“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image” is one of the most harrowing of the Ten Commandments that were allegedly spoken by God to the Israelites, and then written on stone tablets and handed down to the Chosen People for posterity, according to the Book of Deuteronomy and some 2,000 years of Jewish faith.
Whether the decree forbidding the worship of idols or images was really uttered by an all-knowing creator, and whether such an entity has indeed ever existed, are questions over which countless philosophers have debated. From Nietzsche (who famously ruled out the possibility of a higher power) to Walter Benjamin (who eloquently pointed out that “the unique value of the ‘authentic’ work of art has its basis in ritual” in his oeuvre Illuminations), modern-day thinkers were far from settling the old argument.
This historical and epistemological query is at the heart of a new solo show by veteran Israeli artist Assi Meshullam, currently on view at the Neve Schechter Gallery in Tel Aviv. Meshullam, who studied art and archaeology and has an MA in Biblical Studies, is no doubt aware of the biblical order as well as of the philosophical interpretations it inspired over the centuries.
Seemingly spiteful of the Godly edict, he has crafted various demonic-looking sculptures for the exhibition titled All the Gifts. His creations are mounted in the gallery on black pedestals the artist created and painted himself, in a somewhat humoristic installation that beckons the viewers to step closer to the works or perhaps even to kneel down before them in an act of worship.
Gaping mouths that reveal toothless gums, hollowed out eyes and tarnished skin are some of the ungainly attributes of the characters Meshullam chiseled into macabre masks that are presented throughout the space. Others are carved onto wooden, hamsa-shaped amulets on the walls.
This is certainly not Meshullam’s first foray into the realm of obscene and gory art. The artist, who heads the art department at the University of Haifa, is known in the local scene as somewhat of a provocateur, a title he gained after showcasing animalistic figures covered in blood or defecating in past installations.
One of his most memorable exhibitions to date, for example, is a show presented a decade ago at the now-defunct Julie M. Gallery. Named Lexicon of Principles, the group of works on view centered on the tragic figure of Ro’akhem, a hybrid creature Meshullam invented whose father is a man and whose mother is a dog. The sculptures and installations in that exhibition reflected the violent inner world of this distraught character, who also penned a book of commentary on his doctrine that bore the same name as the show.
MESHULLAM OF All the Gifts is a somewhat subtler creator, who still relishes in shocking viewers but doesn’t spell out for them his attraction to the lusterless material from which real life is made up. Instead, he opted for more tongue-in-cheek hints at the obsession for religious rituals and linguistics that underpins his entire body of work.
Some of the more compelling visual tricks he carried out can be detected not in the life-size sculptures erected in the main space of the gallery, but rather in smaller works tucked inside the inner room. An altar made of broken and discarded jewelry appears at first glance like outright mockery for the habit religious practitioners of some denominations have of leaving behind presents for the gods in prayer halls. But a closer look at this seemingly infantile installation brings to mind heaps of offerings that believers place in their wake inside makeshift Hindu and Buddhist temples, of the kind that is scattered throughout Southeast Asia. Not far from it protrudes from the wall a shelf bearing a small figurine that boasts the same ghastly features shared by the other sculptures Meshullam created, except this work was fashioned from an existing Barbie doll. The manipulated readymade object, lifted from the world of popular, saccharine consumerist culture and charged with the conflicted context of the artist’s alternative religious universe, is a strange but intriguing sight to behold. With a gaze fixed at the nothingness beyond and arms stretched out in a traditional pose of prayer indicating devotion, the modern Barbie-orant manufactured by Meshullam looks like the guardian of a world of values that has been forgotten or lost.Together, the jewelry altar and its feeble protector indicate that Meshullam doesn’t consider religious rites only with the condescending distance and disdain of an anthropologist, but actually harbors tenderness for them.
The larger sculptures, some of which are manifested from existing garden sculptures, appear at second glance like an inside joke Meshullam is making that is aimed at those in the know. A couple of them placed side by side, look like the artist’s take on the iconic imagery of Ecclesia and Synagoga. The two figures, whose Latin names mean “Church” and “Synagogue,” personify the church and the Jewish synagogue and usually appear on the side of church portals in Europe. In early Christian medieval art, the figure of Ecclesia was typically portrayed as a proud and beautiful female standing tall, to symbolize the power of Christian faith. Its polar opposite, Synagoga, was designed to appear stooped and often blindfolded or clasping a fabric that shielded its eyes, to hint at the blindness of Jewish believers who have yet to accept Christianity and the lesser status of Jewish faith.
In Meshullam’s rendering of the canonic topos, Synagoga is standing bent with its hands covering the area where its genitals would be disguised under the garment it seems to wear. Its mouth slack and open in an expression of awe or horror, as though it just released a scream, the figure is the image of doom. Ravens are standing on top of its shoulder and head, perhaps to symbolize looming death and decay. Next to it, the sculpture that could be taken for Ecclesia wears an impenetrable, proud expression. But the branches jutting out from its arms and back give it the appearance of a figure that is rotting and from which new life will eventually form.
As much as the lines are blurred between Meshullam’s Ecclesia and Synagoga, so are the distinctions – between good and bad, ugly and aesthetic – difficult to discern in the rest of his works. Perhaps the artist enjoys forcing visitors to experience this ambiguity, but when handling such a complex subject one would expect him to offer a clearer statement. In a text accompanying the exhibit, curator Shira Friedman explains that its name alludes to the contents of the box entrusted to the mythological Pandora, whose name literally means Pan (all) Dora (gifts). As the myth goes, when Pandora opened the box she released all the calamities that plague the human race. The same can’t really be said of Meshullam; he may have momentarily opened his own box of atrocities but kept the lid on, leaving us wondering what prophecy of disaster he is trying to spell out.
All the Gifts is on display at Neve Schechter Gallery, 42 Aharon Chelouche Street, Tel Aviv, until November 21, 2020. The gallery is expected to reopen to visitors after the lockdown.