Tel Aviv

Mircea Cantor

The melancholy that permeates Mircea Cantor’s work here stems from a mournfulness specific to our epoch’s need to capture every transaction, identity, and event in the sprawling prison of digital memory. We have lost not so much the ability to forget as the freedom to be forgotten. Yet in an Israeli context, the notion of memory also bears a more conventional and particular weight: the moral imperative of remembrance. Although several of the twenty-one works in Cantor’s show had previously been exhibited elsewhere, memory’s meanings became especially troubling in this setting. The centerpiece of the exhibition was Cantor’s eleven-minute film Tracking Happiness, 2009. Set to dreamy, chiming music by Adrian Gagiu, it shows a circle of seven women dressed in white walking round and round with a dancelike gait on a ground of sand, sweeping away one another’s footprints with brooms—mark and erasure, erasure and mark, a recursive action seemingly without end. Unlike the desert in Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” in which all human accomplishments (and vanity) are swallowed and lost, Cantor’s sand can be imagined as an allegorical codescape of ones and zeros accumulating eternally, the whole of humanity trapped in the purgatory of Facebook and Flickr, on YouTube and in repositories of tweets that can never be expunged but circulate like unwearied ghosts.

Yet, again, in the Israeli context, this sense of unremitting recollection detonated a particular charge, abetted by the linked visual tropes that dominated the show: circles, mirrors, and repetitions representing closed systems of ideology and behavior that deliver threat, enchainment, and ruin. All this was delivered with Cantor’s typical irony, at once sardonic and whimsical, tasting of sugar and bitterroot. Near Tracking Happiness hung a series of twelve photographs, “Holy Flowers,” 2010, each an image of guns or gun parts kaleidoscopically mirrored to look like petals forming hybrid flowers, heirlooms cultivated in the soil of violence. In another of the gallery’s spaces was Geschäft ist Geschäft (Business Is Business), 2010, an installation with a temporary wall on which the title is rendered in neon—and in reverse, so that it becomes intelligible only in a facing mirror. On the other side of the wall, a circular heap of broken glass lit like jewels from beneath rests on the ground, studded with horse manure. The effect is of a compression of language and symbols in which capitalism, human endeavor, and bodies share in a ceaseless cycle of consumption and waste.

Cantor’s work has always had the condensed metaphorical quality of homily and folktale. These images of seductive yet ominous circularities, so resonant with the human compulsion to repeat, are summarized trenchantly in Vertical Attempt, 2009, a video lasting a single second. A delighted child armed with scissors sits on the edge of a kitchen sink, “cutting” the water flowing from the faucet. The video is looped, turning the boy’s risibly impossible task and his fresh pleasure into a monument that is ageless, innocent, and stale in its repetition-as-fate—he is a Sisyphus in diapers. Near Geschäft ist Geschäft’s glittering heap of glass, Cantor placed a table. On it was a jigsaw puzzle with a mirrored surface in the contour of Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. Every piece was identical, wryly implying the continuity of a conflict doomed by memory to repeat itself. Looking down onto the work, titled One Piece, the Same, 2010, viewers had no choice but to see themselves.

Steven Henry Madoff