Michal Helfman

An ideal title for Israeli artist Michal Helfman’s recent show might be “Mirage,” since it seemed to revolve around the distortion and inversion of images. Upon entering the ground floor of the gallery, visitors were greeted by a sequence of jagged mirrors, cut and arranged low on a wall to evoke a range of desert mountains. Above this work hung a glowing yellow “sun” too Pop to be realistic; it was, in fact, an Eero Saarinen–esque Tulip table mounted horizontally and loosely covered with a yellow tablecloth. This installation, titled The Lesson, 2009, extended into an adjacent room, which was reconstructed as a ballet studio, complete with its usual elements but installed as if the entire room were turned on its side. As a result, the barre became a stripper’s pole, while the mirrored wall became the ceiling, now transformed into a voyeuristic tool. On a side wall was a recessed monitor, itself turned on its side, that presented a two-part video featuring a ballerina performing exercises on a darkened stage, followed by footage from a news report about an oil rig explosion at sea. When one watched the video at a ninety-degree turn, the dancer’s vigorous movements were unexpectedly rendered lascivious.

Helfman seems to construct her projected “stagings” in a way that makes viewers constantly aware of her intentions to alter perception. According to the artist, the most well-known icons, which we consider nearly immutable in time, can offer new experiences if destabilized. For example, a bronze sculpture depicting Degas’s famous ballerina, another component of The Lesson, appears after a second and more careful viewing to be a mature woman wearing a corset and high heels. This distortion of convention continues in a nearby pencil drawing on paper, in which a woman becomes a grotesque figure solely by the displacement of her classic chignon, which has been inverted and sprouts from the middle of her forehead like an excrescence of her skin. Helfman’s practice becomes an invitation to guard against tricks of the eye and, more broadly, serves as an exhortation to explore the deceptive nature of both natural and cultural “vision.”

Helfman’s investigation into perception and gender was expanded in the next section of the show’s video installation Just Be Good to Me, 2007—featuring a sound track of the 1983 R&B song of the same name, stripped of its key rhythmic accompaniment—situated on the gallery’s second floor. A white, modernist table with large holes cut into its top stood on the floor; these circles echoed in the glowing orbs of the final image of the video, which was projected onto a nearby wall. Composed of a sequence of photographs, the video begins with Helfman, dressed as a ballerina, diapering her infant son in an aseptic, monochromatic environment, enlivened only by a rudimentary sculpture created from pieces of wood and colorful, mirrored Christmas ornaments. In the next image, the domestic microcosm is revealed to take place inside a box sitting in the middle of the desert. Here the “reality” proves to be more bizarre and surprising than the original (and apparently “artificial”) home setting. In subsequent scenes, mother and child have exited the box and stand together against the setting sun, which then morphs into a single white light. The sphere becomes the firmament of the video’s final image, multiplying into a system of moons shining in the night—vision proliferated and unmoored.

Marco Tagliafierro

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.