November/December 2006

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NINJAS
AND PIRATES

GLENN KAINO AND
Lauri Firstenberg

Surface Rupture: Body, Place, and Persistence
in Rotem Balva‚s New Work

Text / Michelle White

Rotem Balva used Rolling, a video installation she premiered at the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art in Israel in 2002, to introduce me to her work. Variously positioned on the floor around the empty museum, cameras captured the artist as she propelled herself around the institution by doing somersaults. The artwork was then reinstalled on the walls, and she replaced the cameras with monitors presenting the haunting document of her nauseating, yet gracefully athletic, circling of the empty space. While doing somersaults is essentially child‚s play, Balva‚s performance was so strenuous that she practiced weeks in advance of her feat. To underscore the task‚s arduousness, sound sporadically erupts in the space, invading it with sudden moments of heavy breath, the rustle of clothing, and the strangely rhythmic beat of flesh and bones slapping the concrete ground at each rotation.

Rotem Balva, still from Rolling, 2002, video, color (all images courtesy of the artist)

Since the 1980s, artists have represented the body‚s relationship to subjectivity as a patchwork of socially and culturally inherited stuff. This is the legacy of the theatrical masquerades of Cindy Sherman or Yasumasa Morimura. Even 1990s abjectionųwhen artists like Paul McCarthy and Janine Antoni were taking the body‚s messy byproducts to explore even more of its extraneous shellsųwas based on the assumption that there was nothing underneath the masks and waste. If the body is merely discursive, it is indeed the ideal surface on which to prove that certain social categoriesųlike race or genderųare totally artificial. Well-rehearsed, this formula is now dour. It also fails to account for the fact that identity is still contingent on biology. Balva pursues this thorny question by trying to find the uncomfortable moments when social barriers begin to dissolve.

Rotem Balva, still from Rolling, 2002, video, color

In Balva's video, performance, and installation-based practice, the body‚s persistenceųits insistent breathing presenceųcollides with the corporal apathy of postmodern identity politics. Balva amplifies her discomfort and makes it viscerally resonant in Rolling by asking us to reconcile play with the fetal gesture of pain and protection. She also shows how hard it is for the body to break through discourse, how vulnerable it becomes when it refuses to be only a simple linguistic vehicle. Is the body locked, she asks, in a predictable and self-perpetrating representational loop? Referring to her decision to do somersaults, for instance, she said she was compelled by the challenge to find a way to represent a situation when the body, and by extension identity, reaches a raw and unmediated connection to a specific space. Then, she believes, the body becomes impervious to the history and politics of projected meaning, and free to define its own subjectivity. The artist describes this as an incredible and primal „moment when the body is naked, when culture can‚t get in.š1

 
Rotem Balva, stills from Rolling, 2002, video, color

In Balva‚s past work, play has been an important theme because it showcases susceptibility. Enthusiastically citing Dutch theorist Johan Huizinga‚s 1938 study on the cultural criticality of competitive play and its essential psychic import, Balva believes that sports reveal situations when instinct violently kicks in and disrupts the ritualistic, or choreographed, layers of existence.2 In 2001 at Le Quartier, a contemporary art center in Quimper, France, Balva hit a tennis ball against a metal etching plate that she covered with black printing wax and used as an improvisational backboard. The ball became greasier after each point of contact. Bouncing back and forth, it also produced a random constellation of impressions. The work was a visual record of the artist‚s intuitive responses that disrupted both the game‚s well-established performance vocabulary and the traditional artistic process of printmaking.

The two-channel video installation Op-Allah, 2003, provides another example of Balva‚s preoccupation with competition. Here, she focuses on the particularly seductive moment when, at the end of a point, grunting fencers peel off their mask and shout „Op-Allah.š This traditional cry of triumph, borrowed from the French, pierces fencing‚s uniformed civility and technique. Balva's installation juxtaposes this gleeful moment of victory with quiet shots taken from the window of her temporary studio in an industrial neighborhood on the outskirts of Jerusalem where she briefly lived. As time passes from day to night across Jewish and Arab neighborhoods, carried forth by the soft murmur of a Muslim mosque calling prayer and the city‚s ambient noises, the competitors‚ disruptive, deep-felt sounds punctuate the landscape, illustrating the profoundly visceral effect of cultural and socio-political location. Balva recalls that, seeping into her work space at this specific time in her life, these acoustic sensations demanded such profound physical adjustments that they made her realize that „how and where you are becomes a part of you.š

Rotem Balva, Rear Reverse Parking, 2006, 3:48 min video, installation view at Ha'kibbutz Israeli Art Gallery (photo: Ariel Yannay-Shani)

The videos Sand Fight, 2006, and Rear Reverse Parking, 2006, were shown together in Layover, her exhibition at the Ha'kibbutz Israeli Art Gallery in Tel Aviv this past spring. This new work pursues Balva's yearning to find meaning in corporal connection by exploring the body‚s negotiation of material resistance. In Rear Reverse Parking, the artist uses the car and driver as a metaphor for this resistance. The piece opens with an aerial view of a car circling a roundabout. Then its driver suddenly pitches the small vehicle in reverse, aiming at a narrow space between two parked cars.

   
Rotem Balva, stills from Rear Reverse Parking, 2006, video, 3:48 minutes, color

Close-ups of the driverųher face in the rear-view mirror batting her eyelash, her foot on the clutchųintercut with views of the scene. The video jumps from an individual body's performance to crunching metal and screeching bumpers as the protagonist violently, but confidently, forces her car into the crevice. Her mission completed, she kicks out the shattered front window, jumps out, slightly adjusts herself, and calmly walks away. We never find out why she would want to go to such effort to park there in the first place. As such, the absence of clues negates the performance's bravado. Here, while the struggle to fit seems meaningless, it once again frames exclusion as a relationship. Balva‚s practice constantly breaks and embraces this struggle between inside and outside, which pins the primal self against social restraints.

Rotem Balva, Sand Fight, 2006, 3:48 min video, installation view at Ha'kibbutz Israeli Art Gallery (photo: Ariel Yannay-Shani)

This struggle to connect and the quest for relationship also characterize Sand Fight, which was projected life-size in the gallery. Almost mythic, the work opposes an army of three women, whose stature is not unlike the artist‚s very commanding appearance, to a group of children in a playground. While these fighters do throw fistfuls of sand with genuine determination and strain, the effect is futile. As soon as it is thrown, the sand dissipates like smoke.

   
Rotem Balva, stills from Sand Fight, 2006, video, 1:32 minutes, color

It melds beautifully with the women‚s sunlit hair and casts a dreamy haze, transforming the battle into a superfluous, if strenuous, dance of passionate aggression. Turning their back to oncoming sand showers and shutting their eyes for protection, the actors' corporeal instinct further counters the aggression. Like the car metal, sand is a substance that makes it hard to get the job done.

Rotem Balva, Stone, 2006, installation view at Ha'kibbutz Israeli Art Gallery (photo: Ariel Yannay-Shani)

The installation further integrates this material friction by demonstrating how space and material can dramatically work together to undermine the efficacy of physical action. Between the two videos, a carved Styrofoam stone sits ominously, filling the gallery from floor to ceiling. Despite its lightweight artificiality, the white stone's gigantism triggers an acute bodily awareness. The stone's strong aesthetic impression, the artist hoped, would linger on in the viewers‚ minds as they view the videos.

Balva's work often references endeavors trapped in a cycleųsport's primal instinct, abstract battle lines, and the futile failure of strife. This is, of course, not without political and geographical specificity. Nor does the artist fail to acknowledge, albeit hesitantly, that these concerns shade her identity as an Israeli artist. Yet, her investigation of the border between interiority and exteriority, by way of the body‚s ongoing struggle to interact with material and architectural space, is also profoundly borderless. Having recently moved to New York City, Balva often mentions in conversation that she is trying to find a center. Today, political and cultural certainties are inherently tenuous, if not altogether impossible. Simultaneously, much contemporary art is critically disengaged. Nevertheless, Balva is determined to represent the arduous negotiation of a balanced position and the struggle to connect by breaking the proverbial cycles of routineųhowever difficult. In this context, her work is nothing if not courageous, urgent, and timely.

NOTES

1. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes are from Balva‚s conversation with the author in the artist‚s Brooklyn studio, December 8 and 9, 2006.
2. See Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture, Boston: Beacon Press [1938], 1955.

Michelle White is Curatorial Assistant at The Menil Collection, Houston. She is a regional editor for Artlies, The Texas Journal of Contemporary Art. Her column „Sublime Anachronisms: Hilary Wilder‚s Contemporary Landscapesš was published in ART PAPERS 30:6 (November/December 2006).

 

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