The essence of Ashkenaz

A record of the preparation of gefilte fish and a purposefully hollow reclamation of Nazi imagery.

nazi art (photo credit: )
nazi art
(photo credit: )
Walking into Boaz Arad's exhibition VoozVooz (an affectionately derogatory term for Ashkenazim), the viewer is greeted by the voice of his mother discussing whether the fish has "milk" or "eggs" in its bowels as she prepares gefilte fish. Inside, the video accompanying the voice reveals Mrs. Arad's hands and kitchen in Holon, but not her face, in an unusual cooking/family history lesson. While the elder Arad moves through this labor-intensive, esoteric process, her artist son asks her loaded questions regarding both the preparation of this quintessential Ashkenazi dish and its symbolism in Israeli culture. We only hear the son's voice while we observe the home-cook at work on the video, but this image is spliced with humoristic shots of the artist's face mocking his mother's stereotypically Ashkenazi know-it-all demeanor, mouthing her explanations in front of a cheetah print fabric. bizarrely, Arad faces the viewer with a large bird perched on his shoulder. The artist's questions are both practical and metaphoric: "How do you pick a good fish?" as well as explicit: "Why do Mizrahim hate gefilte fish?" Likewise, the mother's responses can also be interpreted on several levels: with irony or cynicism, as a mirror of social or historical reality, or just about cooking. Immediately after emphatically (or defensively) claiming: "I don't judge a person based on whether he is Ashkenazi or Mizrahi!" she matter-of-factly explains that she adds a little soup powder and tomato paste to the cooking broth because she "prefers the fish a little darker." Looking up from the video, the viewer notices a small, modernist-style geometric painting hanging randomly on the gallery wall. While it appears to be a bright color study confined by a simple rectilinear design, the composition is also a cousin of a Nazi swastika, strangely devoid of its anti-Semitic power. In view of this post-modern painting, it's poignant - but not tragic - to hear Efrat Arad unemotionally imply that gefilte fish is almost extinct: for generations, the tradition was passed from mother to daughter in Eastern Europe, but today, her own daughters eat gefilte fish but have no idea - or desire - to make it. Leaving the fish, head and all, behind, a pasty head of Hitler uncannily confronts the viewer from the floor of the next gallery. His eyes are closed and his skinned body resembles a hunted-bear rug more than a human body, but his mustached visage and neatly combed thin-hair is unmistakable. Yet this is not the Hitler we know immortalized by the Nazi-era film clips. Through this work, Boaz Arad "conquers" the image of the upright Hitler. Now, the leader of the Third Reich sprawled on the floor functions as a cheap, synthetic carpet we can walk on, an (almost) buried chapter of Jewish communal history. More cheerful, multi-colored "swastika" paintings hang at irregular intervals in this gallery, but the space overall feels like a purposefully hollow reclamation of Nazi imagery by a contemporary post-Zionist artist, and not a celebration. There's something flimsy and shoddy about the work, as these familiar images have been "emptied" of their intimidating power. Here, the paintings seem like relatively banal experiments with color and composition. As the artist explains, "I regard these paintings as redundant objects... It looks like a painting you could hang in the living room but you can't. You have to throw these paintings away once the exhibition is over." Not necessarily constructive, Arad seems to suggest that this self-deprecating attitude is emblematic of the Ashkenzi nerd with "surplus knowledge" that could not save him from the Nazis, as opposed to the "street smart Mizrahi" who has a different relationship to the Holocaust and to Israeli culture at large. Upstairs, two more videos and a series of photographs weave together these and other related issues that fascinates the 50-year-old artist, who grew up in a predominantly Sephardi neighborhood. One video, "Until When," utilizes a mesmerizing popular Mizrahi song performed by legendary Sephardic singer Zohar Argov as a metaphor for the loneliness of the Sephardi Jew who feels abandoned by Israeli society. Arad's exhibition is a provocative exploration of power structures that impact on all Israelis. VoozVooz, Mon. - Thur., 2 to 7 p.m.; Fri., Sat. 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; through April 7. Rachel and Israel Polak Gallery, Center for Contemporary Art, 5 Kalisher St., Tel Aviv, (03) 510-6111.