Bad new world

Smadar Shefi
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"A Drop of Milk", a huge new installation created by Hilla Lulu
Lin at the Acre Festival, marks an important step in the development
of this excellent artist as well as an interesting attempt on
her part to deal with subjects that are at the center of Israel's
political experience.
She has once again proved that she is one of Israel's most interesting
contemporary artists, one who has created and continues to develop
a language of her own. This is evident not only in the unique
font she designed and the texts that are part of her work, but
also in the items she repeatedly uses: egg shells, blood-red
spools of thread, fiery letters and feathers.
Lin works in broad symbolic fields that move between the local-Israeli
(through the entire scope of Zionism and post-Zionism), the
religious-spiritual and the language of the international clubs
and aesthetics of science fiction of video games and low-budget
films.
Hilla Lulu Lin excels in her ability to carry out surprising
manipulations in perfectly simple spaces. She demonstrated this
in her exhibition "Absolutely Naked" at the Noga Gallery of
Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv two years ago and in "Miles Would
I Go" at the Haifa Museum of Art in 1998.
But in the unusual historic spaces of Acre, she can really go
wild.
The entrance to the installation is via a narrow tunnel and
part of the way, visitors are forced to bend over while going
through it.
This turns the entire installation into a symbolic rebirth,
an opportunity to leave a state of "innocence" (because the
audience going through the tunnel does not know into what it
will be "born") and enter a new, complete world and to learn
its language and ceremonies.
Lin has created an ambitious work in respect to the the scale
of the production (10 participants, seven assistants, numerous
stages, excellent lighting, small and large monitors) as well
as in terms of conceptual aims. She deals with the basic materials
of Western myths: milk, wine, bread and salt, and relates to
basic cultural ceremonies, such as the Catholic Eucharist or
Holy Communion (when believers supposedly eat of the flesh of
Jesus and drink his blood) and she deals with marriage, sex
and our fears of various types of "others."
For the first time, she also relates historic subjects whose
current analysis is closely tied to cultural criticism of the
last 20 years: the Holocaust, and to a much smaller extent,
the ethnic divide in Israel.
The treatment of these two subjects, in a direct but most definitely
fresh fashion, positions Lin closer to the center of Israeli
artistic activity and less on its margins.
While her work includes a focus on the local, especially through
the design of letters, it also contains a strong shade of intentional
distancing from everything that is stereotypically connected
to the local, in favor of images from the world of more marginal
and bizarre sex. The visitor exits the tunnel to find himself
facing a wall made of loaves of bread from which the contents
have been removed, behind an iron network screen. Feelings of
catastrophe and of the forbidden merge with the immediate association
with the Holocaust and starvation.
The world into which the visitors have suddenly arrived reveals
itself to be filled with danger and impending doom, despite
the fact that Lin has made a fascinating aesthetic of the disturbing
themes with which she deals. Near the entrance, visitors encounter
the first of a number of figures wearing very tight garments,
apparently made of latex, which cover their entire bodies and
heads, and on which are markings of bodily limbs or organs,
such as a chest or eyes, and jewelry. The first figure has rocks
placed under the clothes, as if it had been stoned, with the
rocks becoming part of its body. However, the viewers do not
know the reason for the self-punishment, one of many enigmas
in the world created by Lin.
The flow through the space is not orderly, and the viewers find
themselves scattered among a number of focal points active in
the installation, which takes about an hour-and-a-half. In one
space, a man wearing red (Itai Ziv) scatters red feathers -
in a scene that appears taken from a depiction of Judgment Day.
The soft feathers seem like an ironic symbol of rivers of blood.
At another focal point, where salt crystals are scattered,
a man and a woman (Ashraf Perach and Rina Verbin) stand wearing
minimal white garments, with a white wall between them.
Through a small aperture in the wall, they pass a red thread
between them which is wound around their hands and other body
parts, like the shell of a cocoon.
This motif has appeared in Lin's work for over five years, both
in photographs and in video installations. But this time, the
winding of the thread is not an intimate gesture she shares
with herself; it is part of the bond between a man and a woman.
The thread is charged with obvious sexual meaning, since the
text the two figures recite discusses sexual relations in a
very coarse manner and in down-to-earth language. The disparity
between the crude text and the dazzling white of the scene charges
it with meaning. The burning, purifying salt and the partition,
which may be a parody of the sheet ultra-Orthodox couples are
said to use when having sex, appear to refine the text ("Call
me, jerk, call; my heart is cut and it quivers..."). They raise
the treatment of the relationship to a level of purity, passion
and pain that are much higher than those of the words themselves.
On another stage, a couple scantily clad in black (Goni Shafron
and Yaniv Eliash) performs something that appears to be a cross
between an introduction to a live sex show and artistic gymnastics.
Lin seems to be touching on what can be described as "redemption
through the gutter."
Both performances, in fact the entire space, resemble the club
scene culture - the various stages set up in clubs to boost
the atmosphere, usually tending in the direction of maximum
decadence. But Lin turns these focal points into spots for a
different type of observation, one that is more internalized.
At another stop in the installation, a relatively older man
(Yehoshua Lavi) turns a conveyor belt on which there are a wide
variety of popular figures, items painted shiny black (Teletubbies,
a miniature plant, a penis with pins stuck in it) and a cup
of wine that empties on each slow turn of the conveyor belt,
to be filled again and again by the one turning it.
The sacred wine here is a cheap liquid, one item among many
on the conveyor belt, at times on top and at others on the bottom.
However, the conceptual anchor of the installation is the milk
bar. Simple and elegant transparent glasses are arranged on
a long bar, half filled with milk.
The name of the installation, "A Drop of Milk," relates to milk
in its most innocent form, in the maternal context of nursing
a baby. The well-baby clinics known as Tipat Halav (A Drop of
Milk), which aim to help young parents, is an institution of
the type that cultural criticism analyses today as a means of
imposing and regulating norms (of treatment, education, weight
and size). But it is also runs counter to the culture of the
margins, clubs, sex and fantasy that Lin has related to from
the outset of her oeuvre.
It is noteworthy that Lin has used milk in the past, in reference
to purification and birth. In a video film from the late 1990s,
she photographed herself washing her hands in a white liquid,
apparently milk. The film was a continuation of sorts of a series
of video works that dealt with an examination of the parts of
the body as separate, sexual, fascinating and frightening entities.
At the milk bar in the installation, Lin herself pours and
serves the milk, using a very traditional white pitcher and
well-measured movements (perhaps a direct parody of Vermeer's
Woman Pouring Milk?). She pours milk into glasses and replaces
the ones the audience drinks with new ones. At the end of the
bar, on a very high chair, sits a man who gives out cookies
(Alon Leshem). He asks the visitors if they want sweet or salty
cakes, and serves them with tongs, like in a very posh pastry
shop.
Above the bar there is a screen on which are words and figures
in letters of fire. The use of fiery letters is related to the
fire ceremonies of Israeli youth movements and the army, the
opening scenes of "educational" series on television (like "Pillars
of Fire"), in other words acts of indoctrination whose messages
are diametrically opposed to those of Lin.
She writes in fire, "I understand," "I forgive" or shows a large
heart of fire.
The audience receives its milk and cookies (suburban America
with its "milk and cookies") and hears texts and excellent music
arranged by Karni Postel.
Lin recites many of the texts in her wonderfully gentle and
hushed voice. The texts range from militantly patriotic songs
("Accept O mountains of Ephraim a new young sacrifice") to magnificent
texts by poet Lea Goldberg, which here receive a new interpretation
("And no will understand and no one will know that on the sea
voyages a young girl all alone).
Toward the end of the time allotted for the installation, which
is barely sufficient to take in its abundant complexity, the
man turning the conveyor belt leaves his place and drags something
that looks like a lectern of sorts (white steps with a place
to stand at the top) near the milk bar. He climbs up and begins
to speak in a pleasant and resonant voice, telling like a storyteller
the story of his immigration to Israel and how he met his wife,
whose family at first refused to accept him because of his Mizrahi
origins. The crowd falls silent without intending to. Lin succeeds
in creating rules in the world she has created, without clearly
dictating them. The story (and it does not matter if it is biographical
or fictitious) sounds as if it was taken from a television news
story or one of dozens of documentaries on the subject.
The story has a fairly happy end, as it there was a desire to
mitigate the harsh feelings created by the entire installation.
But immediately afterward, the area becomes completely dark
and on the video screen above the milk bar, where the audience
is crowded together after the story, a rain of white skulls
and red hearts can be seen.
This perhaps sums up the installation with a nihilistic merging
of sex and death.

Publication date - 26/09/02