Heroic Fantasy: Yeshaiahu Rabinowitz at Hansen House
There’s a delayed shock built into the work of sculptor and video artist Yeshaiahu Rabinowitz, which is all the more effective for not being immediately apparent. Underlying his work, which at first seems playful, is a quiet but no less searing reflection of how it might feel to be a gentle, slightly built Israeli male facing the prospect of army service.
Rabinowitz makes sculpture out of soft materials like felt and cardboard to deal with hard subjects, including violence and war, fear and vulnerability. He keeps his subjects at a distance; the action is offstage. But it is Rabinowitz’s sense of drama that attracts attention to his work, starting with the life-size sculpture of a fallen horse made of cardboard sheeting, which he presented at his degree show two years ago — which led to almost immediate showings of his work at the prestigious Herzliya and Israel Museums.
His first solo exhibition, “Attributes of a Hero,” was staged at Hansen House, Jerusalem, earlier this year. The space was built as a leper hospital in the late 19th century, and still retains a spooky, historic atmospheric even after being reinvented as an art center. Rabinowitz’s sculptures of hand-sewn, made-to-measure body parts — or coverings for body parts — are well suited to the venue, a stone-walled gallery space with domed ceiling and cobbled floor. And it’s not just because of the association of leprosy and losing limbs. The dim, cell-like space, with spotlights that cause the shadows of sculpture and viewers to move across the walls, adds to the theatricality of the work, but also — if I’m not looking too deeply into it — its melodrama, fakeness and subversive joke.
The limp, tailored shapes are scaled and segmented, like pieces of human and animal armor, momentarily bringing to mind Claes Oldenberg’s big, soft replicas of everyday commodities, being both strange and out of context, yet immediately familiar. Instead of a hamburger or household plug, we discover a bit of human torso, a horse’s muzzle, pair of legs, horns. As shells sloughed off by a living body, or waiting to be used, they emphasize a need for protection — not that they would be of any more use than the plug or hamburger.
These pieces could be theatre props, perhaps from an amateurish Shakespearian production, either abandoned or waiting to be used in a play. Then the gallery space could be a scene in Macbeth’s castle. In discussion, Rabinowitz says that indeed, Shakespeare and his views on the complexities of heroism are an intrinsic part of his plot.
The organically shaped shells or molds are casually but expertly cut and sewn. Rabinowitz trained as a tailor after his obligatory national service as a soldier in the Israeli army, and says he “entered the art world through the back door.” Conceptualism comes naturally to him. He makes his art out of the unlikely combination of soldiering and sewing, uses it to express irony and an eager enjoyment of being an artist, and expresses a worldview that is tragic, naïve and knowing, all at once.
In the exhibition’s eponymous video, Rabinowitz shows himself trying to become a hero. An observant Jew with a yarmulka on his mop of curly hair, he first dresses carefully in white shirt and trousers, the modest clothes of a yeshiva student, while telling about biblical war heroes. His personal training exercise turns out to be running around in circles in a disused city space, crouched forwards with his fingers raised like the horns of a bull. The gentleness of the smiling young man and the futility of his personal exercise are offset by fierce energy and determination, and undermined by his own amusement. It’s the histrionics of heroism: weakness and foolishness fueled by heroic fantasy and will power. It’s a far-reaching metaphor that includes the collapsing horse. War is a subject often returned to by Israeli artists, but Rabinowitz has his own way of making a lot of suggestions about it, and leaving them in the air.