Ruti Sela & Maayan Amir / Sharon Hayes
By Kari Cwynar
Ruti Sela & Maayan Amir / Sharon Hayes
Contemporary Art Gallery
April 8 - June 6, 2011
In the two single-work solo exhibitions curated by Jenifer Papararo – Ruti Sela and Maayan Amir’s Beyond Guilt – The Trilogy (2003-2005) and Sharon Hayes’s In the Near Future (2003-2008) – the artists use interactions with strangers to address the entwinement of language, identity and state. Despite such similarities, the exhibitions make for an unlikely pair, using radically different strategies of engagement with the politics of a particular place. The resulting contrast raises questions of the efficacy of different modes of speech acts in communicating to the participants in the works, and to visitors of the gallery.
The exhibitions flank the lobby, each occupying one of the CAG’s main galleries. Beyond Guilt demands a visceral response, Sela and Amir’s video trilogy presenting frank, and at times graphic, discussions of sex and state with strangers in semi-private spaces in Tel Aviv. Beyond Guilt # 1 takes place in dimly lit club bathrooms, with a rotating cast of revellers invited in. The conversation, as in all three of the videos, oscillates between sex and military action. The camera is passed around, and the artists are themselves half-dressed, spurring on their guests, offering sexual favours in exchange for conversation. Beyond Guilt # 2 sees the artists invite men from chat rooms to a hotel; the men enter the room in 30-minute intervals, sometimes overlapping. It is uncomfortably risky for two young women, but the men are vulnerable, too. One doe-eyed fellow sprawls on the bed naked; Sela lies beside him, coaxing the conversation further and further, questioning his identity as a soldier: has he ever killed someone; how does it feel? In a particularly unsettling instance, Amir is tied up by a libidinous new acquaintance with a penchant for bondage. There are silly moments, too, as two men jump on the bed in their underpants. On an adjacent screen, the trilogy ends in a gentler scenario in which the artists speak with a sex worker they have invited to the hotel room, her identity protected by a plastic rabbit mask. She in turn films the artists, describes her perceptions of them, all participating.
Despite the volatility of the acts and conversations captured on film, Beyond Guilt never feels sensational or exploitative. Throughout, the artists diffuse tension with speech and inquisitiveness. Sela and Amir speak softly but firmly to their participants, acting comfortably, becoming the subjects themselves. To those involved, this is ordinary, and they deliver the common denominators of sex and intimacy as inextricable from military action, from a state of trauma. The title Beyond Guilt comes from a Holocaust memoir chronicling the experience of an intellectual in Auschwitz, a situation in which the metaphysical questions posed by an academic are nullified. Similarly, present-day Israel as suggested in the trilogy is a site in which real-time engagement with the body and body politic takes precedence. The format of the trilogy, and the use of simple hand-held footage, befits its subject matter.
Across the hall, In the Near Future takes an opposite approach, creating a theatrical exploration of the signs and symbols of speech and protest, informed by Saussure’s linguistic diagrams and the ways in which subjects are linked by speech. The installation presents still images of Hayes’s silent re-enactments of historical protests in New York and Western Europe, an ongoing project between 2003-08. Hayes stands in plazas and streets, holding signs emblazoned with slogans culled from significant protests and some she invented herself (though this distinction is intentionally obscured). Passersby on the street (invited friends and art world insiders) provide the images as Hayes, like Sela and Amir, relinquishes some authorship. Though the photographs are simple, a cacophonous line-up of thirteen 35 mm slide projectors dramatizes Hayes’s mute, static gestures, thus highlighting the performativity of her acts and the aesthetics of the installation more so than the political underpinnings.
If Hayes is testing the resonance of these slogans today, anachronistically, what do they do? I struggled initially to see the deeply personal and historically significant signs Hayes uses – “I AM a Man,” for example, is taken from a civil rights era strike in Memphis in 1968 – re-iterated as seemingly empty gestures. Her actions carry the weight of an aesthetics of protest (serious face, homemade sign held at the chest or above the head, in front of buildings or monuments) yet they are free from real-time riskiness and urgency – a fact accentuated when exhibited alongside the politics of present-day Israel. After the brutal sincerity of Beyond Guilt, In the Near Future felt far-removed – historically, as well as veiled in the noise of the installation, reinforcing the inaccessibility of Hayes’s actions in relation to actual protest.
The friction produced between the two exhibitions does, however, tease out points of interest: of intimacy bound up in the state, across disparate political climates, explored in the public sphere to uncertain ends. Both works find potency in a lack of explicit judgment, employing strategies of ambiguity and playing with speech and silence. In Beyond Guilt, the films unfold slowly and uncertainly, rendering what could be shocking mundane. The artists all occupy a state of removal, Sela and Amir exploring aspects of Israeli daily life that are filtered out in the media; and Hayes in stripping protest of its presentness, noise and collectivity. It becomes clear that the weight of Hayes’s performances lies in this testing of the language of protest; it is less about the actions than about enacting an action. As such, her blatant stoppages, her seemingly ineffectual gestures resonate in relation to the state of impasse in American politics. In this curatorial pairing, both works, having been exhibited widely already, bolster each other anew, eliciting a pertinent sense of unease on their own and in relation to one another.
Kari Cwynar is a curator and writer based in Banff, Alberta. She holds an MA from Carleton University and a BA from Queen's University, both in Art History, and is currently pursuing curatorial research at The Banff Centre.