"Corpus" | Ora Kraus (2014)
“To adjoin the instinctual nature does not mean to come undone, change everything from right to left, from black to white, to move from east to west, to act crazy or out of control. It does not mean to lose one’s primary socializations, or to become less human. It means quite the opposite. The wildish nature has vast integrity to it. It means to establish territory, to find one’s pack, to be in one’s body with certainty and pride regardless of the body’s gifts and limitations, to speak and act in one’s behalf, to be aware, alert, to draw on the powers of intuition and sensing, to come into one’s cycles, to find out what one belongs to, to rise with dignity, to retain as much consciousness as we can.”
In Ronit Shalem’s Corpus, a series of figurative works dealing with images of the body are exposed. Three sets of paintings, differing from one another, are on display: the first is a set of color images of amputated limbs, whose insides resemble embroidery work; another is of dislocated organs, such as eyes, lips, a jaw, legs and fingers, some in color, resonating the first set, while others (the jaw and the lips) bring to mind pop-art works; the third is a set of black-and-white images of broken bodies, unique in their scheme and texture. In these works the contour lines of the body are still discernable, but are transformed into a sort of ornamental map legend, enabling a different kind of reading, one much more abstract. In these series, the pendulum sways from close-ups to micro-close-ups of organs, as the artist penetrates into the very cells of the human body, translating its textures and structures into an ornamental web. The ornamental and textural approaches enable Shalem to innovatively express her interest in human nature and femininity.
Shalem’s works center on the vulnerability of the body and its changes from a softer standpoint. The contrast between the broken body, sending out pain and suffering, and between the optimism of the color images seems to neutralize the harshness of the issue at hand, and envelopes the whole series of broken bodies in an aura of optimism. Thus, Shalem’s work is unique in the long line of contemporary works of art that deal with the body and its image – especially those by female artists that, more often than not, do not swerve from the harsh, the problematic and the strenuous.
Many artists deal with the body and its image. Amputated limbs, dismantled and disfigured dolls and mannequins – these motifs fill the spaces of museums and galleries alike, in various mediums, such as installation, performance, video-art, photography and painting. The broken bodies are tied to hurt, illness and death. They pull the viewer into the worlds of eros and thanatos, and provoke an anxiety due to the fragility and vulnerability of the body.
In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes approaches the matter of the wound from the viewer’s standpoint, as he or she seems to feel stabbed, a victim of a punctum, hurting him or her, and evoking a great excitement while viewing the work of art. This punctum, a stabbing sensation, is an indication of the work’s quality. Even in Kafka, the wound is not a mere sign, a symbol, or a metaphor; it is a partial symbol, a symbol of a flaw. As such, impairment is the symbolic value of the wound. The wound is like the gaze of the eye: it is a cavity, involved in a process of gazing.
For many female artists dealing with body image is linked to questions of identity, empowerment, and women’s status in society. Video and performance artists have gone even further and mutilated their own bodies. Most of these are known feminists, asking to change the social order and women’s status, through their work.
Among these, one can mention Frida Kahlo, whose paintings realistically and brutally express the disappointment with the body’s breaking down, depicting her own body in every possible manner, especially a cruel one. Judy Chicago, in her monumental Dinner Party (1979) created a feminist project including a triangular dinner table, on whose sides were placed 13 dinner sets, its ceramic plates in the shape of vaginal lips. The works thusly commemorated the lives of 39 women, who left their own mark on history, some actual and some fictional, from mythology, literature and the arts. Betsy Damon, in her 7,000-year-old Woman, wore perforated bags while flour seeped through them, transforming her body into an hour glass, standing for a female version of time.
An important artist in this tradition is Marina Abramović, who redefined the boundaries for art dealing with the female body and its vulnerability. For six hours she sat a table on which were placed instruments of pleasure and pain, in her performance Rhythm0 (1974). A placard instructed the viewers to have their way with the artist’s body using the various instruments. Louise Bourgeois created Seven in Bed, with a set of stitched up rag-dolls. Bourgeois claimed to have always been fascinated by needles and their magical power to mend damage.
Among Israeli artists, Yocheved Weinfeld created a series of photographs of her fingers sown together (Sown Fingers, 1974-5), and another where her face and breasts are punctured by a needle (Untitled, 1976). In the video DeadSee (2005), Sigalit Landau placed herself floating in the Dead Sea, with a string of watermelons encircling her. In Barbed Hula (2001) she videoed her skin being scraped while playing hula-hoop with barb-wire around the hoop. This is just a partial list.
Ronit Shalem utilizes the body in her works, imparting vulnerability, and at times, beauty, but always the traces of time. She touches upon the wound, upon the frailty of the body, but the broken body parts always form a delicate, balanced painting. Happy 40th Birthday to Me is a close-up painting in the style of pop-art. The lips are lusciously painted in bright red. From the tips of the lips frail red lines trail off, seeming like lines of old age, only recently breaking on to the open area around the lips. Above the upper lip a finger is placed, indicating silencing or embarrassment. According to Shalem, the body is likened to a map, inscribing a vast array of experiences on it, which in due time, leave their marks, scars and wounds, coming to the surface from within.
In the petite work, Nibbled (2014), four nibbled finger nails are shown with delicate texture on top. The tip of the hand is like a stop sign, stressing the obsessive-compulsive act of nibbling the nails. In Routine (2014), an inquisitive, surrealist eye penetrates into the field of vision of the viewer, without any advance notice. The eye is exquisitely modeled in in its embroidery-like texture. The pupil is green and yellow, while the cornea is basically white, flanked with red capillary lines, in some places thickened out, resembling the luscious lips of Happy 40th Birthday to Me.
All these works are reminiscent of Hila Lulu Lin’s, dealing with eyes and lips, again lusciously painted in red. Nibbled is much like Lulu Lin’s The Nibbler (2004), where she videoed herself eating hot red peppers placed on her fingertips. Lulu Lin created video works of self-documentation, sometimes in extreme situations of mutilation, and utilized her own body as a means for advancing a creative space with no boundaries. In her Miles I would Go (1998) she created a vast wall of eyes, watching and being watched, transmitting curiosity between the object of the eye on the wall and the eye of the viewer in the space. As Lulu Lin’s work is lyrical, despite its harshness, so Shalem’s is poetic, despite the broken bodies depicted.
Shalem self-proclaims to be looking for textures everywhere. As the years go by, she locates scattered signs on the body – lines, squares, triangles – which connect to one another in folds. They move, bend, transform, and intensify more and more with time. Her works in the present exhibition explore age and passing time. Each line of the body is reciprocated on the canvas, the wood, or any other platform for her works. These signs leave a trail of memory, the experiences and memories engraved on it, and responses are registered.
In her 1929 A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Wolff stated that every woman needs a room and an income of her own in order to create. This statement, radical in its own time, is a corner-stone for feminist artistic thought and expresses a longing for freedom of creation for women. Shalem feels she does not need to fight for her own status and position in the world as a woman. She has succeeded in forming a creative environment for herself. Her works reflect the ease that such a state brings about. She quietly goes by stating facts, exhibiting sights, treating the wound and the decay of the body willingly, as a total indisputable fact, with which one has only to comply.
The optimism and softness of her works has to do with their formation, as well. First, the contours of the broken body are marked on to the platform. Then, they are filled with color, in a sort of feminine toil, resembling attentive embroidery work, thus creating a painting within a painting. The ornamental approach softens the harsh matter at hand, of the broken, wounded body. Pinkola Estés’ book can illuminate Shalem’s works: like a wild woman, running with the wolves, Shalem possesses sharp instincts and curiosity of an artist who marks her own territory, finds her own pack and ferociously hurdles on.
 Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women who Run with Wolves, 1991.
 Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, 1980.
 Shahar Galili, Hapetza shel Kafka (Kafka’s Wound), Jerusalem: Carmel, 2008, 100.
Written by: Ora Kraus