It has been a while since Sharon Balaban graced us with a solo display but Resting Bitch was worth the wait. The suggestively entitled installation occupies two floors of Hansen House, taking in the Mamuta Art and Research Center on the basement level and part of the entrance level above.
The vertical split has a number of feeder thoughts behind it. “There is the idea of the nether world and the celestial world, in the most immediate sense of the word,” says the 51-year-old video artist who has just completed a 10-year tenure as head of The Video Unit of the Screen-based Arts Department at the Bezalel Academy of Art & Design.
“There is the idea of the nether world and the celestial world, in the most immediate sense of the word.”Sharon Balaban
That goes some way to explaining why we have not seen a solo Balaban offering in this country for two whole decades. Mind you, she did show a video installation in the Israel Pavilion at NordArt, in Büdelsdorf, Germany in 2016, but it’s still been a while.
The upstairs-downstairs layout filters through the installation across all kinds of layers. “The idea of above and below is present in the works, in the day-to-day stuff, the mundane, simple and banal, and there is the spiritual and the lofty,” she explains. “There are a lot of axes in the work that are formalistic and, conceptually, there are the lower and the higher elements.”
That is evident, almost tangibly – it’s a mite difficult to get an actual physical feel of video images – right through the multi-screen spread at Hansen House, which started out as part of the Manofim Jerusalem Contemporary Art Festival, the country’s major art event which ran in Jerusalem September 13-17.
How the COVID-19 lockdown left its mark on art
Once again – will we ever put it behind us? – the stressful period of lockdowns leaves its mark on artistic expression. Like the rest of us Balaban was forced to spend much more time than usual sequestered within her own four walls. And, like many an artist, she began to pay more attention to the objects close to hand, in her own mundane domestic environs, including some of the packaged consumer products she buys on a regular basis.
“It is important for me to work with cheap run-of-the-mill materials and, using photography, I turn them into something lofty,” she notes.
EDEN IS A striking case in point. You get to see the work by making a sharp right after entering the lower Mamuta space. But first, if you’ve ever been to the nether level of Hansen House before you will probably wonder what happened to the fetching vaulted ceiling and the century-plus old walls and stonework that have seen a thing or two in their time, and imbue the ground floor exhibition area with a special ambiance.
The late 19th-century catacomb-like interior – at least for the duration of Balaban’s showing, through to November 26 – is hardly visible, and is currently obscured by white hardboard partitioning which, naturally, is all part of the artist’s presentation master plan.
Therein also lies one of the main avenues of Balaban’s philosophical approach. The first exhibit you encounter catches you off guard. It takes a couple of moments to work out what you’re looking at but, when you get it, you begin to take on board several of the messages that underlie Resting Bitch. There is a compelling property to the action in the video work, an endless wavy movement that conveys a curious sense of texture and form. The former is more indeterminate. Is this cloth? Possibly a shower curtain? The mostly uniform white lighting doesn’t help delineate the shapes either. And then you begin to make out the spirals stamped on the paper towel. Yes, it’s just your basic kitchen item going through repetitive unraveling in a Sisyphean scene. The artist has managed to create drama out of an elemental appliance.
That is very central to the Balaban ethos. “I really like the psychedelic side of this,” she laughs, also referencing the round shapes on the towel. “I am very involved with circles. You’ll see that later on in the exhibition,” she says. And cycles too? “Yes the repetition of movement is a very important part of my work – the industrial and the organic – the production of more and more objects.” Yet another swipe at conveyor belt, mass production civilization.
CIRCLES ARE generally considered a female thing. Many years ago, at a Rainbow New Agey gathering, I remember someone talking about feminine energy rotating in circles, while the masculine side moves along straight lines. Together they create spirals. That is in the Balaban mix too. “Yes, there is tension here between a circle and a linear axis.”
Now we get to the thinking behind the ad hoc layout. “We are currently standing in a corridor,” she points out. “That defines the linear aspect.”
Still, Balaban says she is not sure about highlighting the circle-line combo as a gender interface. “The human body, of either gender, which is something I engage in a lot in my art, has both circles and lines. So there is the formalist layer, which you can see in the corridor we built here. I really wanted to cut through this space, and transform it.” That she has undeniably achieved and, in so doing, added another aspect to the tension that ripples through the whole spread.
While there is much to see, enjoy and ponder in Resting Bitch, Balaban doesn’t want us to have too much of a good time even if, as I remarked, some of the visual stuff is a little on the intoxicating side. “I want to create a feeling of disorientation, but also mark out this axis [of the corridor]. You decide which way you want to go.”
SHE ALSO TAKES a satirical shot or two, or three, at our consumer habits, highlighting unexpected aesthetics and referencing the harm we constantly inflict on our fragile ecology. “Paper towels are such practical things but I don’t feel comfortable with it,” she confesses. “It is wonderful but it is not environmentally friendly.”
Balaban may own up to committing ecological sin but points an accusing finger at the people who pull the financial strings. “This is industrial design,” she says about the spiral imprints on the paper towel. “They go all the way to attract you. Why do they bother stamping a paper towel to make it prettier? That’s ludicrous.
As an artist with naturally, a keen sense of aesthetics, Balaban doesn’t miss an industry marketing trick. “Look at this,” she says as we stand in front of a screen showing a pair of outstretched arms and a rivulet of creamy blue liquid slowly flowing towards the upturned palms and gracefully pooling in the hand cavities. “There is nothing more beautiful than Camille Blue [shampoo],” she laughs.
The artist endeavors to wean us off the consumer-oriented enticing nonsense, and get us into a healthier mindset. “This sort of thing bothers me a lot, and I try to seek out a connection to the human body, the organic side of life.”
Balaban allows me to lead the way, and I duly make a 90-degree turn and walk along the right flank of the aisle, up to the aforesaid Eden video. I’d seen a small still of the work ahead of time so missed out on all manner of visual nuances. The outsized screen shows a pair of bare legs with something shiny between them, all the way down to the feet. After a minute you discern a translucent quality to the central axis and the reasoning behind the name of the video becomes clear. “They are mineral water bottles,” Balaban smiles. “You see the light diffracting, giving it a sort of crystal effect.
That is a feature of the whole exhibition – the ability to impart serious ideas, but often with a smile if not a guffaw-inducing quality.
THERE IS SOMETHING mesmerizing about many of the items in the installation, which fits the philosophical bill. “One of the concepts that I have considered a lot in recent years is the idea of ‘domestic flaneur,’” taking a leaf out of an idea proffered by 20th century German Jewish philosopher and essayist Walter Benjamin.
The societal gender divide comes into play here too. “Benjamin talked about men who have the time to stroll around town, at their leisure. They can observe the urban fabric, aimlessly. I find that fascinating, and it connects powerfully with photography – and observation – in the public domain. And the flaneur (‘stroller’ in French) is always a man.”
Meanwhile, the woman maintains the household, cooks, takes care of the kids and all the other domestic chores. Still, Balaban maintains, the wife can allow herself a little leeway in that regard. “As a woman I can be a flaneur at home, observing the things I have around me in the house, in between the monotonous activities I undertake at home. I try to take on a different perspective on things, via the alleyways of the house, and to examine the objects I have around me.”
One also gets a rare feeling for the artist’s voyage of discovery, and her sense of excitement when she happens upon something she wasn’t expecting to meet. Fluorescent is a prime example of almost childlike wonderment. “I saw the reflection of the fluorescent light in the water, and I started playing with it,” she explains. “I put on a latex glove and poked my finger into the water and played around with that. I like the effect you get.” Me too.
WE GET BACK to the human body, and the yin-yang, inside-outside, domestic-public element. That is particularly prominent – pardon the word play – in an image of the front of a torso clad in a red and white checked shirt, with two red protuberances sticking out at the front. Here Balaban addresses the accepted frontiers of nudity. “You can show anything but a nipple. Remember Nipplegate? That effectively ended Janet Jackson’s career,” she says. “On Instagram and Facebook, as long as you blur the nipple that’s OK. But the fact is that the woman’s body is constantly under attack, and subject to violence.”
Almost 20 years on from the Super Bowl entertainment incident that caused no end of shock, horror and even derision, and generated the term “wardrobe malfunction,” Balaban continues her own anatomical voyage. “I find the human body – generally my own – engrossing. I am gradually developing a video lexicon which is connected to some kind of portrait, but a very abstract one.”
There is a strong abstract side to her work, particularly in the very large eponymous work but, mostly, there is no mistaking the corporeal inferences. The female creature referenced in the exhibition and the specific work has nothing to do with a disrespectful epithet for a woman. It is more about the cycle of life, the ability of women to create, contain and produce life, and to maintain it through their breast milk. The Resting Bitch video also makes for hypnotic viewing.
The cheap and cheerful has pride of place, most pertinently in a multi-screen work which shows an all-too-commonplace pink plastic bag performing a merry dance atop a basketball. The constant gyrations of the bag conjure up all sorts of connotations that are, naturally, for us to ingest and digest.
The equal and opposite counterbalance dynamic not only appears in the video works but also in the way the exhibition was set up. We get to see the colorful and compelling video images but, in some cases, we can also walk around the back of the screens and get a look at their less appealing side.
There is much to see and even enjoy in Resting Bitch, and to mull over thereafter. ❖
For more information: hansen.co.il/en/events/ and https://mamuta.org/?lang=lW