In the early 1900s, anthropologist Edward Sapir came to the novel conclusion that language, to a great extent, determines people’s thoughts and behavior. He decided that a language provides its speakers with both opportunities and constraints regarding what they could think about, and how they could act. A language with a big vocabulary and a complex grammar allows its speakers more latitude for thinking than a language with fewer words; and a language with a complicated grammar permits greater mental precision than a language with a very simple syntax.
Years later, Sapir’s student Benjamin Lee Whorf took his teacher’s theory one step further by saying that different languages give their respective speakers entirely different pictures of reality, and of life. Comparing languages spoken around the world, Whorf decided that a language like Indonesian, which has no verb tenses, gives Indonesians an entirely different conception of time than, say, English, which has as many as 17 different verb tenses, if you include things like the conditional simple (“John would walk”), and the conditional perfect progressive (“John would have been walking”).
Calling his theory the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, Whorf argued that language shapes a culture’s thought and behavior, and that no two languages shape thought and behavior in quite the same way.
Chichewa, an African Bantu language with nine distinct past tenses, Whorf said, provides its speakers with a more fine-tuned sense of history and tradition than a language with no past tense at all. Different languages shape different cultures, and different cultures make different kinds of people.
After a reasonably good run, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was largely discarded by anthropologists in the 1970s. But it lives on – and thrives – in the art and vision of Yoav Ben-Dov, 43, a very Israeli artist who believes that Jewish thought and culture are the creation of the Hebrew language.
Innocent of anthropology and blissfully unaware of either Sapir or Whorf, Ben-Dov creates paintings, sculpture and video art that reflect his belief that Hebrew – specifically biblical Hebrew – made us, continues to nurture us, and will someday bring us back to our true cultural values.
“A language carries your cultural essence along with it,” says Ben-Dov. “The question is, what does the language do to matter?” That is the question Ben-Dov is trying to answer in his current exhibition, “Language to Matter,” showing at the Engel Gallery in Tel Aviv.
“I have been exhibiting a bit too much already, probably,” he says as he enters the gallery – a short, sparely built, youthful-looking guy in a T-shirt, shorts and black fedora hat, cocooned within the heavy odor of unfiltered cigarettes.
“I’ve done 30 or so exhibitions already, but this one is by far the most interesting."
“I’m asking how do we perceive things? How does what we perceive evolve from our culture? I have found the language, Hebrew, to be responsible for the way we think we exist.”
“Hebrew comes together with matter in a way that I don’t know about with any other language. Hebrew is structured in such a way that every word has various different meanings, depending on where it sits within the sentence – if it’s a noun or a verb. These things happen in Hebrew very naturally.
“Like shita means ‘to fool someone.’ But it also means ‘system.’ It also means ‘acacia tree.’ Here we have a word that means both to fool someone and to create a system. We don’t like these two concepts coming from the same thing.
“Maybe the system is fooling us. Or are we fooling the system? Or is the system for fools?
“Then the ark is made from the tree that holds the same word.Which gives you a kind of balance. Maybe there’s something that holds both the system and the fooling,” he says with a smile that makes us wonder if we ourselves are not being fooled, just a bit.
Perhaps sensing our uncertainty, Ben-Dov gets serious.
“I really think that language holds the culture. You cannot describe Jewish culture without the language. You cannot understand what it is about without the language.
“In Hebrew specifically, the weight of the language is even deeper and heavier than the culture as we perceive it. I don’t know if you can say this about other languages. But in Hebrew, the words themselves seem to trigger a reality that doesn’t happen in any other language I know.”
Who is this guy who passes his days painting, sculpting and pondering the deep shades of meaning of Hebrew words?
“My father was a fighter pilot who became an architect,” he tells us. “My mother is an artist who paints and does sculpture. I grew up in Ein Hod, the artists’ village. All my childhood was with artists.”
Interestingly, virtually all of Ben-Dov’s life since has been spent here in Israel – almost like a native tree that can only be nurtured by the sun, soil and water of this land.
“For me, it’s all about a stubbornness that insists on doing things right up to the sof, to the very edge,” he says. “I know that I can get to that edge here. I can’t live my life in another place. I can’t imagine living somewhere else. I was in Florence for half a year, but I’ve lived all my life here.”
While he is clearly in thrall to Hebrew language and culture, is the artist affected in any way by the ups and downs of life in the modern Hebrew nation? “Of course,” Ben-Dov replies. “Because this is where I live my life. This is my natural habitat. The fact that the place holds all these values allows me perhaps to look at what happens to the country.
“There is a difference between the Land of Israel and the State of Israel. They are not the same thing. They could be. I hope someday they will be.”
Ben-Dov produces a picture from the closet of the gallery, one not included in the exhibition. In it he has painted a small house, with a grape arbor and a few olive trees. Above the simple little house, grapes and trees, an Israeli fighter plane roars through the sky, leaving a jet of smoke in its wake. The painting, either deliberately or not, appears almost as a child’s drawing, with childish renderings of house, trees and airplane, done in what look like crayons on kindergarten construction paper.
The artist explains: “This is what we basically need in our culture – home, a garden, wine and oil – but with a fighter jet flying above it. Imagine me sitting in my home, with my father flying a plane above it. This is basically my childhood, and how I take the country to be.”
Warming to his theme, Ben-Dov zeroes in on his central issue, language.
“So the land and the country are two different things. The question is, where does the language fit in? The language fits into the country only very vaguely. They’ve been using the language to manipulate people for ages. From the time the country was founded, they – the propaganda system of the Israeli government – took our values and put them on the coins. They took values and instead of putting the values into motion, they charged them as money.
“This was a critical mistake. It happened with the country as it grew up, and this messed up our ability to live our lives really well and exist in the way that we could have, in order to make some money.
“This country is making money, more than anything else. I think that our culture is not talking about money, but values. I want to retrieve the values that were taken and then misused.
“For example, the land. The land here became ‘real estate’ instead of something you can live from. The land of Israel was supposed to be spread among the people of Israel, to live from and prosper from. But now, as much money as possible is being taken from the people of Israel, for the sake of the country of Israel, forgetting the land of Israel and its meaning. Because if you don’t live from your land, it’s just a commodity, and a commodity is a tradable thing.”
Ben-Dov concludes by predicting that sooner or later, and he believes sooner, the culture and its values are going to supersede the country and its orientation toward money. Asked what our culture’s essential values might be, Ben-Dov thinks for a moment and replies, “Love your neighbor as yourself. Do good deeds for the sake of other people. Live and prosper from the land.”
As we wander through the gallery, Ben-Dov explains, “This exhibition is composed of self-portraits. This one, Simple Man, is the way I was when I made it. It’s about as simple as it gets. He is naked, with his hands spread, which are two ways of declaring simplicity. And it’s made from charcoal and oil, which is as simple as it gets. This is the way the cave men made their first sketches.
“It’s as simple as can be, but it’s also disturbing. In a way, he’s confronted with something you want to be and don’t want to be at the same time. You say, ‘I’d like to be a simple man, but then I can’t stand the idea of being a simple man.’
“Every piece in this exhibition – every piece ever – is always a self-portrait,” says Ben-Dov yet again as we arrive at something called Self-Portrait As His Donkey.
“This holds a lot of innocence. It’s all white. It’s standing on the ground from which it is made, not really knowing what it’s doing there. It’s just being there. It’s me. It is all of us.
“We don’t think of ourselves like this, but being the donkey is all right, being pure, being innocent.”
Asked whose donkey the title of the piece is referring to, Ben-Dov replies that it – we – are the Messiah’s donkey, on whose back the Messiah will be riding when he comes.
We continue to a sculpture of a tree, in which the top branches spell the Hebrew word etz, which the artist says is the symbol of our existence – the Hebrew language growing out of Hebrew soil, forming our cultural existence. A painting called Sadeh, field, shows the growth of wheat as the basis of our existence.
And a framed bit of paper from a pack of Noblesse cigarettes, called Noblesse Oblige, brings forth this explanation from Ben-Dov:
“Noblesse oblige means basically that nobility obligates. What does nobility obligate someone to do? It obligates you to do something for someone else. It obligates you to do a good deed, and the good deed gives you the sense of being noble by doing it.”
Serious stuff from such a playful-looking guy. And yet there are some pieces in the exhibition that are almost as mischievous as their creator.
Cornerstone in a Dead End appears, from a slight distance, to be a cube
made of Jerusalem stone, set at the end of a corridor. Take a few steps
down the corridor, however, and you will find that the stone is somewhat
diamond-shaped – definitely not a cube.
A small screen in a corner of the gallery shows a short video, called
Edited Interview with the Artist, in which Ben-Dov, almost robot-like,
says the words, “I never said these words.”
Asked finally what he would be doing if he were not an artist, Ben-Dov
replies with a deadpan, poker face, “I’d probably be chief of staff, or
perhaps the prime minister.”“Language to Matter” is showing until
December 10 at the Engel Gallery, Rehov Gordon 26, Tel Aviv, tel. (03)
522-5637, (03) 523-9847.