New York

Tzvi Ben-Aretz

Ape Gallery/Dooley le Cappellaine Gallery

Tzvi Ben-Aretz, an Israeli-born artist working and living in New York, became known in the late ’70s for his photo-documented performances featuring his own inert body in a variety of settings. In the tradition of Ana Mendieta and Joseph Beuys, these “live installations” were staged against the stark, urban backdrop of New York City, or in galleries, as part of sculptural ensembles with both natural and industrially fabricated components. His was a unique synthesis of body art and Minimalism—two very different modes of challenging the border between life and art culminatingin a number of “exhibits” exploring the most overdetermined and fundamental image in the history of art, the cross.

During the object-oriented ’80s, Ben-Aretz put aside his “body installations” in favor of painting, only to return to them in two recent works to resume his investigation of the cruciform. Thankfully free of explicitly religious trappings, save the ritualistic atmosphere created by such installations, Ben-Aretz lay, vaguely Christ-like, on the floor, his outstretched hands and feet covered with cone-shaped mounds of earth, his position varying slightly from one piece to the next. In Crucifixion, 1992, he lay face-up, his head resting on a pillow of dirt, his arms perpendicular to his body, while in Pietà, 1992, he lay twisted, face-down, one arm stretched above his head, the other arm extended from his side. Each piece lasted just under an hour, during which time a small flame burned on the mound atop his feet.

Ben-Aretz achieves the kind of tension born of deceptive simplicity, his complete stillness enacting a dialectic between the drama and eroticism of the crucified body, and the purely formal play of horizontal and vertical lines. In the analytic and regenerative space of body art, he recovered the immediacy and power of this archetypal symbol rendered dull and benign by centuries of religious art.

Ben-Aretz’s ’70s-inspired body installations are perfectly at home in the freely eclectic, body-obsessed, noncommercial performance scene of the early ’90s. This medium enjoys a typically post-Modern, happy-go-lucky relationship to history in which the differences between Marcel Duchamp, Vito Acconci, and Matthew Barney are often collapsed in a mildly blasphemous, neo-Dada free-for-all. Though devoid of even a trace of its previous art-novelty, body-oriented work continues to be a viable medium for artists to explore the politics of gender and censorship, or more rarely, as Ben-Aretz has done, to engage the scope of art history and breathe new life into the age-old dialectic of form and content.

Jenifer P. Borum