BOSI Contemporary, New York NY Curator: Dr. 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.
POSSIBILITY OF COMMUNION
In previous conversations you mentioned your fascination with emotive representations of universal objects, whether of natural substance, archetypes or myths. You claim to be searching for the transition point between image and thing; of the object itself, be it consumerist, social, political or mechanic, and the instant whereby it becomes an emotive currency: effective, distinguishable and cherished.
Shells and chrysalises are the first objects to strike the viewer, upon entering the exhibition. The work that comes to mind in this context is Philippe Parreno and Pierre Huyghe´s, No Ghost Just a Shell; with the marked difference, that your shell does contain a spirit. It is not mere shell, but a chrysalis in transformation. It suggests Origin and Destination, and is liable to change. Does the shell represent a transitional object, or do you perceive it as a change agent?
Throughout their creation, we did refer to them as ghosts, shells, occasionally white whales. Initially, they existed more as ¨the result of¨, leftovers, remains, or foreign objects, relics of some greater thing that once was or took place. Indeed, at that stage, they were as ¨shells¨ devoid of spirit. The more I played around with them, as I had been for several months, the more I fell in-love with their humor and presence. They recall my paintings of 2004 and 2008, and my father´s entomological drawings. So, as you said, the spirit, the chrysalis, the potential or thing to be, was subsequently invested in them. What I attempted to do with these photographs is position myself midway, at the transition point between that which has ended, the neglected shrouds, and the object in its full potential. These two elements- shrouds and wrappings, this duality, has been a reoccurring theme in my work. The entry to the exhibition is made to transmit that tension between fear and attraction, temptation and danger, threat vs. impotence. Hence the sea scene (dark rocks and white whale chrysalises), which seeks to communicate the ensuing day, a thing not yet arrived. So, to answer your question, they represent a change agent.
Transforming tantalizing into cherished? In the liquid pastel missile installation, missiles are transformed to an animate melting state, near servile. They display self-effacement and court the world at large. One could refer to them as cajoling missiles. How do you perceive the rapport between the aforementioned, and the Rooster and Zeppelin, two reoccurring themes in your work?
Since 2008 I have toyed with the phrase: ¨Ehevuni¨ [love me]: the bid, both pathetic and perturbing, to be accepted, touched, caressed and applauded. Actually, ever since the late 70’s, as an art student, I have attempted to confront themes of seduction, manipulation and persuasion. This form of conceptual art is what also brought me to work in advertising and branding. The melting missile heads are marshmallow missiles, which tempt and cajole, just like candy. Each of these images develops its own seduction techniques. For instance, the Rooster does so aggressively. It interacts with the phallic quality of many of my subjects. It seeks attention in its being, such is its essence. Other objects use different techniques.
The large ¨Ehevuni¨ cloud has its origin in a campaign-video made in 2008 for the state of Kosovo. It was part of a larger campaign, which targeted several European countries. The intention was to gain recognition by the EU. Here was an entire nation beseeching the world to ¨Love Me¨. After months of quasi-obsessive work, the cloud had acquired a morphing essence and quality, which became evident every time it was exhibited. It has an engine to blow it up but loses air as soon as the motor stops. It has been on display in Tel Aviv, Berlin and New York. Each time it was accompanied by a different sound and put in a different space. Each place dictated a different form of communication with the spectator. People tend to touch it, seem drawn to its size and vulnerability. Its essence (cloud), rests in the quantity of air which fills it and in the accompanying sound.
The metamorphosis of objects and the mental images they evoke seem to also exist on a social plane, as in the way they lend to empathy or apathy. Are you in fact seeking to transform their universal message through instigation of social processes, such as in the Kosovo project, or in the video installation, which has you lugging a missile around the streets of Tel Aviv?
The act of carrying a missile constitutes a rite, a scale of measurement, an act of fine-tuning. The missile transforms into object, not only through its ornamentation, but also by the mere act of lugging it in a public setting. This motion in space serves to counteract the suspicious object’s suspicious nature. Most of the works in the exhibition represent different forms of impotent and defused suspicious objects. I am not troubled by apathy. The texts constitute a source of power. Empathy is what provides the basis for change.
Opposite the missile installation are bits of broken plaster that you picked up in the street and decorated. You have elected to reproduce works by William Morris and ornate symbols of the three religions. William Morris once said, 'any decoration is futile ... when it does not remind you of something beyond itself '. It seems to me that this dual search, the transformation from ghost to shell, and the mechanisms which allow this interaction, is something which you yourself like to explore, is that true?
William Morris was a noteworthy man. He wanted to bring art back to the masses by exercising pure aesthetics, which I believe were not meant to represent anything other than what they were. It is curious to note that this same form of aesthetics is found two centuries before his time, in synagogue ornamentation. His original intention is made plain, if you take into account the fact that he was also a politician. But we mustn’t necessarily believe him. that was all his work contained. On the contrary, its real strength lies elsewhere. But more to the point, ornamentation for me is an evolutionary step from my “Ehevuni” days, the obsessive incessant writing of the word, and the graphic stage whereby long lines of manuscripts joined together to form different patterns and structures. These I later transformed into ornamentation.
The desperate cry for attention, recognition and love hence became more sophisticated through seduction and temptation. Or if you like, a visual translation of the Hebrew letter, from word to shape, from claim to flattery. Interesting that you should define this duality, such lies in-between ghost and shell. Throughout the years I‘ve been fascinated by this no-go zone, beginning with my father´s drawings, through Chrysalis, and up to my work with containers these last few years.
I’m interested in the packaging: package vs. content and package as content. In my years working in advertising, my job was to brand corporate and state products. We had long discussions about the “what you say” vs. “how you say”. At a certain point there came the realization that “what you say” is sometimes “how you say”, or in other words that package is sometimes content.
As individuals, as a society and in our roles in diverse groups and subgroups we are surrounded by symbols such as these. After all, the color of the football team’s uniform, army uniform, in church, in synagogue, wearing a tie, or shoes, how we choose to decorate our walls, all form our identity. They define who we are. Or the question should at least be raised, to what extents do they?
And so I would like to pose the question back to you, to what extent? When Marshall McLuhan tells us medium is the message, what does it say in your opinion about the framework of our common, conflicting identity? Let´s assume that missile defines our being, does it not contain the selfsame significance for all members of that same subgroup? Does your use of this mythical object serve to point out cultural differences or similarities? Does this agent establish identity through identification or protest? Does it underlines the differences or proves them less profound?
I believe its influence to be enormous, widespread and destructive. In a world that passes from email, whatsapp, twitter or instagram, all becomes exceedingly cataloged, organized and distinct. But even in older times, the symbol and object possessed actual magical properties. Naturally, that is where the power of symbol and logo stems from. In 1978 I displayed a piece at Bezalel, which I titled Shony Marlboro. It was a huge colorful poster that I had brought from Germany. It was then I understood the power of the logo. People did not notice the word Shony, which I had added on to the poster. I soon realized that logos bypass our rational thinking and hit at the center of emotions, while evoking previous knowledge. All throughout my “Ehevuni” days, I wanted to touch on the theme of identification. There was no protest there, just the accentuation of something, which I felt no one before had underlined in quite the same way (this is similar to what I mentioned in the car. Someone has probably had this same thought about logos before – why say no one had underlined it in quite the same way? Why not say "just the accentuation of something I hadn't seen before / thought about in quite the same way, et al). And it was forceful. But the next phase, linking “Ehevuni” to real life conflicts, turned into an act of protest. Not a political protest, but an existential one, of absurdity and grotesqueness. Using different forms of ornamentation actually quiets the differences and critiques of a specific group vs. the whole. My work here is to underline the absurdity. The act of appropriation is a desperate act. I have a painting of 2002, oil on paper, 200 by 200, which I tagged Ovadia Yosef. Only a small part of his face is visible, beard and mouth. The rest is a dark background with golden leaf ornaments. Like that piece of clothing, the robe, the ornament functions here as a tool of government. Just like the wand in the hand of (the Pharaoh, the Pope, Moses) the leader.
Morris was a member of the pre-Raphaelites who contested painting mechanisms prevalent at the time. Certain patterns had became too mannerist and lost their artistic root. You seem to form part in this discussion. On the one hand you strive to return to naturalistic motifs but on the other hand you portray duplication and industrialization as natural.
When I was a child, I used to hang around the entomology labs at Beit-Dagan. Some biological and mechanical elements appear in my early works, under titles such as Mitochondria, Incubator, Blisters, and Bacterial colonies, so as you can see I am well in touch with that side. My Eucalyptus branches grew blisters some would call them galls. Entire life forms, colonies of creatures exist inside these blisters. Each one of them has a distinct color, form, structure and format. I find the personal touch important, the individual forging and sanding of each branch. Duplication and industrialization are not necessarily what they appear to be, because all branches are hand-made, painted with a 00 brush, so that no two are identical, and each one exists in its own right. “The singularity of appearance” is such a lovely phrase.
One of your works, which I like to refer to as The Murakami, since I find that it combines, as do many of your works, high/low, ancient/modern, oriental/occidental, has red/pink metallic bubbles emanating from an ornamental missile. Can you explain the process for the metalwork of this piece?
Many years ago, when a part of me was still in the business world, I had an idea for a video installation.
a fat business man sitting by a large meeting-room table, along with 20 other people. He begins to speak, but makes no sense. At a certain point his mouth begins to emanate a pinkish repulsive mash made of dough or foam. Little by little substance amasses on top the fancy table till it spills to the floor. In 2010 I sketched it and left it on my work table for many months. Many other works evolved from that sketch, including the one you mentioned, chewing gum bubbles coming from behind a missile (I hope to make another, three meter version), and even the missile-head installation in the current exhibition in New York. The content which spills, in part repulsive, in part aiming to please, sweet and nauseating, threatens to poison, yet is attractive and distant.
The same red blob appears in your drawing, Hora. Hora is the name of a dance which was imported to Israel from East Europe. To this day it represents Israeli pioneer culture and Zionism at the time of the founding of the state. The painting has a group of people dancing about a shape, as if it were a totem or the golden calf. When I first saw the painting I thought of it as an object of mythical substance, which forms the community, which surrounds it. Now, following your previous answer, would it be true to say that what you are really talking about is the impossibility of a genuine community?
Your intuition is correct and precise, as is the latter part of your question. It is that ambiguous before and after sensation, as in the photograph of the girls on the beach with shells. The pink circles imply temptation and poison, good and evil. The object builds communities while it sows the seeds of their destruction. In the drawing people are celebrating the togetherness, the object that unites, but they´re unsure as to what would come out of it. They celebrate their “gift”, but fail to realize it´s ticking. They feel they move forward, while in fact they are regressing.
I would like to read to you a quote by Jean-Luc Nancy which relates to questions of love and community- I would argue that the community is always a community of Being–With, that the With is characterized by the touch, and that the touch is characterized both by proximity and by distance, but by proximity as distance. In the touch you still need to have both. This is the impossibility of penetration. The conclusion then is that a community is a community of bodies and nothing else... contrary to the very old model where the community should become a pure community of spirits becoming One Spirit.”
Your art relates to questions of territory and geographic proximity, whether it be in your paintings (Israel and its neighbors) or the video installation where you walk about in Holon and Bat Yam, (two development towns in close proximity to Tel Aviv). What do think of the triangle space-community-love?
The truth is that I have never felt or referred to myself as someone who belongs to a certain community. On the contrary, I have always felt compelled to take on the role of an outsider, an onlooker. I worked as a security guard in my days as an art student. I was a businessman while an artist. I was working in New York but living in Tel Aviv. Always Yes and No. Belonging and not belonging. I refer to it as the observer, the viewer, partaking in the scene and seeing himself from above. In my works, I don’t refer directly to the theme of community, but instead react to it in a straightforward personal manner. I don’t tend to mark territories, but look upon those who live inside. I am here to observe. I did not come here to save anyone because I don’t know how. I'm not in possession of a razor-sharp political theory. The act of carrying a missile on my shoulder doesn’t happen in the development towns near the border. I walk with it through the anonymous satellite suburbs of the Tel Aviv metropolitan region. But if you want my take on the issue of space-community-love, I must say I am flabbergasted by the intensity of the negativity between all the circles that compose our city and state. There exists much more love between individual and land, than between individuals in the community, and certainly between one community and the next.
I would just do it like this:
I carry the missile through the anonymous satellite suburbs of greater Tel Aviv, not the development towns near the border.