March 2006 – Contemporary Magazine, Issue 78
In time with the synth-driven disco beat from a child’s toy piano, Tamy Ben-Tor wrinkles her nose, stares out accusingly from plastic sunglasses and a gravity-defying wig, screeching to her wrapt audience, “How can you deny the, how can you deny the… how can you deny the Holocaust? The Holocaust!” The refrain repeats several times. She proceeds to badly imitate African American and Chinese accents, building her case about the absurdity of denial. This suburban Jewish performance artist is sincere—-but the artist playing her is decidedly not.
This character is the third, and most controversial performance in “Exotica, the Rat, the Liberal” – dramatizations that Ben-Tor presented every weekend at the gallery during her show. When all of her knobs are turned up, Ben-Tor successfully fuses the multi-costumed excess of Cindy Sherman with the critical charge of stand-up comedy, while playing a multi-lingual, multinational pick-up game with cultural identity.
From the Swedish intellectual who asks, not facetiously, “how did the foreigner become so unbearable to us?” to the Arabian diva who regurgitates narcissistic nothings into her cell phone, to the Asian contractor who incessantly whines about shipping and delivery, Ben Tor shape-shifts and imitates essentialised social types in her crudely-shot single channel videos. “Artist in Residence” is an uproariously brilliant send-up of the New York art world, with its nonprofit art centres hosting dilettante residency programs that often give artists license to do nothing. The character sincerely reports the progress of her art project in her oh-so-Euro accent: “We didn’t have any ideas… Yes… so we decided to make an archive of something.”
But Ben-Tor’s work is not without kampf. One of her characters is an irate German youth who, after a screed in choppy German, assaults the Bush administration with the threat: “America count your days. We the humanist Europeans protest!” Another video piece, “Women Talk About Hitler” presents several hyperbolic characters and their relationships with Hitler: scholar, disbeliever, flirt, apologist. The artist’s gaiety in these funny portraits is sliced through with the resentments of several generations.
What many art reviewers overlooked (and the show was given ample attention by New York culturati during the pre-Christmas dead time,) were the subtleties of Israeli and Jewish identity that Ben-Tor manipulates. In ‘Girls Beware”, she plays a Russian/Israeli prostitute, an Arab “ars” or macho-man, and a Scandinavian intellectual—-each one riffing on the theme of an Arabic song that warns young girls to stay away from older men. Fluidly bouncing from Arabic to Hebrew to tortured academic English, Ben-Tor shows (and mocks) the quotidien conflicts of Israeli cultural life-—issues usually overshadowed for the rest of the world by coverage of the intifada.
For an Israeli-born artist to present herself as an equal-opportunity offender in this way means climbing the literal wall of her national identity to look down and laugh at the idiocy on all sides.