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Text Book and Archive: Two Books by Miki Carmi and Tamy Ben-Tor

Miki Carmi and Tamy Ben-Tor are originally from Israel. But they have been living for some time in America, where they now are raising three sons in Brooklyn, they are known well for their work, showing in such places as Seoul and Paris. Carmi is an established painter with a narrow focus of interest; he paints only the heads of living relatives. Ben-Tor, a well-recognized performance artist, deals with the absurd; much of her material, delivered to the audience in costume, involves disturbing, unrecognizable personae who usually deliver erotic, political, and food-oriented rants. They are artists of high achievement, indirectly addressing their complex position as Israeli-American artists. 


Now in mid-career, Carmi and Ben-Tor published last year two volumes with Minerva Press: the word-oriented “Text Book” and the picture-oriented “Archive”. The latter is divided in half; one half addresses the paintings of Carmi, and the second half, which requires that the reader turn the book over, reproduces images from Ben-Tor’s performances, as well as video stills and studio character shots taken by Carmi. “Text Book” whose typographical intricacies are outstanding and contribute substantially to the experience of the book, has been designed by Joshua Gamma. Yasmeen Siddiqui, the books’ publisher, had the idea to bring in writers who would write essays addressing the artists’ work; the authors were selected by both Siddiqui and Carmi and Ben-Tor. The authors include Kosuke Kawahara, an artist whose interests address the cosmos, Buddhism, and dreamscapes: filmmaker Martin Brest; Coco Fusco, the performance artist and writer; Norman Chernick-Zeitlin, an artist and writer; Alpesh Kantilal Patel, whose outlook is queer, anti-racist, and international; Kate Gaudy, who both curates and makes art; and Adara Meyers, an interdisciplinary playwright.


“Archive”, primarily the result of Carmi and Ben-Tor’s work, was also shaped by designer Joel Brenden. The books present a profile of Carmi and Ben-Tor, committed, complex artists who can neither escape their personal past nor evade the materialism of America. The artists are attracted to the cultural energies in New York City and decided to stay after attending art school here. In New York, internationalism has come to count as much as identification based on gender, sexual preference, racial inheritance, religious background, and so on. Thus, Carmi and Ben-Tor have the freedom to choose the extent to which their background as artists of Israeli origin is a necessary theme. I have seen determined attempts not to face historical tragedy or ongoing prejudice because those issues may have been addressed too much. The two books do not support a specifically cultural reading; Carmi paints his relatives, and Ben-Tor’s actions do not link to a specific culture. The sense exists, in Ben-Tor’s deliberate vulgarity, and Carmi’s accurate, but melancholic, vision of his family, that their art owes more than a little to a history at variance with convention.


Ben-Tor confronts the spirit of our time by goading the public in her performances and her texts. The audacious nature of her production, given as it is to insult and outrage, critiques what progressive artists and writers have always critiqued: the persistence of prejudice (in addition to the critique of power) active far, far longer than we can remember. What choice does Ben-Tor have but to lash out? What choice does Carmi have except to create a visual archive of immediate family members, elderly men, and women? The two artists’ work attempts to transform memory into an active reading of the past, public, and private.


The bias and reach of the volumes are essentially international. In “Text Book” , three of Ben-Tor’s rants, intended to accompany her performances, are found, along with black-and-white photos taken during her theatrical actions. In the same volume, images of Carmi’s paintings and photos of his sitters—his father, mother, and grandmother—also occur. But the portraits of Carmi’s family, a tribute to his personal past, are influenced by current feeling for art. Another aspect of “Text Book” , its remarkable design, must be noted. Typographically, the book is a tour de force. Different fonts of different sizes result in patterns of unusual complexity, and are accompanied by Carmi’s familial images, and samples of Ben-Tor’s performance work and writing. The book's marvelous layout pushes it into a visual artifact.


Ben-Tor and Carmi rely on a general sense of political malaise, different from identity politics, that is eating away at our social vision and creative individuality. Maybe Ben-Tor’s discourtesies, visual and verbal, are attempting an independence that sadly has nowhere to go, despite the intensity of the artist’s feeling. And maybe Carmi’s paintings carry the wish for a continuity no one seems to believe in anymore. Carmi’s determination to maintain historical awareness cannot be separated from the equally important tradition of later image-making. The Jewish religions injunction suppressing the graven image has become a vestigial trace of the past, hardly pertinent to present creativity.


“Archive”, a bigger book, more fully addresses the visuals resulting from Carmi and Ben-Tor’s activities. Carmi’s portion of the volume is mostly taken with his portraits, of the head only, of his relatives, along with photos of the persons painted. The heads of these older people are troubling, in the first sense that they display the liver spots and prominent blood vessels of those nearing the end of life. But they are also troubling in a more indirect, metaphorical sense. One has the feeling that the generation Carmi has been paying attention to remembers history differently from the Americans the artists live among. Carmi’s family keeps memory alive, likely of tragic events, in ways people in the States tend to forget.


It is important, I think, that the portraits are seen as repositories of feeling. In fact, the title “Archive” says everything about the artists’ intentions. It presents a gathering, mostly in the form of photographs (but in Ben-Tor’s case, also the texts accompanying her activist theater), leading to a permanent site of memorial. The larger question these talented artists face has to do with the specificity of the memories they wish to keep alive. What kind of memory is important to them? Is it public or private? Or do they wish to actively maintain memory as it was often presented—in the form of words and images that defined former events but were not necessarily beholden to circumstances that belonged to the discussion alone?


Interestingly, in Carmi and Ben-Tor’s work, relations between the public and the private are close; the two states cannot be easily separated. Yet Ben-Tor consciously obscures memory with caricatures of a personal nature; her art is so confrontational we forget the past and live only in the present. while Carmi’s art, as “Archive” shows, reworks private memory into something a bit less so—by means of repetition, the suggestion of grief, and an attention to detail. These attributes enable Carmi to bring his concerns out into the open (he also only paints the portraits of living people, anchoring his creativity in the present). No one can dismiss the importance of memory, the humanity of tracking the past. Painting, an ancient medium, inevitably situates Carmi’s efforts in the legacy of art, despite his current content. Ben-Tor’s evisceration of the self-satisfaction common to these times uses the performance, a newer genre, as her means of proceeding. She is outside the past. But this is not to isolate either artist as anachronistic; they are contemporary artists, working in contemporary ways.


“Archive” is the visual companion to “Text Book” , presenting, in the artists’ words and intellectual positions, an outlook well considered in the seven writers’ essays. As immigrants, Carmi and Ben-Tor likely have a different outlook on American life than those of us born here. It remains important for them to validate their experience as immigrants. It is not so easy to forget a sense of otherness. In response to this challenge, Carmi keeps his family alive through art, whereas Ben-Tor savagely undermines conventional culture by extreme parody. One instinctively feels that the tradition of painting and the aggression of caricature are important avenues of expression at a time when everything is accepted, and nothing believed. One hopes these books will gain a wide audience. Visual information, at present, is much more highly valued than the knowledge words convey. But these volumes combine image and text in an original fashion.


Maybe Carmi and Ben-Tor’s work addresses a larger question: How does one effectively imagine the past, when it is disappearing due to a lack of interest? Surely, Carmi and Ben-Tor, now advanced in their careers, have effectively memorialized their own efforts in these two volumes, whose originality of theme is both old and new. Ben-Tor will continue to construct dialogues with opponents both real and imaginary, while Carmi will create a legacy close to his own life. The historical difficulties we must recall are indirectly invoked, but they are there. Interestingly, the artists’ work does justice to contemporary life. Their art is entirely current, free of obsessive memorial, although memorial keeps their art alive. In their decision to work in this way, they maintain the view that memory only works when a sense of limitation is rejected, in favor of an eternal present, the only time we are fully aware of.


Jonathan Goodman, July 27, 2022       Purchase copies of "Text Book" and Archive" here

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