One woman's treasure

A Tel Aviv artist’s latest photography collection challenges more than just artistic conventions.

photo (photo credit: sheffy bleier)
(photo credit: sheffy bleier)
“NO ART GALLERY IN Tel Aviv was willing to display this collection of my works,” says Sheffy Bleier, addressing a crowd of about 50 people that has gathered in her Tel Aviv studio. The room, filled with artist friends as well as curious art enthusiasts seeing her works for the first time, has the feel of a coming-of-age gathering. Bleier, 46, wearing a formal black dress and standing upright in green platform shoes, speaks with the excitement of a college valedictorian, her voice jumping from one sentence to the next.
It is a Saturday night at the end of October, and Tel Aviv artists have opened their studios to the public as part of an annual event entitled “Loving Art.” The event provides an opportunity to meet with members of Tel Aviv’s bustling art scene and to get a look at works of art that often don’t make it past the filters of establishment galleries and curators. Indeed, many avant-garde artists, who broach provocative subjects and use unconventional methods, go many years without public recognition.
Bleier is one such artist. Aseries of photographs entitled “Body of Love,” on which she worked for about nine years from the year 2000 has been hailed by a small number of art experts who have visited her studio. Yet, so far, Bleier has failed to gain acceptance in the mainstream Israeli art world.
“She’s an artist in the true sense of the word, completely uncompromising and dedicated in her work,” says Ruthi Ofek, head of the Tel Hai Industrial Park Open Museum of Photography in northern Israel, the one gallery that agreed to exhibit “Body of Love,” which it did last year. Ofek goes so far as to compare the photos in “Body of Love” to specific still-life studies created by Rembrandt and Soutine. But, Ofek is quick to add, like those painters, Bleier may be ahead of her time.
What makes Bleier’s collection so controversial is not immediately obvious to visitors to her studio. The wall-size photographs show objects, albeit not readily identifiable, that seem to be quite visually pleasing. One observer says he sees in one pinkhued photograph a large melting ice cream concoction; another visitor says that a different photograph reminds her of Christmas stockings hanging from a clothes line.
But when people learn that what they are actually looking at are the internal organs of cows hanging from hooks, their reactions change. “At the exhibit in Tel Hai, after reading the text, the visitors would sometimes take a few steps backwards,” recalls Ofek.
“Body of Love,” Ofek points out, does not aim to be sensationalist or to repulse people. “If the viewer is open-minded, an aesthetic experience can take place, arising out of the contrast between the beauty viewers recognize in the images and their mental and emotional responses to the internal organs.”
She points out that these were the types of responses that Rembrandt’s painting “Slaughtered Ox” (1655) and Chaim Soutine’s still-life study “Carcass of Beef” (1925) eventually came to elicit in people.
BLEIER SAYS THAT WHEN SHE began the project, she thought of neither Rembrandt nor Soutine, nor did she intend to produce something provocative.
“I noticed a cow’s stomach hanging in the Carmel shuk [market] near where I live one day and I began to photograph it. I’m not sure what it was that drew me to it,” she says in an interview with The Report in her studio. “Maybe it had something to do with the break-up of my marriage and my own life being turned inside out,” she adds with a wry smile.
Bleier, studied art at the Beit Berl College’s School of Art where she has also taught and served as curator of the college’s photography gallery. But during the past three years, she passed up on teaching and other activities, devoting herself full-time to producing the “Body of Love” series while secluded in her windowless studio tucked away in the center of an old industrial compound in south Tel Aviv.
Bleier started out by photographing butchershop size pieces of meat hanging for sale in the open-air market. But then she decided that she wanted to do something on a larger scale. She scoured the country for a slaughterhouse that would give her access to intact organs. In Hadera, a city north of Tel Aviv, she found what she was looking for. “The veterinary staff [at the slaughterhouse] were very cooperative and gave me access to entire carcasses of cows, with stomachs, uteruses and intestines intact,” she says.
“For me it was like being given a collection of precious jewels. I really felt like I had discovered something new,” continues Bleier, with growing excitement. She remembers being enthralled to find out that a cow’s intestines reaches a length of 23 meters (about 75.5 feet), and describes with warmth the close relationships she forged with some of the slaughterhouse workers during her weekly visits.
Most of the time Bleier would lug the animal parts back to her studio where she would labor over finding a way to mount and light them in what she describes as “the right frame.” But one photograph had to be taken at the slaughterhouse itself.
“The rabbinical inspector declared an entire [cow] carcass to be unkosher and they left the body on the floor where it became bloated and reached a height of two meters.”
The bloated carcass became the subject of a life-size still-life study called “Internal View in Pink Exterior” – the one that one visitor said reminded him of melting ice cream.
Bleier says she is proud of her collection and is confident that “Body of Love” will someday receive its due. “I took certain objects that people don’t normally want to look at and turned them into something very pretty. Don’t you think they are pretty?” she asks rhetorically. “It’s true that these photos raise questions about beauty. But I say, let’s look at these objects differently.”
ONE ART EXPERT WHO DOES think they are pretty is Tel Aviv University Prof. Moshe Zuckerman, who teaches a course on the sociology of art. Zuckerman points out that Bleier’s photographs remind him in a certain way of the cinematic expressions of filmmaker Quentin Tarantino (director of “Pulp Fiction”), who uses the sudden juxtaposition of extremely different images and unusual combinations of music in order to shake viewers into seeing the familiar in a different way.
“Besides her mastery of the technical and aesthetic aspects of photography, what intrigues me about Bleier’s work is the way she takes a societal taboo and turns it upside down,” says Zuckerman. The societal taboo that he is referring to, he explains, has to do with the notion that has evolved in Western society that the more you look after your outward appearance the more “civilized” you are. “The message society conveys is to suppress evidence of bodily functions and what goes on within the body,” he observes.
Bleier’s achievement, suggests Zuckerman, lies in the tension that is created between seeing things that people are exclusively familiar with “as part of our culinary experience” with seeing them in another context. “This provides, for me, a surprisingly contemplative situation that challenges the taboos of so-called civilized society and an aesthetic experience that gives me the chance to think about things differently.”