Kathy Battista

Shony Rivnay: Soft Corps

“History has remembered the kings and warriors, because they destroyed; art has remembered the people, because they created.”(William Morris)

The Arts and Crafts movement, spearheaded in England by William Morris during the late nineteenth century, was a Utopian reformist project, focused on “the beauty in common things”. Morris and his followers, as well as a subsequent cohort of creators in the United States, proclaimed that beautiful, well-crafted everyday items—from wallpaper to crockery and furniture—could elevate the common man’s existence. This notion also necessitated a return to reliance on the hand of the artisan, no surprise after the wave of mechanization that resulted from the Industrial Revolution, where machines replaced people and created a great exodus to the urban centers. Morris, with idealist socialist values, purported that exaltation could be found through craftsmen and artists, the people who create beauty in the world. 

A little over one century later, the words of William Morris find resonance in the work of Israeli artist Shony Rivnay. Based in Tel Aviv, his life is a far cry from the agrarian England of Morris’ late nineteenth century. As this small island ruled a great global empire, Rivnay’s Israel is likewise a tiny country with an influential diaspora spread widely throughout the western world. Without any natural resources to speak of, Israel survives on ingenuity and innovation. Surrounded by hostility, Israeli people are born and live with the constant threat of conflict. And in the twenty-first century, organized violence most often takes the form of impersonal, autonomous machinery. No longer does the enemy display the familiar traits of neighboring states; today’s enemy is the faceless drones of sophisticated warfare.

Rivnay’s work conflates ideas around beauty and violence into one sanctified object. Most overtly, this can be seen in his missile series, human-scaled weapons hand painted with traditional William Morris patterns as well as fragments of walls that seem to have been penetrated by such objects. The patterned interventions work on two levels: they both lure the viewer in with their sumptuous colors and details while they also terrify with their inherently violent form. Both in metal and in wood, these sculptures emasculate the missile shapes or their negatives, rendering them both impotent and desirable, conditions traditionally associated with the feminine.  In addition to Arts and Crafts patterns, Rivnay has made missiles with various textiles. These are based on fabrics associated with various religious garb: from Muslim to Christian and Judaic, all sourced locally in Jerusalem. 

Pink Bubbles 2013, a maquette for a large-scale public sculpture, shows a missile half submerged in the ground with garish pink bubbles surrounding it. This has a cartoon like effect: its bright colors and Pop Art-like explosion bears resemblance to forerunners such as Roy Lichtenstein. Given the context of the exhibition, though, it takes on a darker meaning. Like many of Rivnay’s Israeli colleagues—Sigilit Landau, Omer Fast, Yael Bartana—his work is beautiful in form and deals in metaphors, both on the personal and state levels. However, it would be difficult to accuse any of these artist of neoliberal obfuscation; rather, their metaphors relate directly to a contested region, and thus, a schizophrenic existence lived in personal and cultural conflict.

No Objective 2014, a corresponding video work, shows the artist carrying a missile sculpture around various sites in Tel Aviv. The humor inherent in this work relies much on the incongruous context: no one on the street seems to even acknowledge that the artist is carrying what looks like a large weapon on his shoulder. He roams about freely, unencumbered by any resistance or official intervention, which comes as a surprise for a city that is so invested in self-defense. This reflects the psychology of the local population, who have no choice but to go about their daily lives in the face of conflict. That it is a conflict that many of them do not agree with makes no difference: there is an untenable impasse in the region that is larger than any one citizen. Even the title No Objective is an oblique reference to the situation—just what is the objective of the Israeli state and how can one living there come to terms with this?

Heads 2014, a large sculptural installation, continues the interrogation and deconstruction of weapons of destruction. Here a multitude of sculptures, resembling warheads from missiles, are spread throughout the gallery floor. With their colorful palettes, it resembles a child’s candy spilled from their hands in large scale. The aggregation of these futile warheads reminds the viewer of the bleak truth of violence: all that is left over is the shell, both of the weapon and of the person.

Two large-scale photographs—Gratitude and Shells—are related to the sculptural work and show two children playing amongst a sea of discarded shells on a beach. The garb and location give a sense of timelessness to the images: this could be a century ago or it could be today. The universality of these images is unequivocal: crises in Syria, Sudan, and many more countries today may take their worst effect on children, who are make up a vast majority of the world’s refugee population. The innocence of the young girls, who seem to not understand the implications of their playthings, is representative of a generation born into a struggle they did not create. How they navigate through that existence depends on education and experience: how does one transcend the conflict when that is all that she knows? As Slavoj Zizek has purported, the true ethical test for mankind is not just about saving victims, it is about the annihilation of the perpetrators. Could these young women be the future annihilators of a militaristic regime?

Rivnay’s Soft Corps consists of a holistic body of work that carries an astute message while being visually impactful. His long career in the advertising industry—which he fell into with much success after his years at Bezalel Art Academy—undoubtedly fuels this visual acuity. His work, however, cannot be underestimated for just its aesthetic prowess. Rivnay, like all Israeli citizens, lives with an omnipresent threat of violence. And it is precisely in the detailed attention to beauty that he finds redemption. As William Morris said, while history may give credence to kings and leaders, Rivnay’s art bears witness to the people.


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