, especially coming from a Jewish, Israeli artist, is a powerful avenue to access the interior spiritual identity that we might aptly call “Between man and The Place.”

Merav Ezer has shown her work six times in the last year including in Tel-Aviv, The Andy Warhol Factory (NY), the Nexus Projects Gallery (NY), Makor and Columbia University. Her work will hang in the Makor Marathon exhibit on June 5 at the Makor Gallery of the 92nd Street Y, where she is a Makor Artist-in-Residence.

Menachem Wecker edits the Arts and Culture Section of the Yeshiva University Commentator. As an artist, he has trained at the Massachusetts College of Art. Menachem may be contacted at: mwecker@gmail.com.

About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

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