Michal Helfman – modernism and myth
I went to another brilliant Israeli artist’s studio last week in Tel Aviv – Michal Helfman . She makes sculptures and installations, using video and photography and furniture which are reveries on modernism, myth and contemporary politics. They all have a strong sense of locality – the modernism is the vernacular modernist structures of Palestine/Israel, the myth is biblical and the politics Israeli. You can see what I mean in the work behind the photograph of the work she is standing in front of. It’s facsimile of some sections of the ‘Wall of Separation’ onto which she has carved a modernist-styled relief of a biblical landscape with a weeping willow in the foreground. An archetypal Old Testament landscape emerges tragically and a little angrily from the surface of Israeli oppression.
She is one of those artists who finds surprising formal connections between things, which suddenly reveal a hidden truth with a jolt. She’s made one powerfully focused installation based around a simple transformation of the horizontal into the vertical – a great minimalist gesture. In it she equated the horizontal bar in a ballet studio, that ballerinas practice on with the vertical pole that strippers prance around and hang onto. It’s an abstract space, but beside it there is a video of a ballerina using the bar, but displayed vertically, like she was pole-dancing . And then she’s extrapolated that idea into a figurative art historical quotation – a remaking of Degas’s famous sculpture of a ballerina in which the female figure is half-dressed in a leather bodice. That’s a smart set of leaps of the imagination.
Michal showed me another film-loop in which a stop-frame animation of a xmas decoration of shiny hanging balls gives way to reveal an infant in a cot looking up at it, and then the mother and baby in a cave, amidst a biblical landscape. The camera pans up over rocky crags to the sky where the round white orb of a full-moon appears. Then more moons, zoom into the moons and we are back with the xmas balls. In front of the video is a cheap modernist picnic table – the circles of its stools are the same as the circle of the moon… so beautifully tied up, mythological and formal, with only the logic of a dream to connect it all.