The weird and wonderful world of Aya Ben-Ron

The Israeli artist explores the medical world in her new online platform, Front.

A SCREENSHOT of Aya Ben-Ron’s online exhibition ‘The Last Voyage to Cythera.’ (photo credit: AYA BEN-RON)
A SCREENSHOT of Aya Ben-Ron’s online exhibition ‘The Last Voyage to Cythera.’
(photo credit: AYA BEN-RON)
Strange, eerie, cold and disconcerting – these are just some of the words that spring to mind when considering the work of Israeli artist Aya Ben-Ron.
For the past 15 years Ben-Ron has been exploring the meeting point of art and science through a visual iconography gleaned from the medical profession, and its accompanying mechanisms and accouterments.
Her most recent project is titled Front, and will serve as a stage for works created specifically for the Internet.
“The Last Voyage to Cythera,” a series of 12 videos, is the name given to the first offering. The “voyage” is a kind of revisiting of Ben-Ron’s work, previously executed in sculpture, installation, print and video.
“It can be interpreted as an exhibition on the web,” said Ben-Ron. “I wanted to cancel the sense of exclusiveness that is often attached to attending gallery openings or exhibits in museums. The idea is that people will have access to my work in any part of the world, all you need is a computer,” she explained.
The title of Ben-Ron’s first screen-based offering gives the viewer a clue as to the artist’s starting point. A Voyage To Cythera is a painting by French artist Jean-Antoine Watteau, and a poem from Charles Baudelaire’s best-known collection of verse, Les Fleurs Du Mal (The Flowers Of Evil).
In the classical world the Greek island of Cythera was thought to be the birthplace of Venus, the goddess of love. Watteau’s painting is a festive scene of a party of aristocrats enjoying some romantic play on the island, but also hints at the transience of love.
Baudelaire’s poem is much darker in tone, and closer in its vision to Ben-Ron’s work. In the poem a traveler on board a ship is overcome with delight upon sighting an island he takes to be Cythera.
Instead of an idyllic isle promising the joys of love, however, the sojourner is met with a rotting corpse being pecked at by predatory birds.
Ben-Ron’s Cythera does not set out to shatter any illusions we might have about love or life, but can be seen as a rumination on our perception of the body and the pathologies she previously explored.
“It sheds some light on my work from the past 15 years and was constructed with that timeline in mind. I put the work on screen because I don’t always feel the need to work with materials and create ‘things.’ I feel the urge to create ideas visually, but the end result need not necessarily be a physical object,” said Ben-Ron.
Of the 12 videos that comprise Ben-Ron’s “Last Voyage to Cythera” seven are newly-created animated pieces. There is also a short documentary set in a hospital focusing on care for patients in a vegetative state and three other short films.
Each video begins with a prelude – a would-be lullaby, more discomforting than soothing – recited by the character of a nurse, whom we assume to be Ben- Ron. The nurse serves as our guide on the voyage, at turns warning us, offering advice or imparting chilly presentiments.
Her sing-song and whimsical tone, combined with the melancholy soundtrack, give the opening an ethereal air. It is as if the viewer has become the patient and been administered an anesthetic or laughing gas, akin to that sometimes given before an operation, inducing a light-headedness or mild narcosis.
The animated short films, all of which are beautifully done, show a strong correlation with Ben-Ron’s past work. Present are many of the figures and forms selected from medical manuals and the medical world at large, that have infused all her work.
In the video titled Hanging, what was originally a 12-meter print on fiberglass fabric and is now on permanent display at the Berlin Medical Historical Museum unfolds on screen in vivid, glaring color – a labyrinthine amalgamation of limbs, bodies, facial features, medical machines and surgical instruments.
Wounded and haunted figures inhabit many of the videos. Stranded soldiers with misshapen limbs gather stray bodies and body parts on a desolate island. In the video titled You Are Lost, a group of doctors and nurses, bandaged as if injured, operate on a patient in what is a tableau of the wounded operating on the wounded.
“Covering your wound might prevent an infection, but unwillingness to see it will cause internal devastation,” goes the nurse’s narration. More than anything Ben-Ron wants us to soberly see things as they are; nothing should be hidden or camouflaged.
The film titled Physical Paralysis, created in 2007 under the title Margalith, merges animation with live footage, and serves as a bridge of sorts to what could be seen as the second strand of “Cythera.”
Margalith is a deeply-layered film in which the protagonist, a petulant she-flower, explores her past in the house of a gynecologist, the profession once practiced by Ben-Ron’s grandmother.
A whiff of death seems to pervade the house. The gynecologist’s private clinic, with its grim implements and tools, is on the second story. The house is laden with the history of its former tenant – personal effects, letters, photographs and a selection of books with subjects that range from Israeli military history to the Holocaust.
As the film progresses the she-flower becomes agitated and in the final scene we see her hitting herself hard in the leg with a reflex hammer, trying to generate a reaction, but to no avail. Does the seeming inertia of her body reflect a similar mental state? Has she become numbed to emotional as well as physical pain? The awareness of the Holocaust, the bleak business of the gynecologist and the experience of living in a state beset by war might have taken their toll on the she-flower. After all, how much can a person be expected to take? How do we measure the pain threshold? The curtain is drawn and the film ends.
The voyage finishes with a short film supported by and first shown in the Israel Museum in late 2012.
Ben-Ron, in the guise of the nurse, is placed and bound in a stretcher and suspended from the ceiling.
She is left, dangling in mid-air, now completely dependent on others for her release and survival.
The “Last Voyage To Cythera” is not seamless. Nor should it be seen as a complete story, at least not in the traditional sense. As excellent as the animated videos are they sit somewhat awkwardly when placed alongside films such as Despite The Noises and Being Alive.
Nevertheless, Front, as a web platform, when taken in context with the full body of Ben-Ron’s work is a good introduction to one of the country’s most interesting artists.