Resuscitating a Fish
Her hair is gathered, away from her pale porcelain face. Her silent beauty calls to mind a death mask. It is hard to encounter Masha Yozefpolsky in a surprising mood. In recent years her voice has gradually become shrouded in auras, her speech is dense, and her breath – short. A thousand cigarettes a day.
"I grew up in Odessa, by the sea, shifting between my grandmother's house and the other house, where I was sometimes looked after by a devout Pravoslav nanny. Until the age of nine I used to mark the cross in the air with my eyes, and utter silent wishes. When I was nine and a half my father took me to Israel. The socialization process was interrupted. Ever since, my identity has been oscillating between multiplicity and unity, over-exposure, erasure. I am a hybrid, a formation of a rhizomatic space, speaking a foreign mother tongue. When I was about two years old, I touched and dropped a large mirror that had been leaning against a wall. The slivers caused wounds, so someone stitched my face. I was marked on the lip for an attempt to become one with my reflection. Every narrative indicating an encounter with a mirror is channeled into a potential disaster. The world is fluid. Insanity is the norm. The situation both here and there is revealed as collective masochism that normalizes the one-dimensional man. Reality penetrates; it is diseased with Americanization and malignant survival. Sleep is troubled like Saramago's blindness. The epidemic is inevitable. The punishment is also the cure…"
In an audio-video installation (Interval, 2000) exhibited at Tel Aviv Museum of Art's Helena Rubinstein Pavilion, Masha Yozefpolsky (42) cradled a stuffed raven in her lap. The soundtrack played a sequence of lullabies in different languages. It was chilling even without understanding the lyrics of the lullabies, whose sedative melody often conceals uncanny events.
In the current exhibition, in the audio-video installation Valeriana, one can hear breathing, grunts, and the word "shaman" articulated in the tongues of distant lands. A film documenting the artist breathing life into a dead salmon is projected on a screen comprised of PVC strips. In both instances the artist is meticulously dressed in ceremonial attire. In the former she is wearing white, and in the latter – a black dress made of lustrous synthetic fabric, a black coif with bell tassels on her head, black gloves on her hands, and black boots with a beastly cleft between the big toe and the others. Her self-designed costume plays an important role in the elusive journey that she has been concocting for years; an allegorical, psycho-geographic voyage intended to establish her self-portrait as a clownish-pilgrim nun, a sorceress, a witch, a female shaman, a woman of unique powers: as an artist. Elsewhere in the space of Valeriana, sporting the same medieval appearance, she is lying in a fetal position on a revolving round surface. Her eyes are wide shut. This film is projected on 1,500 transparent disposable cups containing a milky fluid mixed with white food coloring. Valerian?
The gaze is exposed to another wall-floor piece consisting of two surfaces of glistening grids made of four-hundred salmon tails placed over a layer of powdered glass. Projected on the wall above them are two films in which 21 acts are performed by a single figure. It is a female personification of the artist as an alchemist destined to operate in threshold twilight zones; the artist who, in his twilight, conjures up overflowing visions, thus elucidating their very subversion, the groundlessness underlying vision. Resuscitating a dead fish. Cradling a stuffed raven. Both the black raven and the salmon are charged mythical images, albeit dead ones; so dead that even enchanting tunes and mutterings that sound like a willful prayer will not breathe life into them. There are very few things that a black raven or a fish do not represent. The black raven is a solitary, sophisticated, creative creature, even if it has opted to appear in Edgar Allan Poe's poem as a representation of the soul of the mother who died in his childhood. For the Native Americans it stands for a magician who can assume personas and shapes, move freely in the mystery and dark zones, and return therefrom with messages that may elucidate things and bring about momentous changes. In various cultures the raven is considered a mystical agent of prophecy and knowledge, oscillating between the subconscious and the conscious. It is the emissary that transfers energy or powers from the shaman to the sick person. It is associated with creation, healing, wisdom, art, and mimicry.
When Masha Yozefpolsky chooses to embody herself in her films as a sorceress or a shaman, she does so meticulously and resolutely, yet she is also ironic about her ostensible powers as an artist and a shaman. Unlike the figure of Joseph Beuys, who presented himself as a pathos-filled irony-free omnipotent, Yozefpolsky is a pilgrim but also a clown, characterized by both
gravity and a carnivalesque, nonsensical quality. She tries to resuscitate a fish, knowing it is dead. Even if the fish were hanging between life and death, it is doubtful whether it would have been possible to infuse it with oxygen by mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, for the fish breathes through gills. The figure she enacts ostensibly possesses powers of healing, enchantment, and revivification, but like the artist, with all his creative powers – it cannot bring a dead creature back to life.
Here is the ritual and here is the order of actions and here is the trance and the prayers, but where is the power to create something out of nothing? Here is the dream, but where is its interpretation? Here is the journey, but where is the change? Here is the drug and here is the hallucination, but where is the relief, the healing, the euphoria, the forgetfulness? Yozefpolsky converses with pain, but also with the hope for a "negative miracle" (Bataille) – the deviant, transcendental place where "anticipation dissolves into nothingness." There, in the locus of absolute emptiness, in the great void, lies potential emancipation.
Yozefpolsky performs her set of rituals in Germany, in the border zone between east and west, in that symbolical enclave where a wall once stood, separating the socialist utopia from the capitalistic world that boasts feathers of rationality. She consciously chose that location, and embarked on this astral quest knowingly. And there, in the intermediate realm, on the border, at the gateway, she roams through the forest, dancing like a dervish, running alongside a big black dog, approaching a horse and merging with it to form a frozen, hybrid image of a woman-horse; she turns around and shakes a pig's leg skewered on a hook, and crawls on a bridge's arch. Her gloved hands surrender to a little green frog that goes from one hand to the other. Even the glove does not dim the pulsing of the life quivering in her palms. She shuts her dreamy eyes and mutters. And so on and so forth, not in the same order, nor for the same durations. The repetition subordinates the order of actions to a cyclical dance, with neither beginning nor end; to a centrifugal state where there is no past and no future, where the soul is yet unseparated from the body, where everything blends and assimilates in a continuous present of changing combinations and contexts, until the splinters of something break out. Possibly light (consciousness, life).
Masha Yozefpolsky is a video poet yearning for mercy without knowing its paths for certain. She composes images as if she were creating amulets, icons, prayers. Her video poetry plays on, as sounds, images and associations are crossed from here and there. Tarkovsky and Mary Shelley; Ibn Arabi and Baudelaire; urbanism and nature; woman-horse; woman-fish; she-centaur and siren; femme fatale and monster; Narcissus and Medusa.
The fusion between the artist and the fish in the oral area (which represents the genitalia) and its resuscitation attempts call to mind Beuys's famous action, How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare from 1964 (Yozefpolsky's year of birth). Beuys, who owed his life to the Tartar Shamanistic healing he received when his plane crashed in Crimea, invited the audience to an exhibition at the Düsseldorf-based Galerie Schmela. The gallery door was locked at opening time. The curtains, on the other hand, were open. Beuys sat inside the gallery, covered in gold leaf and honey, cradling a dead hare in his arms. He slowly rose to his feet, one of which was tied to an iron sole, and with the rabbit, walked into the exhibition space. The viewers outside the gallery could see him whispering something to the hare. Every now and then they noticed that he was holding it upright against his drawings. In the chronicles of history he was registered as someone who explained the pictures to a hare because hares (and fish) are considered to have good intuition and a commendable sense of orientation – two qualities that can no longer be found among intellectual, intelligent, and therefore "oblivious" man; man who is certainly oblivious to a work of art that strives to declare its power to heal society of its ailments. Yozefpolsky's fish, like her raven, functions in similar manner to Beuys's dead hare. Just as Beuys mutters to the rabbit an explanation of his works, she plays sedative lullabies to the raven, while the salmon hears grunts as well as every form of the word "shaman" broken into syllables in languages from Mongolia, Finland, and Siberia.
Yozefpolsky is close in spirit to the Beuysian perception of the artist as a tribal shaman, namely society's healer; the artist as politically committed. When she casts herself in the role of the shaman and travels far away, however, secluding herself in a German forest and performing a set of bizarre acts, she discovers that there is no shaman without a tribe. There is no shaman without a community. Beuys was well aware of this, and therefore he used the viewers, with utmost pathos. Yozefpolsky travels a long way, yet she cannot pretend there is any prospect in this. The ritual turns out to be an auto-ritual of the artist as melancholy-stricken. In her films she is revealed as a martyr, a beautiful ascetic saint. Her silent face often resembles a death mask. Her eyes are glazed as if deep in trance. Her mouth opens and shuts like that of a fish. In fact, the resuscitation of the dead fish generates a meaning opposed to the ritual during which Beuys explains pictures to a dead hare. Yozefpolsky explains to art what a dead fish is; what a stuffed black raven is. Art itself becomes the ideal addressee. Art is the realm of intuition and magic. Just like the fish or the raven. When Yozefpolsky resuscitates a fish, she endeavors to breathe life (meaning?) into art.
The set of rituals which she performs in the German forest has a soundtrack: a recording of people performing the "renga" (a form of Japanese linked poetry. See Prof. Jacob Raz's essay). Each recites a verse all his own. All the poem's verses concatenate like a prayer chain translated into diverse languages. The verses of the poem that repeat themselves in a jumble of tongues, the grunts that come together to form an articulation of the word "shaman," and the multi-lingual chain of lullabies – all function as a mantra whispered time and again as if to prompt enlightenment, annunciation or consolation. At times the whispers are reminiscent of automatist scribbling in Surrealist painting.
As aforesaid, this dark installation, dark as the soul, is entitled Valeriana, as the name of the figure of the mysterious witch enacted by the artist. The title contains the name of the plant from which the sedative drug Valerian is produced. Intended to treat sleep disorders and panic attacks, the drug can also cause hallucinations, visions, and bad dreams. The title hints at the mental zone where Yozefpolsky's work takes place, a realm of dreaming and hallucinations; a realm of sleep and a threshold of death. There is no plot. There are images that burst forth from the darkness. They call for a multiplicity of potential interpretations, yet only a single poetic. Yozefpolsky, like Dada and the Surrealist artists, guides the viewer's consciousness away from the ordinary paths of knowledge to the opposite pole, toward lack of consciousness. The site of not-knowing offers an autonomous, detached, wild existential state. The hints of surrealism are interwoven with Russian pathos, Christian symbolism, German Expressionism, gothic romanticism, and prophetic kabbalah, but also with Zen and minimalism, epilepsy and poetic spasms. It is a locus where the expectations for meaning are replaced by existential disorientation. It is a slap in the face of wisdom's natural inclination to seek meaning in every thing.
In a world where the rationale has largely been appropriated in favor of economic imperialism, there is something far-fetched about the engagement with coherent artistic reflection. The far-fetchedness arising from Yozefpolsky's bizarre actions is congruent with the chaotic, absurd, repressive Israeli reality. The artist formulates her criticism of bourgeois culture in the spirit of the academic left in early 1970s West Germany. Yozefpolsky's unique voice is produced like running one's thumb along the rim of a crystal glass: a clear, yet discordant, screeching sound; mesmerizing yet unsettling. It is the sound produced by observation of the insane reality, responding with reflexive poetry, the poetry of man in the age of absent reason.
Rejection of narrative unity and meaning were the point of departure for some of the major philosophical chapters of the previous century, maintains Peter Bürger in the introduction to his Theory of the Avant-Garde (Frankfurt, 1974). "When Samuel Rosenstock changes his name to Tristan Tzara," Bürger goes on to say, "and in 1918 writes: 'Liberty: DADA DADA DADA – the roaring of contorted pains, the interweaving of contraries and of all contradictions, freaks and irrelevancies: LIFE'; when he bluntly proclaims: 'DADA means nothing'…; when the artist declares that he is losing his mind, and turns off the light – then the lamp of the theoretician – for whom there is nothing more real than surrealism, and nothing more authentic than avant-guard – is turned on."
Bürger is obviously referring to historical avant-garde – Dada, surrealism, and Russian avant-garde – dating to the first three decades of the 20th century. "Avant-garde is the self-criticism of art in bourgeois society," Bürger explains elsewhere, alluding to art's political function. Yozefpolsky clearly relates to the transformations brought about by the historical avant-garde movements in conventional aesthetic categories. Primarily, she relates to the statement that art, like the reality during and after World War I, has gone awry. Truth be told, Yozefpolsky's here-and-now reality does not appear to be more rational or less absurd than the one that served as backdrop for the avant-garde movements. Yozefpolsky joins a line of contemporary artists who adopt a medieval, pagan, barbarian aesthetic, at once similar to, yet distinct from the surrealistic films by Man Ray, Hans Richter, or Francis Picabia. The fragmentary nature of the contents and structure of her work is thematic.
The obsessive blend of images and sounds, languages and ideas, seems to stem from a stream of latent, infinite consciousness. Ever more symbolic excess versus hunger for meaning; spirituality in the New Age versus nonsensicality. Limbo. Void. Vacuum.
Masha Yozefpolsky has not evaded the trap of vanitas, or the Ecclesiastes' complex shared by artists, philosophers and madmen.
Like them, she is doomed to twiddle this realization: a rose is a rose is a rose…