When the act of painting is the act of reading
Carmela Weiss’ current series of works is a negotiation with the text. Weiss reads the Bible and reacts. It is neither a theoretical nor academic reaction. It is an intuitive, instinctive reaction, which takes a wide-range poetic licence. The biblical text here functions as a trigger. A driving force. Something that is read stimulates her curiosity and she embarks upon a journey. She seeks several interpretations, reads on the subject, follows her senses, and eventually selects an image. The image is not necessarily a representation of what is described in the text, but a metonymic, associative, personal reaction to what has been read. See for example how she comes out of the discussion of The Curse of Ham. The issue is black people’s slavery. And even before that, the very fact that the “sons of Ham” are black. The Bible and interpretations present it as punishment for the sin of incest. The sons of Ham developed a skin condition, and as another example for an animal that sinned in the Arc, the dogs were doomed to be tied and loose their freedom. From Weiss’ point of view there is no actual cures (domesticated dogs’ lives might be much better than some of their free brothers) at most a hindsight rationalisation of an enduring harm. Her painting of the subject is a freestyle treatment in the method of National Geographic, which depicts, as such images do, simultaneously the photographed Africans dancing, free, charming and happy, alongside the devouring perspective of the objectifying Western photographer who turns the Other’s life into a hallowed hammer of exotic enchantment. (I am reminded of an old joke that suggested that white women’s tits are Playboy, and black women’s tits are National Geographic).
Weiss’ painting brings back the issue and lands it at our doorstep, positioning a mirror in front of us. For the relationship between the white and black people has not lost its relevance, and seems never to have been more acute and pertinent. Thus The Curse of Ham turns from a biblical issue to a topical contemplation.
Here occurs a beautiful inversion, in which the painting that is born out of the text turns into an independent text for which the biblical source is one interpretive option.
Thus, her paintings become a text that is open to artistic interpretation, like ancient interpretive texts, such as Maimonides’ Mishnah Torah, which are studied as independent texts that are open to interpretation, and return to the source as a key: it is the pendulum movement that turns the act of painting into an act of reading. It is the thought of the painting not as an end result or a conclusion of a theoretical contemplation of a text, but as the act of reading itself. I would suggest that unlike Gustav Dore’s Biblical illustrations with which Weiss works, which owe their existence to their reliance on the text, and which have accumulated a piece of history in Israeli art, from Raffi Lavie, Michal Neeman, and Yossi Krispel, which accompany the text and illustrate it, Weiss’ work is like Kabbalistic or alchemic illustrations inside mystical literature that are simultaneously a part of the text, and are also separate independent objects.
This manoeuvre, of turning the interpretation into an aesthetic position fascinates me because I believe I find in Weiss’ prosaic, secular and intuitive reading of the scriptures an important tone in the exhausted discussion of secular and religious people.
I wonder whether there is no one in the world who believes in God. And never there was such person. Even the Haredi people in Mea She'arim in Jerusalem are utter atheists according to this perspective. Even the suicidal Muslims, even Moses, even Ezra the Scribe, are all like a Jew who in dire straits does not cry “hear me my God” but “Hear Israel”, “Shema Yisrael”, as if it is clear that there is no God that is listening and he is turning his hope inwards. All are utter atheists. The believe that anyone has faith in God, the faith of those who declare their faith, is the side effect of the largest false consciousness trick in human history.
These things are not articulated from the perspective of the philosophy of Baruch Spinoza, or “biblical critic”, and I do not bring here as evidence Moses accepting Jethro’s advice to appoint judges (because he does not believe God will give him the strength to judge alone) and I do not bring here “The Oven of Akhnai” from the Talmud, and tell you that the expression “It is not in heaven” in Deuteronomy suggests that the writer of the text also thinks the heaven is empty, or something in the spirit of Elia Leibowitz’s book. I do not point the simple mundane fact that we simply live according to the assumption that there is no God (as we get up and get things rather than wait for it to fly to us by the power of faith).
And I do not send you to read in Žižek how the Muslim Shahid act of suicide is the moment in which they see their lack of faith, and due to the profound shock of their lack of faith they perform this last act in order to prove to themselves that they believe but in the very last moment undermine faith itself.
I do not ask you to look at the scientific achievements and the quality of evolutionary explanations. I do not ask you to wonder how can a Haredi person in Mea She'arim truly believe in God in the world of these scientific achievements, as if he can hide from himself the fact that the heavens are empty, filled with aeroplanes, space is full of satellites, and the Hubble can see fourteen billion years back in time, and there is no God there.
No, I do not ask any of that; those are the arguments in a feigned argument between the feigned secular person and the feigned religious person, both drunk on the poison distributed in the forth dimension of our being, the dimension of ideology, the dimension of the false world, the dimension of the tools of calibration, conceptualisation devises, manners of articulation in a language of phony questions.
We do need Chinese secularism, or that of the ancient Greeks (with Thucydides first and foremost) and we require no proof from humanity’s cultural discourse. All we need is one minute of quiet meditation. One moment of inward withdrawal with our own truth to see there, not only the awareness of and certainty of our own mortality, and the inverted shadow, the light shadow, the shadow of a colorful rainbow that it cats upon our life, as if our lives are shattered in the prism of the consciousness of death, and receive from it their colors, not only that, but one razor sharp minute of inwards glance reveals how we created our world and we see clearly through the false consciousness the truth of our loneliness, the truth of our nothingness.
This train of thought is relevant to Carmela Weiss’ works for the prosaic, nonchalant secularism that she conveyed when we discussed her works, all of which relate to the Bible and are linked with various scriptural interpretations. As if there can be another kind of secularism outside the believer / non-believer paradigm. Carmela says that the subject of faith simply has never interested her. Therefore, perhaps only she can deal with the scriptures in this manner.
Consequently, there is something so un-text-bound in her paintings, for which the Bible is an acceleration track, a take-off runway, and they depart form it with ease, detaching from its gravity and turning into aesthetic. Like all dissociated force, like ancient weapons displayed in museums without their violent potential, as pure aesthetic.
I feel that where Israel is today, with the disastrous processes of religious compulsion that spread in all its levels, Weiss’ natural secular creation, which liberates the Bible from its Bible-ness, and perceives it as a catalyst for new thoughts, Weiss’ work can be most liberating, almost political by nature. While all the religious interpretation of the text extract justifications for faith and commandments, for Weiss it is an outsider’s perspective. She returns here to her favourite point of view, that of the investigator anthropologist, who comes from outside.
If we adopt, for a moment, the proposal of an indifferent secularism that is not based on science and progress, a prosaic and by-the-way secularism that assumes that even those who call themselves religious sense in the depth of their hearts the abyss of our utter loneliness as we twirl lonesome in the darkness of space, we can understand Weiss’ works that emerge out of the Bible in a liberating nature. They liberate us to admit in the prosaic casualness of our secularism, and liberate the Bible from the hold of those who see in it the word of God.
"White Raven", solo exhibition, Carmela Weiss, P8 Gallery,January 2017