The Jerusalem-born artist Tamy Ben-Tor uses wigs, costume make-up, fake hair and a pretty uncanny ability to manipulate her voice into whatever accent she likes to embody a strange set of characters. They range from anti-Semitic talk show hosts (Lunch Special) to Marxist pop princesses (Gewald) to an aloof Southern author that has penned a book called Healing Hitler (Women Talk About Adolf Hitler). She is funny, off-putting and outrageous, to say the least. Her latest videos, four of which will be included in an upcoming solo show at Zach Feuer Gallery that opens April 19, have become, by her own admission, “more grotesque.”
The new work Lunch Special features the artist, her face obscured by an offensive amount of fake facial hair, taking on the role of a particularly twisted Arabic intellectual giving a lecture. In the video, Ms. Ben-Tor, whose work often critiques Jewish stereotypes (and stereotyping), speaks in a language that sounds like Arabic—it’s actually gibberish, mixed with random Hebrew and Arabic words. There is a sly smile buried beneath all the makeup that contradicts the subtitles on the screen that reveal the harshness being conveyed:
The Jew is a very big liar…All of Palestine is one big shopping mall with Mercedes and Audi…My friends, there is a way photos deceive us. That is called Photoshop. That is a Jewish invention…God damn the Jews…
“I make the videos in a very hot-headed state,” Ms. Ben-Tor said during an interview at Zach Feuer last week.
Lunch Special was a created as a comment about a web site that collects clips from Arab television. She was struck by how “civilized” talk show hosts and commentators seemed as they did things like deny the Holocaust. She wrote a script and tried to get it translated into Arabic—a language she has used in performances in the past—but couldn’t find any takers.
“Sometimes I just approach someone and ask them, but this text is like fire,” she said. “I didn’t want to just walk up to the guy in the grocery store. No one agreed to it. I thought, OK, there’s no way I’m ever going to get this in Arabic, so I’ll just do it in gibberish. And anyway, it’s all filth and disgusting, so I’ll just do a disgusting performance.”
She said that her work has become both more performative and more direct. The gallery will the new video works, but the centerpiece will be a live performance by Ms. Ben-Tor. (She didn’t want to give anything away, but did reveal that it will all be in English and will include four characters).
When asked if she thinks her work is political, she said “of course,” but then added that “’political’ is a contaminated word.”
“I think in the art world, people are very conditioned into labeling things and just reducing them into one line so they can recognize them and say, ‘Yeah, seen it. Been there.’”
Another new video, Time and Space, deals more or less explicitly with the art world–in particular, contemporary artists. It shows Ms. Ben-Tor standing in front of a gray wall with an entirely expressionless face. She’s speaking in a vaguely Midwestern monotone about her practice, but the speech is filled with meaningless jargon, ultimately communicating nothing.
I’m recently more interested in notions of perception and notions of how things are perceived as opposed to how things would be perceived in a situation where they are not perceived. I’m really fascinated by the notion of boredom, but I’m very bored by the notion of fascination. Boredom as a notion, not as an idea.
After saying this, she stares blankly at the camera for a few seconds, before resuming. Her speech goes on for almost ten minutes; midway into it, the tangle of words begins to have an incantatory quality. She said the video was “a kind of vomiting out” of her feelings after watching video of artists in a group show, each filmed separately on camera talking about their work.
“I was thinking, ‘Wow, the artist has become this gray clerk,’” she said. “He is on a computer all day and emails everyone and applies for grants and has no particular interests or obsessions or even cares about anything except having these wheels turn like a machine, like a robot and uses all these words like ‘creativity’ and ‘experimental.’ And it’s so gray and depressing. Everyone thinks they carry themselves so uniquely, but they are like soldiers. Soldiers of an army. It’s a very fascistic regime.”
Tamy Ben-Tor, Time and Space, 2012 (Courtesy the artist and Zach Feuer Gallery):