PRINT January 2006

Tamy Ben-Tor

PERHAPS THE ONLY THING that exceeds the hysteria within Tamy Ben-Tor’s performances and videos is the degree of hysteria about them. Although she has lived in New York City only for a year and half, having moved here to attend Columbia University’s MFA program, Ben-Tor has already enchanted the city’s art audiences with a series of short performances and performance-based videos that exude a distinctive, meaningful lunacy and reflect a sensibility located somewhere between art-world touchstone Cindy Sherman and the distant shoals of Ali G.

The foundation for the artist’s live and recorded work alike is an ever-expanding catalogue of eccentric characters who rant about a world plagued by xenophobia, bigotry, violence, self-absorption, and greed—characteristics they often paradoxically both criticize and embody. Throughout, the thirty-year-old artist morphs effortlessly from one sharply drawn persona to the next with the simplest changes of clothing, accessories, and impeccably realized accents, revealing the finely honed theatrical skills she developed at the School of Visual Theater in her hometown of Jerusalem. Women Talk About Adolf Hitler, 2004, for example, is a video featuring a series of women, played by Ben-Tor, who each address the camera, usually to deliver an absurd diatribe about der Führer. First, we encounter a madcap New York–Jewish gender-studies writer blathering about Adolf’s little-known personal travails—his struggles with his poor digestive system, his hatred of dentists, his embarrassing-looking knees. From there we meet, among others, a French coquette who giggles flirtatiously about that cute little mustache; a southern Christian fundamentalist who thinks we should disregard the past and worry about contemporary “evil”; and an Eastern European pharmacist who whines disaffectedly about how no one ever told her about the Holocaust.

In a related vein, Ben-Tor’s latest work, Girls Beware, 2005, presents a quintet of new portraits. The video begins with a gyrating woman singing in Arabic in front of a simulated Times Square–like streetscape while an English translation of the lyrics flashes on the screen, warning young girls to beware of Arab men who might try to seduce them. In the next scene a Russian prostitute listlessly recites in Hebrew every Arab slur she can conjure. Next, an “academic” offers her theory about “the penetration of the foreign man” and “the white man’s obsession with the darker man.” From there, we jump-cut to a bearded guy in dark sunglasses rattling off lascivious sweet nothings, as if to charm a young girl. Right on cue, a young girl (albeit one in a pig-face mask) appears, dancing insanely in front of the camera.

As these descriptions suggest, Ben-Tor’s characters are grotesque amalgamations culled from her incisive observations of people she encounters. Emerging out of extracted snippets of cultural difference distended to bizarre extremes, her humorous portrayals skewer conservatives and liberals alike by uprooting familiar moral anchors of right and wrong, good and evil, with illogical explanations and nonsensical commentaries. These seething medleys recall, in certain respects, the one-woman shows of such performance artists as Dael Orlandersmith, Sarah Jones, or even early Lily Tomlin—all known for work featuring their swift, intricate character transformations. However, Ben-Tor has thus far chosen to refute extended character treatments and does not develop analogous, rewarding theatrical journeys. Instead, she favors fragments and interruptions more familiar to television skit comedies designed for an aware but also aloof ADD generation. Her mixing and matching of art, television, and theatrical styles is perhaps not coincidental. In one breath, Ben-Tor cites as influences Woody Allen, Paul McCarthy, and the playwright Richard Maxwell.

Her cavalcade continues in her live performances, such as Exotica, the Rat, and the Liberal, 2005. This continually evolving piece begins with the appearance of a grand dame who, decked out in a fur-trimmed gold lamé coat, rhapsodizes pompously in English and German about India, Marrakech, and other “exotic” locales. Next up is “the Rat,” a crazed Nazi-youth type, who beats a pair of tambourines while issuing a tirade about the loathsomeness of cappuccino-swilling American liberals. Then, in comes the liberal, who in various versions of the piece has taken different forms, but who is always wan and passive, and often prone to wishy-washy statements like “Let’s agree to disagree.”

Throughout her work, Ben-Tor destroys, parodies, and distorts conventional speech, intermixing Arabic, Yiddish, German, Hebrew, and English, ensuring that, for most viewers, significant sections come off as highly charged gobbledy-gook. Nevertheless, her work is as much about what you hear as what you see. Language becomes an unreliable tool that fails to communicate, causing tension and misunderstanding. For Ben-Tor, both identity and difference have linguistic origins, whereby language is the primary marker against which we perceive something to be foreign, alien, or exotic. In this respect her work recalls the mid-twentieth-century Theater of the Absurd and its startling attack on rational thought and conventional dramatic structure, which reflected a profound distrust of language’s ability to convey meaning. In Ben-Tor’s art, similar subversive attacks and futile efforts are at play as she tries, in her words, “to embody the position of saying the wrong thing in order to communicate a certain truth.” Her Sisyphean characters, however, perpetually fail, stranded as they are in the “domain of idiocy,” as she calls it. But it is in precisely this domain that the universe expands in exhilarating ways. Liberated from logic, it turns out, nonsense offers us new possibilities for comprehension.

Debra Singer is executive director and chief curator of The Kitchen in New York.