Play with fire
hibition are related to the artist’s attempt to tackle her personal and familial identity.
These gatherings are comprised of a beginning, middle and an ending. At the start of the gathering, the participants learn a page from the "G'mara" (religious text) – a study which is a "Mitzva" (commandment), bringing the family together. Afterwards the dinner starts, and lastly comes the blessings. Amongst the ceremonies portrayed in the exhibition The Meeting of the Brothers stands out. After 26 years in which the brothers did not see each other, they first open the G'mara book. Only the reading and repetition enables the two brothers to converse, bringing them together and creating intimacy among the rest of the family members. Also, one can note the following ceremonies: The Nephew’s Bar-Mitzva (ceremony of passage to adulthood), Biur Hametz (removal of leavened bread at Passover eve) and The Ceremony of Lag Baomer (ignition of fires to mark the great rebellion).
Thus, little by little, Zila Friedman puts before us pictures that depict ceremonies and customs that accompanied her most of her life. She enables us to peek into a world that is not familiar to everyone, a sort of a short “taste” of the religious Jewish customs. Friedman was born to a Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) family from Bnei Brak. Her parents survived the Holocaust – a subject that is an essential part of her life. Throughout the years, Friedman broke free and chose artistic creation. The zeal and passion in her work resemble those of an observant Haredi person. For many years, she has tried to create a bridge between two different and separate worlds – the world of her Haredi family, and her inner world, rich with creative imagination. The struggle was not at all easy.
The artist’s ancestors are authors from the Shlomo Ganzfried (GRHS) dynasty, the author of Kitzur Shulhan Aruch. Her grandfather is Binyamin Friedman (GRHS) – an author who composed the commentary to the bible Makor Hatfilot (the source of prayers) and Contras Hataharot (booklet of purifications). Her father, David Friedman, continues in their footsteps and re-publishes his father’s works. Unlike the rest of her family, who use the written word, Friedman has chosen to use the visual image. In her world, there is a continuous search for control over body and spirit, a connection between the physical and the mental spheres. Artistic creation unites both. For years, the artist has created abstract, closed and vague paintings, in which emptiness and whiteness controlled the canvas. Just like a repeating circular ceremonial event, her lines came and went again and again, as a never-ending prayer or a mantra, like an utterance that holds a great silence.
In her work process, Friedman looked for the narrow spaces between two lines or surfaces, and the closer she got, the tighter the spaces became. The white areas and the stains in her paintings are meant to emphasize that which is incomprehensible. According to Friedman, she aspires to reach a safe place through the exploration of her doubts. She continuously creates obsessively meticulous works through thin pencil lines, creating stitches and pathways that serve to mend two worlds which are opposed and yet similar – a type of unsolved ambivalence.
Ceremonies are not only used as objects in Friedman’s works, but are also linked to her actual work process. Indeed, one can point to a certain connection between the nature of her work and the essence of the ceremony, being an action that converts meaningful content into a symbol and an abstract idea. Different actions and symbolic aids illustrate this conversion, as a move that is meant to create an emotional and conceptual change. In order for an event to become a ceremony, one needs three elements: the symbolic action, which is essentially an idea – the object of the ceremony or the object of the piece; it is the abstract facet symbolizing the main essence of the ceremony, without a utilitarian purpose. Performing the actions is done by the participant or the artist in this case, by being the element that fulfills the symbolic action. The routine signifies the perseverance, the performance of the ceremony at regular intervals. These three elements also exist in Friedman’s work process – as it does in the works of other artists attempting to convey a ceremonial character to their works.
Driven by its nature, the artistic creation changes. If so far the main ingredient of Friedman’s “signifying action” was the abstract, recently a new spirit has begun to appear in her works – she drifts into a more concrete and direct expression. The concrete works presented in the exhibition are surprising and different, but they did not appear all of a sudden. In hindsight, looking at the artist’s full body of work, one can notice a text that has slowly and carefully changed. The buds of change have already appeared in the exhibition presented in Mishkan Haomanim in Herzelia, in 2002, curated by Varda Ginosar. In the attached catalogue (edited by Ilan Visgen) appears the work A Woman Praying (Burka), in which one can vaguely see – still quite abstractedly – a female image flying over the whiteness of the page. In another work from the same series, one can see a slim bird floating in the air. In another wonderful sketch one can clearly see the rough shoes of a man, and within one of them an imaginary leg is fixed. The rest of the works are abstract and are clearly reminiscent of the artist’s delicate and sophisticated handwriting; however, there is much movement in them, and it seems that something is bubbling somewhere beneath the surface – something very different from her past works. Later on, in the exhibition Prayer Balls, presented in the “Artists’ House” in Tel-Aviv in 2008, curated by Dr. Ktzia Alon, the concrete sphere appeared yet again. In the exhibition, prayer balls made out of dried fruit wrapped in embroidery thread, a map of Bnei Brak in an embroidered Jewish ornamental curtain (traditionally used to cover the front of the holy arc in the synagogue), three artisan’s books, and a photograph of the artist’s parents.
After all these comes the exhibition Playing with Fire. Indeed, the artist’s shift seems to do just that – play with fire. She has come a long way until she arrived at this “place” – a word that in everyday use marks a certain area in space, and in the words of the ancient wise (Jewish) men, it is another name for God. Throughout, Friedman attempts to weave the duality beating inside her – to find her place without undermining her family’s honor, and without compromising her freedom. She attempts to create a bridge between her faith and her art. To that extent, she has chosen the media of photography and video. Photography does not only document the past but also confirms that what we see does indeed exist; using a digital camera, Friedman photographed her family during religious ceremonies, thus bravely choosing to immortalize her parents while they are still alive, lucid and active. The photographs were doctored using a computer: the pixels were enlarged, blurred and then printed on aquarelle paper. After printing, the pictures were manually processed. Some of the pixels were covered using cotton wool dipped in pastel powder, which created round smudges that are placed tightly together like a screen. These smudges mark the outlines of the photographed images. Another part of the pixels is left white and unprocessed. On other prints, the artist has only added linear sketches.
In these pictures, we see images that are not characterized by clear facial features. Most of them are blurred or covered by dense color circles, preventing the viewer from recognizing them. In a touching photograph, one of the most outstanding pictures in the exhibition, both of the artist’s parents are seen, while a thin sketch, resembling a torn tree branch, adorns their clearly visible faces. In one of the video works, one can see children burning Hametz (leavened food), and sparks from the fire seem like pixels processed in the other works presented in the current exhibition. In addition, the work presents sketched lines and smudges that are reminiscent of the abstract that characterizes much of the artist’s work. In this manner, in art – as in life – a connection is created between past and present. Despite the differences, one can still detect clearly and with certainty the familiar style, still quite alive in the present works, conveying a sense of coming full circle.
2011, The Urban Gallery of Art Smilansky Culture Center, Rehovot, Curator Ora Kraus