It sounds like a bad joke: “What do you get if you put a kibbutznik in a stable?” The punch line, however, is anything but bad or, for that matter, a joke. For two years, the kibbutznik in question, Ofri Cnaani, has questioned the Talmud through the lens of contemporary art, and the result has transformed a former horse stable into an artistic meditation on adultery in the Talmud.
“The Sota Project,” Cnaani’s ambitious and complicated 22-minute film installation, is a retelling and an interrogation of a talmudic tale of adultery, betrayal and doubt. Projected onto four walls that resemble a monk’s cell, “The Sota Project” is a clever but often awkward fusion of visual genres, combining cinematic re-enactment with the theatricality of a tableau vivant and the narrative realism of a fresco. The work, in Hebrew and English, is on view through April 23 at Kunsthalle Galapagos — the former stable and current exhibition site housed above Galapagos Art Space in Brooklyn.
Sota (sometimes “Sotah” in English), which in Hebrew means “adulteress” or “pervert,” is also the name of Cnaani’s protagonist. A talmudic practice known as the Sota ritual was used to prove whether or not a pregnant woman had committed adultery. Once suspected, the woman was sent to Jerusalem to drink “the bitter waters” of judgment. This magical potion, consisting of dust and “erased letters” from the Torah, was said to cause the death of the fetus and the mother in the case of infidelity, but to have no effect if the woman was innocent.’
This tale of alchemy and deadly jealousy is alluded to in the Bible in the book of Numbers. Later it receives elaboration in the Talmud, where Midrash Tanchuma, Naso 6, cites an enigmatic but dangerous liaison between two sisters who lived in separate villages: a pregnant wife accused of adultery (Sota), and her older sister (in Hebrew named Bekhora), who tries to protect her. The Sota Ritual, if indeed ever practiced, was outlawed by 70 C.E. In the Talmud and in Cnaani’s project, the alleged adulteress visits her older sister to tell her about her husband’s accusation. At this point Sota is convinced by her older sister — to whom she bears an uncanny resemblance — to trade places. And, in a drama worthy of a Shakespearean farce, the games begin.
Cnaani, a former member of Kibbutz Cabri in the Western Galilee (her grandfather, Israeli sculptor Yehiel Shemi, was a founding member), spent two years studying this talmudic passage during her time as a Six Points Fellow, when she was also a winner of the America-Israel Cultural Foundation award. This study became the conceptual motivation for the installation.
“The Sota Project” is Cnaani’s most complicated work to date, though her earlier projects have also been hybrids, like “Oriental Landscapes,” which combined ink drawings with vintage Israeli posters from the 1920s, or “The Vanishing Woman,” a performance piece that used an overhead projector during a lecture-cum-performance in which Cnaani created a live movie.
Entering the narrow, rectangular exhibition space that is “The Sota Project,” the viewer experiences a conflicting sense of disorientation and familiarity. The side panels look like Italian frescos, but a second glance reveals a landscape shot entirely in Israel, on location and in a studio. The images are shot in high-definition video and feel largely contemporary. We see cars, towns and swimming pools and yet, as the film portrays the timelessness of the subject through its jarring anachronism, we also see ancient walls and terracotta-tiled rooftops.
Characters walk in and out of scenes, magically crossing over to enter an opposite panel or an adjacent scrim, as if dancing across time and moving in and out of space. Their actions defy linear narrative sequence: It’s as if there is a jump cut, a physical leap to one event or location from another. Sota and Bekhora walk down a flight of stairs separated by a cavelike wall and, moments later, on an opposite wall, Sota is walking away from her accusing husband, who exerts his control over her by sending her to judgment.
The installation also captures the characters posing as tableau vivants, a style increasingly familiar to contemporary art viewers, especially through Vanessa Beecroft’s installations. The tableau vivant acts like a freeze frame to conjure up an event only partly shown. It is used here as a device to slow down the narrative plot and make viewers pause to examine what they are seeing. The tableau vivant allows the viewer to visually skip between the film’s episodes, looking back and forth from the side panels to the end panels in this moving mural, searching for visual or thematic connections, or breaks, in the sequences. The eye skips around as one does on the Internet with hypertext, or in the Talmud, where rabbinic commentaries encircle a centralized passage.
Cnaani plays not just with content or spatial composition, but also with formal allusion. The side panels of the installation visually quote two Italian masters famous for presenting internal and external spaces simultaneously — Piero della Francesca and Giotto. Della Francesca’s mastery of perspective allowed his Renaissance paintings to give viewers the sensation that they could physically enter the picture. In pre-Renaissance paintings that felt quintessentially flat, Giotto made different series of related allegorical images that look like precursors to film sequences.
Cnaani’s side panels are made up of conjoined images: She inserts a frontal shot of a kitchen into a street scene of a suburban development, and visually collages it next to the walled city of Jerusalem; the interior of a bedroom is collaged next to an exterior shot of a row of houses. Using computer software, Cnaani inserted these images into the scene in postproduction, to give the appearance of a theatrical stage set or of a doll’s house, where the viewer has the privilege of seeing inside a space normally closed off by a wall.
By removing the exterior walls of the bedroom, kitchen, shower and changing room, Cnaani gives the viewer access to intimate scenes, making him or her a voyeuristic participant to a conversation between husband and wife in the kitchen, or to Bekhora taking a shower. External and internal scenes are stitched together, creating an invented space that reflects the emotional dilemmas and struggles of her characters.
Cnaani occasionally uses dialogue, which unfortunately comes off as stilted and self-conscious. This comes from the otherwise excellent cast of 10 Israeli actors, including Moshe Ivgy as Sota’s husband, and the ever-agile Tali Sharon, who plays Bekhora and also Sota’s double. A chorus of four older women, representing public opinion, is stationed at the entrance to the installation. They appear in colored bathing caps and goggles, slowly swimming except when gossiping. They are shot in real time and are projected floor to ceiling, occasionally resting at the end of the pool to gaze into the space of the installation.
The opposing wall is mostly black except, roughly 19 minutes into the sequence, a projection shows a close-up of the two sisters kissing passionately, just moments after Sota’s husband has been violently seduced by his wife’s older sister. The women embrace as the camera tracks them through a 360-degree move with seductive Hollywood production values and the powerful realism of an independent feature.
And thus it ends, in erotic deadlock. We don’t know if the poison from the bitter waters is still on Bekhora’s lips, and if so, has she just killed her sister. Or perhaps both women are now equally free of Sota’s husband and his jealousy. Is this incest, lesbian love or the kiss of life? However it is understood, Cnaani’s installation, at times overly complex, ultimately delivers an exquisite corpse that is visually and conceptually rare.
Cheryl Kaplan has written for ELLE, Art in America, ArtNews, and MONOPOL.
The exhibition will travel to the Rothschild 69, in Tel Aviv, opening June 26.