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5 Artists: Wondrous Worlds

Helena Rubinstein Pavilion for Contemporary Art, Tel Aviv Museum of Art

March 12 - June 13, 2009

Two people walk along a lakeside. A bare, twisted tree stands to one side. The two figures are immersed in observation. The illuminated sky is the color of rust. A dog gnaws at a carcass in the right-hand corner of the painting. The image is mysterious and intriguing; as one continues to gaze at it, it acquires a dreamlike quality and radiates a sense of death, of finality.

Mountaintops, wild slopes, burning forests, bare trees, a whirlpool of air, large birds flying through the sky, a pack of hounds licking an animal carcass - all these fill the painterly space of Tali Ben Bassat’s new series Gray Expanses. Her mysterious landscapes allude to the possibility of entering an imagined world characterized by a different, alluring order that may at times also appear threatening These are “empty” landscapes that are simultaneously “full”; landscapes that have a barren quality, yet are imbued with a mesmerizing spiritual charge.

Although the landscapes appear to have been abandoned by history, they are marked by the imprint of human life: they seem to have lost their natural qualities as a result of ecological disasters (global warming), wars, poverty and famine — which are all inflicted by humans. And so, despite the absence of people, the human presence in these landscapes is amplified. The artist empties the scenes of familiar elements and rebuilds them as sterile images. In this manner, Ben Bassat neutralizes the viewers' automatic mode of observing the work, and constrains them to look and think differently at what may appear trivial.

The technique of watercolor painting on paper renders the images flat and screen-like – a quality that may be read as expressing a desire to distance oneself as much as possible from Israeli reality. The landscape stands for everything that is not "here" and "now," constituting the ultimate fantasy of distance and otherness: an escape to the realms of dreams and of the imagination. The strange vegetation and the terrain, which seems to be overlain by a thin, transparent, dreamlike veil, enhance the general sense of an intentional distancing from Israeli landscapes and (social and political] associations, and a journey into the idiosyncratic spaces of the human psyche.

The forest and animal motifs in Ben Bassat's paintings dialogue with themes that are integral to the Romantic tradition and to a religious attitude towards nature. Her work may be located within the traditional framework of images in which nature serves as a means of spiritual transcendence; at the same time, it blurs the distinction between landscapes charged with secular associations and those charged with religious associations. Her landscapes are not only their own secular representation, but also the point of intersection between the intellect and the eye. At the same time, they serve as a metaphor for something else — something spiritual, mysterious and undefined, perhaps the human unconscious. In his essay "The Return of the Real," Hal Foster writes: 'Can we read [Andy Warhol’s] “Death in America' images as referential and simulacral, connected and disconnected, affective and affectless l...) I think we must, and we can if we read them in a third way, in terms of traumatic realism[1]”, employing Foster’s terms, one may describe Tali Ben Bassat's works as making present a shocked subject, “who takes on the nature of what shocks him as a mimetic defense against this shock[2]” her paintings involve an almost compulsive repetition of the same theme, which recurs in different variations. In Freudian terms, the repetition of a traumatic event (by means of actions, dreams or images) is undertaken in order to assimilate it into the psyche and the symbolic order[3]. The idea of a shocked subjectivity and of compulsive repetition thus arises within the void created by a recurrent examination of Ben Bassat's works — in which meaning eludes our grasp.

Turning to discuss repetition in Lacanian terms, Hal Foster writes that "Repetition is not reproduction in the sense of representation (of a referent) or simulation (of a pure image, a detached signifier)." rather, "[...] repetition serves to screen the real understood as traumatic. But this very need also points to the real, and at this point the real ruptures the screen of repetition. It is a rupture less in the world than in the subject — between the perception and consciousness of a subject touched by an image[4]". It seems that Tali Ben Bassat uses repetition to reproduce traumatic effects, while simultaneously producing in her paintings elements that enable the viewer to read “the real" through the screen of repetition.


[1] Hal Foster, The Return of The Real: Art and Theory at The End of The Century, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1996, p.131.

[2] Ibid. p.131. 

[3] Sigmund Freud, "Mourning and Melancholy" (1917), in General Psychological Theory, ed. Philip Reiff, New York: Touchstone, 1963, p. 166

[4] Foster, 2001, p.32.


Text by Varda Steiniauf

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