(Minerva Projects, 2021)
Archive: Tamy Ben-Tor & Miki Carmi, published by the New-York based Minerva Projects, constitutes a concrete reflection of over twenty years of art practices by the painter Miki Carmi and the performance and video artist Tamy Ben-Tor. The second collaborative book between the two Israeli-born artists—who are also life partners—maps their on-going collaboration since 2008. Conceived by Carmi and Ben-Tor and assembled by the book designer Joel Brenden, it traces the artists’ archiving and looks at their practices in an intimate way. In this equilibrium between art and life, Archive stands on a narrow path. It never turns the artists’ daily intimacy or history into artistic material in itself. Archive avoids the mise-en-scene of oneself, so present in our time. In fact, the imperative to show the process—their creative processes, but also the process of making a book—lies at the heart of Archive.
Archive offers a multilayered and contextualized look at Carmi’s well-known large format paintings. Their juxtaposition with intrigant family photographs, which are altered by many painting stains, reflects Carmi’s process of disposing these photographs on his studio’s floor where they remain for years. This accomplishes what Carmi describes as “his lifetime project of mapping the physiognomies of [his] family traits.” Archive also includes some historical documents collected by Carmi over the years, such as mug shots from Hans F.K. Günther’s Short Ethnology of the German People (1929), which was one of the main sources for the Nazi’s racial theory, revealing the way Carmi’s painting “revisits political uses of portraiture produced as evidence of claims made by nineteenth and twentieth century scientists about correlations between ethnicity, physical traits, behavior and intellect,” as Coco Fusco writes in the companion book of critical essays, Text Book. For Alpesh Kantilal Patel, who also contributed to Text Book, Carmi’s fleshy treatment of his family’s faces allows “the possibility for subjectification rather than only objectification to take place.”
The nineteenth and twentieth century pseudo-scientific and racist theories that Carmi closely examines have been theorized and massively diffused through books. In such a manner, documenting Carmi’s process in book format adds another layer to the painter’s reenactment, and conjuration, of this human objectification.
Photographs of Ben-Tor’s live performances appear in more than fifty radically distinct sections throughout, including studio practice (taken by Carmi) and video stills. Archive reflects Ben-Tor’s perpetual transformation through performance over the past twenty years. Her eccentric personae also emerges in the performance scripts and texts interspersed throughout Archive, illustrating her incisive play with spelling, punctuation, and versification. Here, disrupting language is a way to textually situate its uses and the political, social, and cultural identities language reflects. In “Spirit of Dolarat,” a curator with an illegible accent religiously recites what “an old wise collector” said on “that german painter [Neo Rauch].” As an ultimate truth, she repeats: “He say— / He da bes. / In da worl.” When Ben-Tor plays with the spelling of this sentence, she both transcribes a racist idiocy of an exaggerated Japanese accent and suggests the arrogance of collectors.
Plus, Ben-Tor’s “journal outbursts, unfinished manifestos, quotes and deflated screams” as she calls them, are keys to understanding her daily practice that she describes as, “a kind of demonic dance of illnesses […] embodying the enemy as a cathartic victory.” Other fragments form a strikingly lucid pamphlet against the superficial and aestheticizing treatment of political and social issues by elitist contemporary artists, curators and institutions. Archive’s juxtaposition of Ben-Tor's various visual and textual creations, along with two quotations (of the Israeli iconoclastic writer and Holocaust survivor K-Tzetnik and the African-American comedian, writer, and civil rights leader Dick Gregory), is a way to unmask Ben-Tor’s intention and process. This echoes Ben-Tor’s refusal to aestheticize the real that is at the core of her performance and video practice.
Opening Archive is opening a Pandora’s box from which materialize many figures and voices. They look at us, they shout and cry, and sometimes lie. Facing this grotesque crowd, alike with James Ensor’s carnivalesque scenes, each of us will see parts of ourselves.