Life, Death, Love, Parting, Memory, Longing . . .

Hana Kofler

The oeuvre of Orna Ben-Ami is one long continuous journey from the invisible to the conscious and the visible. From the beginning, she exchanged the “raw materials” of her soul with iron and focused her gaze and attention on the hidden dimension of this hard substance. Despite the physical effort it entails, Ben-Ami is committed to working in iron, which demands experience and high technical skill. She subdues the stiff metal with her own hands, though her touch differs from that of a male sculptor’s, such as Kadishman, Tumarkin, Shemi, Meller or Dorchin who once referred to himself as a “manual laborer-sculptor.” Ignoring iron’s unyielding nature, she “trains” and “softens” it until its materiality is assimilated into the existential essences on which the whole of her work is founded: memory, life, death, love, parting, longing . . .

Her first longing is expressed in the commemoration of the landscape of her childhood—Gedera. She “sketches” the place in a few simple iron strokes—references to a cypress tree, a citrus tree and a water tower: a clear Israeli emblem that can convey a similar melting-pot experience in collective memory. This was the image of the landscape that she took with her from there, the landscape that continued to flicker, even after she moved, when still a child, with her family to another place, and from there to yet another place, until a ritual developed of leaving, wandering and acclimating anew with every transition that was forced upon her. The exhibition begins in Gedera, from where she extracted that first memory that she preciously guarded in her heart. 

            Photographs from old family albums are this exhibition’s driving force. The people in the photos are endowed with an even stronger presence through Ben-Ami’s manipulations of the images printed on the hard surface. In each, she accentuates different elements of the photograph, which she emphasizes in the sculpted iron she integrates into the work. She “tends” to each and every one of the photographs of her family and their friends, focusing attention on the new aesthetic she creates on the surface of the work, which is articulated in her treatment of the objects and articles of clothing and by recalling the beauty of another time. She is almost obsessively drawn to preserving memories through the objects that belonged to her loved ones. The iron additions on the surfaces of the photos are like weightless, floating sculptural forms. The photos themselves seem to accumulate “treasures” that gradually develop into matter, a single mass of independent existence, laden with associations and personal experiences. Here, the photograph is used as a ready-made platform from which she eliminates in stages, to varying degrees of invisibility, persons who have passed away. In contrast, she uses iron to manipulate the objects that remain after their death into shapes that resemble ready-mades, and sets them into the body of the printed photograph.  In these works Ben-Ami overturns and deceives the creative process in the transformation of the material itself and by showing two elements that are polar opposites on the same ground, like two different literary genres in a single text, in this case, two distinct mediums, whose merging ultimately creates a new genre. The tension and affinity between these opposing materials are, in fact, the code that is at the foundation of this work.  

            Continuing her journey, Ben-Ami gathers snippets of life, home and family, and groups them in sculptural installations, in which she takes advantage of every corner, floor space and adjoining wall necessary to delineate the boundaries of her memory. She goes back to her school days and with thin iron rails which she welds horizontally and vertically, she constructs a classroom void of children, a scene of the end of a school day. On the wall is a typical Israeli graduating-class photo template made out of iron; small windows pierce it like empty casements—hollow frames for pictures of those missing from them. This angular-shaped installation composed of broken lines is like a three-dimensional Mondrian or pencil drawing in space. The continuous collective memory of other classrooms in other schools in other places echoes in this empty classroom. The memory of school will erupt again in the childhood trauma that flowed into another work, one more link in the chain that connects the work to the one prior and the one next.    

The dining room, which Ben-Ami constructs after specially selecting the elements that compose it, is characterized as well by minimalistic, simple and straight, sometimes broken iron lines, like the rest of the pieces of furniture and objects she builds and assembles in one big installation. On the wall above the iron table hangs a photograph of the family around the family dinner table. She appears in the picture—a smiling little girl, her facial features clear— raising a glass in a toast along with the rest of her family who are no longer alive. They fade away into the background, into the unknown. But the dishes, which remained on the dining room table and on the shelves leaning against the wall, are tangibly accentuated in iron, urgently immortalized as a mute testament to all that once was. The dining room installation carries in it the dramatic experience of a “last supper”—where Dalia, Ben-Ami’s sister, who got up from the table to dance the “little shepherd from the valley,” collapsed and never rose again. It was there that the terrible tragedy took place.

This installation relates directly to the “mausoleum” in this exhibition, which Ben-Ami dedicates to her sister Dalia, who died when still a child. It is closed room, separated from the rest of the exhibition that for the most part, is arranged in an open plan space. After her mother passed away, Ben-Ami found among her belongings a folder containing telegrams and obituaries that were kept after Dalia’s death. In the text of the obituary of the school where all three sisters—Ronit, Dalia and Orna—studied, only the names of her parents and her older sister appeared. Little Orna’s name was left out. This shocking discovery pierced her like a sword. Years later she decided to deal with this painful oversight by printing a large-scale obituary, and turning it into a work of art. At the heart of the work, she added, in iron, her name and the letter Aleph, indicating her first-grade class in school. The letters of her name defiantly continue beyond the border within which there is no remaining space, but that they belong there is no longer in doubt.  

When he was still alive, the artist Gideon Gechtman published his own obituary as a conceptual act. He perfected the notices of his death and reproduced them in a range of variations. Gechtman, who often dealt with death in his art, ordered personal objects (manufactured for him), that would remain for eternity and commemorate the dead. Death and its mementos are also present throughout the body of Ben-Ami’s work. In addition to the redesigned obituary (essentially different from Gechtman’s) is a photograph of herself and Dalia and another of the three sisters together. There is also a small wall sculpture, titled Kri’ah (Tearing), that serves as a Jewish symbol for every type of bereavement, personal or national, and confirmation that the birth of art from death is like switching the experience of loss with that of creation, and all that it implies. Another sign of death appeared in a similar context in her 2012 exhibition Shadow. There Ben-Ami displayed an installation of an iron box the size of an actual tombstone tied with an iron ribbon—like a gift, in memory of the day she celebrated her Bat Mitzvah and was allowed, for the first time in her life, to visit her sister’s grave. 

The theme of the grave also appears in this exhibition. The hollow forms which Ben-Ami positions on the floor of the exhibition space are empty graves that hold the objects belonging to their dead; graves out of which space breaks through or iron boxes inside which space cannot be trapped. They are posed like minimalistic images of coffins or parts of tombstones. Inside them, the life of the deceased is denoted by every utensil and object—metaphors for the personal possessions that were buried alongside the bodies of the dead in ancient Egyptian tombs and over time became archeological artifacts. But, unlike the ancient Egyptians, Ben-Ami holds on to the objects that remain after the demise of her loved ones so that through them she can look back over the lives of those dearest to her heart. Books, dishes, items of clothing, and other personal effects like eyeglasses become frank monuments, in memory of the dead, objects of commemoration and remembrance. 

Ben-Ami has in the past also dealt with the sculpting of objects as a personal expression of a complex of the themes which she touched upon and as a visual testament of her contending with the issue of the real and the seemingly. Her approach to iron as a material, in fact, surpasses everything we know about its uses in modernism and even postmodernism.  She is not an artist of “style.” The circumstances surrounding the making of her work are like a hidden mirror for her. She determinedly tests how far she can exploit the stuff of life and still make art, not necessarily because of the reduction of the artistic image; on the contrary, she does it by blurring the borders between it and life.  She creates art that masquerades as reality not as a chosen repository of the ready-made that are designed as an artistic statement, but rather as a selected storehouse of the seemingly ready-made that raises questions about the preferred status of art objects over functional objects. This applies as well with regard to the place of the ready-made in relation to sculpture that pretends to be the real thing. Ben-Ami chooses physical labor as an existential expression, and therefore creates iron that looks like cloth, lace, cardboard, paper, leather, wood, wool, string . . . she uses one material to define another, and blurs the boundaries between the ordinary object and the work of art. Thus she can infuse life into the sculpture and fill it with layers of memory and emotion. 

From a recollection of her childhood likeness photographed with her family, Ben-Ami moves on to an image of herself sculpted in iron: a large-scale marionette, made of ungainly parts of iron bars covered in feminine clothes made out of “soft” iron. Once again she joins soft with hard, and the “masculine” material relaxes here as well under her supple grip, playing into her feminine hands. Her entire being proclaims that she has no right to exist were it not for that fact that she is being activated by her own abilities rather than by someone else manipulating her crossbar and strings. The marionette is a defiant expression of Orna the child, proof that she was able to rise up, using her own strengths to overcome the crises that befell her and stand firmly on her own two feet. It is a testament to her self-fulfillment and the channeling of her mental energies toward a life of creativity. This is the point from which the artist looks at her inner world in an endless search for her ultimate self-portrait.

From here she can look out over the artworks she made and at the process that was constructed from the fragments of her charged memory, and chapters and anecdotes from life that left an autobiographical mark on each photograph and every object that emerged from her hands, whose implications bring out collective points of contact with viewers on the sidelines and perhaps even feelings of empathy and identification. The core of her work touches on the essence of being, and the question about the real meaning of this existence and the challenge in the constant uplifting of body and spirit as one. Ben-Ami’s rational approach to questions of life and death positions the discourse about death as a liberating act, and formulates her fundamental attitude to art as a commemorative action. Even though throughout the exhibition she shares a very honest and personal narrative that is virtually a confession, she still leaves some information hidden from view. The figures, most of whom fade into the photographic background, the fragmentation and incompleteness of the physical objects—all these seem as if to ask that their identities be completed in the mind of the viewer, and enable the viewer to continue to identify those things that can be made whole again and arrange reality anew as he or she sees fit.