As the shit storm builds, stupidity, ill will, self-indulgence, and incompetence meld and become more dangerous. All and Nothing join forces and seek to be released from limits; dogma spawns terror as well as the war against it; the marriage of idealism and cynicism is consummated in acts of violence. The ferociously incisive, fiercely funny Tamy Ben-Tor relentlessly plumbs this maelstrom in her unnerving performances and videos, many of which are trancey rants or vindictive incantations dealing with bigotry, blood feuds, the browbeaten, and the misbegotten. Ben-Tor doesn’t quite echo Nietzsche’s barb that “The joy in seeing others suffer is inferior only to the joy in causing that suffering,” but her work exudes a predatory glee. Ben-Tor takes us to an insurrectionary, psychopathic place that feels familiar—a place where no one wishes to be understood and idiocy, incessant petulance, and sheer obnoxiousness reign.
Ben-Tor’s outstanding New York debut consists of five videos and Exotica, the Rat, and the Liberal, a riveting 25-minute performance dealing with xenophobia, racism, selfishness, and anti-Semitism (staged in the gallery Fridays and Saturdays at 4 p.m.). It’s a Kabuki play from hell by way of the “shock comic” Sarah Silverman. In it, Ben-Tor, who is mesmerizingly charismatic and has an assassin’s ear for accents, creates five characters. “Exotica” is a bizarre Leni Riefenstahl–like grande dame in a gold gown. Entering with an ersatz Sufi dance, she rhapsodizes about loving herself and talks about helping the poor in Marrakech and India. She is “white mischief” personified, the pretentious seeker who “discovers herself” in faraway lands but who is perpetually unaware of the havoc she wreaks. “The Rat” is a harrowing Nazi-youth type who madly beats tiny tambourines against her thighs and rants in gutter German about America, capitalism, and cappuccino. A noxious banshee and wounded animal, she yelps, “America, count your days. We, the intellectual, civilized, enlightened Europeans protest.” Next comes the Scandinavian academic who babbles about “the white man’s obsession with the threat of the darker man” and the supercilious American who links shopping with greatness. These bloodless poxes are filled with platitudes and ideas but lack clarity and passion. They are as apt surrogates for liberalism in America today as the “Rat” is for nascent European fascism. Finally, there’s the showstopper: The wild-haired suburban rapper who repeatedly intones, “How can you deny the Holocaust?” after which she mimics racial stereotypes.
Aesthetically, Ben-Tor is a hair-raising fusion of Cindy Sherman, Kara Walker, Alex Bag, Kafka, the Yiddish theater, and Greek tragedy. Mixing the dressing-up and self-portraiture of Sherman with something more fitful, fervent, critical, and chaotic, Ben-Tor acts out the unrepentant animus of Walker, performs the hilarious bitterness and perversity of Bag, updates Kafka’s primal paranoid fantasies of vengeance and acquiescence, and limns a Dostoyevskian gallery of contemporary lost souls, louts, louses, and ignoramuses—all of whom exist in a place where arrogance, ideology, bewilderment, and desperation merge.
This caustically intelligent, 30-year-old, New York–based Israeli has written that she “wants to tear characters out of their natural habitat and place them in a domain of idiocy . . . a space of seclusion and nonsense in which identity has little to do with reality and more to do with their need for it.” Although performance is the wellspring of Ben-Tor’s work, her videos can rise to lethal levels even if they sometimes devolve into shtick. In the diabolical mockumentary Women Talk About Adolf Hitler, a version of which was a high point in last season’s “Greater New York,” Ben-Tor channels several women in a kind of demented exorcism. We see the batty “gender studies” writer who prattles about how Hitler “didn’t like dentists” and was “ashamed of his knees”; the Southern author of “Healing Hitler,” who talks about “coming to terms with evil”; the distraught Eastern European who fumes “Hitler makes me so ill I refuse to even talk about him”; the ditzy Mitzi, who giggles that she “[likes] his little mustache”; and the morose girl who laments “my parents never told me about Hitler.” Finally, there’s the prim wraith who dons a Hitler mustache and caresses a portrait of the führer
Edgar Allan Poe wrote, “The human soul must suffer its own disintegration consciously if it is to survive.” Ben-Tor gives us people who are disintegrating unconsciously, characters who experience themselves mainly through exasperation, powerlessness, and anxiety. In this sadomasochistic purgatory the path of least resistance has mutated into the one of most stupidity, and morbid self-indulgence and radical self-abnegation allow everyone to think that everyone else is wrong.
This toxicity permeates much of Ben-Tor’s work. Often it mutates into something darker. In the amazing Girls Beware, Ben-Tor plays several characters, including a Russian prostitute who utters malicious slurs about Arabs and a Middle Eastern contractor who bitterly complains about what he has to do to earn money. Initially, you’re curious about these fringe characters.
As each morphs into a sort of semi-psychotic broken record, you want to kill them. In this way Ben-Tor leaches latent hatred and cruelty out of you while simultaneously making you laugh. That this remorseless sorceress brings art and life so close together is as mortifying as it is thrilling.
A Fatwa of Her Own
Tamy Ben-Tor’s Exotica, the Rat, and the Liberal packs real juju. I’ve seen her perform this several times, and on a number of occasions people have said they were “totally insulted.” Mostly, they’re put off by the hilarious dingbat rapper who, in a ludicrous Long Island twang, repeatedly chants, “How can you deny the Holocaust?” after which she imitates Chinese people and African Americans talking about the Holocaust and then tells a joke about two Jews in the ghetto where one says to the other, “I see from your gold star you’re a Jew,” and the other says, “No, I’m the sheriff.”
Echoing Kim Levin’s infamous 1993 “boycott John Currin” condemnation, a well-known critic told me that she had been so “offended” and “disgusted” by Ben-Tor’s mocking Holocaust performance that she had reached her “walk out moment” (a great phrase). This person didn’t leave because she was seated in the center of the room. At the same performance, another viewer sighed, “Can’t we all just get over the Holocaust?”
The “insult” in Ben-Tor’s work stems from the fact that this artist doesn’t approach the Holocaust as a one-dimensional closed case. The Holocaust is alive in Ben-Tor’s raw, awkward, cutting work. It isn’t confined to a set of academic gestures or hackneyed responses. Unlike Shirin Neshat or Bill Viola, Ben-Tor isn’t just making literalist poetic representations of repression or slo-mo, New Age observations about “the nature of life.” She’s not just plucking violin strings. Ben-Tor is saying that millions of people do deny the Holocaust. She’s a hilarious, bloodthirsty fury issuing a fatwa of her own.