I had my teacher forward a photograph of a painter’s handwriting to a writer I’m reading. I hope that if she sees it, she will think well of me for reading so attentively. This has always been my strategy. Read close, read deep, read intimate, read older. Forty at sixteen, she and I have this in common: our ages play dissonant chords with our faces.
I am an Israeli-American. I was born in Los Angeles, live in Givatayim, go to university in New York but will be studying in England next year.
The reason I’m telling you this is because I am part of two worlds – I have two homes and no home, two countries and no country. This is a kind of internal enigma that I haven’t yet gotten around to exploring yet – the seeds of what I want to do with this puzzling idea are still revolving in my mind, floating in some sort of wind. Hopefully they will find some fertile ground and grow there one day.
Today, I was stunned. My mother and I went to see your exhibition at the Helena Rubinstein in Tel Aviv. I took three Manifesto posters in each language so that I’d be able to give some away to people I love. The ideas that you represented – and the way you represented them – were so beautiful, so thought-provoking, and so intensely personal to someone who has lived here most of her life and felt both aliened and forcibly integrated. During the films, I was constantly thinking, wondering, trying to figure out the future that I was seeing in the foreshadowing clues that were in the barbed wire, the spotlight, the arm-band, the assassination. But I also yearned so dearly to hope, to be among my generation – the candle-lighters, the optimists, the naive, the third generation who are furthest from the past traumas but still, somehow, touched by them.
I wanted to go to Hebron after I left those rooms, posters clutched tightly furled under my arm – I didn’t have a rubber band – and find the first Palestinian youth who would trust me and ask him to take my hand. We would go and buy two tickets to Poland. We’d call our families and friends once we got there. Maybe if he escaped from his ghost town and I escaped from this country that ignores its ghosts, we’d be able to show others, as you did, that the possibility was real. How naive. But what a wonderful wish.
I have written to authors before. I’ve never written to an artist before. I hope that, if you do read this, my respect and admiration for you comes through my words. You have inspired something within me – the flame of anger always burning towards this country, but also the drops of innocence and hope that try to dampen that fire. Most of all, you’ve awoken my imagination and my thought, and for that I must thank you from the bottom of my heart. A work of art has not touched me so in a long, long time.
Thank you, thank you, thank you,
Yael Bartana is the creator of “And Europe Will be Stunned” which premiered at the Venice Biennale.
“Carve my face just like it is, okay?” Juliet turned to see how her hair would look piled up on top of her head in a messy knot. The result was unappealing so she let her long, dark locks tumble back down to cover her back.
When she took her eyes off the riveting image of herself, she was almost surprised by the other presence in the room. She was so used to speaking to herself, that it was hard to remember how to act when she did have company.
“Of course, my lady. I would dare not insult you by creating a lesser image than the one you see before you in the glass.” This courtly nonsense was exactly what any poor artist who lived on the whims of the rich was supposed to say.
Juliet didn’t smile. She wouldn’t smile unless absolutely delighted. The uncles that raised her had taught her that facial expressions could cause lines in older age, and they strictly forbade them. Juliet was their prize, their secret weapon, growing into womanhood in relative secrecy and almost absolute privacy in order to be unleashed upon the world at precisely the right moment. Until she was out of their hands – and, if they had their way, she never would be, not entirely – she would do as they said and would be rewarded and punished accordingly.
The artist was one of her rewards. Juliet knew that she was beautiful. But her uncles didn’t know that she was growing shrewd, locked as she was inside the walls of the estate they’d allocated to her. She asked questions of the servants and bribed or charmed them to answer her despite their fears. She discovered how she could get what she wanted. In time, her intelligence might prove dangerous to her kin, and she might become a force to be reckoned with in quite a different way than her uncles had planned for.
But now, having just celebrated her fourteenth birthday, Juliet was getting a statue carved of her. Her uncles had been surprised. “Not a portrait?” they’d asked. “No,” she’d answered. “A statue. Of me in robes. Like a wise woman of the old days.” When they’d begun to complain about the cost of such an endeavor, she’d pouted, frowned, and wrinkled her brow. They had become alarmed, remembering the tantrums she’d had as a little girl and had quickly agreed. “Alright then,” they’d said. “As a birthday gift. How’s that?” She had let her face slacken, thanked them politely, and had walked away softly, demonstrating her perfect posture and the pleasing way her hair swayed back and forth lightly with every step.
Now the artist was taking some sketches of her. Juliet had been worried, at first, that her uncles had gotten confused or had tried to foist a portrait on her after all, but the artist had reassured her. “Ah, no, fair lady, I need the sketches in order to be able to work even when I am not in your presence. Have you not heard about artists and their muses? We do not always work at the most convenient of times.”
Juliet had spent her morning doing what she always did. She read poetry aloud in front of the mirror, listening to the resonance of her voice and practicing to make the tones more pleasing. She sat at the harp and played it for a while, eyes wide open, not getting lost in the music as she’d read in books that some people did. She couldn’t get lost in anything, not because the artist was there, but because she’d been raised to be aware of herself at every moment. She always thought of the way she held herself, moved, expressed her physicality in all its aspects.
The only time she could get lost was when she gazed in the mirror. Only when she saw that she was doing everything correctly and that there would be no lashes, no punishments, no chastising and shaming words from her masters – only then was she able to relax into herself.
It was when Juliet was gazing in the mirror and the weight came off her shoulders that the artist saw the human being in her. Before that, she had seemed like an automaton, a puppet being moved on strings. The artist began to sketch furiously, terrified of losing the one glimpse of this girl whose innocence was never allowed to flourish.
Next moment, Juliet heard the call from one of her masters and the weight of her uncles, their friends and their enemies seemed to sit back on her so that her posture became once more an act of will.
“…And then,” Debbie concluded, “he said he knew I didn’t aprove of his art and that I was ashamed of him. Since then, it’s been hard convincing him to see me at all.”
“But it sounds to me like you’re proud of him!” Victoria exclaimed. She’d just listened to Debbie describing her son’s rollercoaster-style life for the last ten minutes, and Debbie’s eyes had shown in the faint glow of the cellphone screen with a deep love and admiration of her scattered boy.
“I am. I think his sculptures are beautiful. He thinks I’m full of it, though,” Debbie’s eyes filled again with tears. “I don’t know how to convince him differently. But,” she collected herself. “I do the best I can, as often as I can. I hope he’ll understand about today.”
Victoria nodded somberly. The man in the corner of the elevator gave a sudden phlegm-based cough and both Victoria and Debbie jumped. They’d almost forgotten he was there; he’d been utterly silent while Debbie spoke. Now, Debbie looked up at him with a half smile.
“Rob, sit down, Hun,” She said. “They’ll get us out of here eventually, but there’s no use standing like a lump in the corner. It isn’t going to make anything go any faster.” Victoria smiled inwardly at the motherly tone that Debbie used with this stout, stuffy little man. Rob wore an impeccable suit, obviously expensive, in charcoal grey, and his hair, so obviously oiled, had a little spike standing up out of it, as if he’d begun to run his hand through it before remembering that he mustn’t ruin his exquisite hairstyle.
“No, thank you, Debra, I’d rather stand,” he answered. Despite his look of calm snootiness, his voice sounded strained. His hands were stuffed in his pockets, and Victoria could tell that he was playing with something in his right hand, twisting something around and around in the pocket.
“What have you got there – Rob, is it?” she asked.
“It’s Robert. And it’s nothing.”
“Seems like something,” Victoria smiled at him. She had a way of smiling which she’d used on her younger brother when they were young – she still remembered how to do it. It had made her brother tremble with fear and then submission, and it did the same thing to Mr. It’s-Robert. He looked at her strangely, not sure of what her smile meant, and broke eye contact. He took his hand out of his pocket and showed Victoria a smooth, round stone, the kind that’s abundant on riverbanks. It was, Victoria noted, the perfect skipping stone, because it was smooth and rather flat. But then Rob held it out and the light caught it, and she saw that the stone wasn’t grey, as she’d thought at first, but rather a deep green. Then she saw that through the green were thick veins of a very dark red.
“What is it?” she asked wonderingly. It was beautiful.
“It’s a bloodstone,” Rob answered. “It’s the birthstone for March, and it’s very rare to find such fine specimans as this one. My wife and I went to India for our second honeymoon, and she bought me this as a surprise. It’s actually a funny story – we’d been in the market, and this old man without a word of English tried to sell it to us…” Rob’s voice trailed off. Victoria stared at him in wonder. Here was a man who she would never guess would have gone to India. For a second honeymoon, no less! People only have second honeymoons if they’re married for a while, right? Her thoughts were in a whirl at the image of this stuffy, haughty little man galavanting around Indian markets.
Vicky! she chided herself. You mean thing. As if you know anything about people by looking at them… If the world worked quite so simply you’d never have gotten to where you are. So say something nice now, and close your mouth.
“It’s a beautiful stone,” she murmered.
“Yes,” Rob seemed about to smile but then rearranged his facial expression into a frown. “When will they come to get us the hell out of here?”
“Soon, Hun,” Debbie answered wearily, pulling a bottle of water out of her purse. It was really getting hot in the small space. “I hope. Want some water, folks?”
A curly-haired guy in his early thirties sat back on his swiveling stool and snapped the black latex gloves on his hands. He picked up his tools, dipped them into the tiny ink-cups, the size of a fingernail or so, and pressed down with his foot the switch that connected his tools to the electric current. He adjusted the current, making the needles buzz louder, dipped them into the ink again, and began his work.
The two girls sitting in the room with him were vastly different. One was experienced already, having undergone the process earlier that week. The other- well, the other was me: nervous, afraid, excited, ecstatic. I’d been waiting for this for years, known it was coming for years, and had waited patiently for years to prove to myself that I wouldn’t change my mind. Even through the height of my nerves, it felt right. I felt right. The buzzing in my ears, the slight shivers in my body, my legs positioned awkwardly and my arms propped on the armrest I was facing- it was all exactly as I’d imagined it.
“Take a deep breath,” the tattooist said. “I’ll touch for a second and then stop.”
He touched the needles onto my skin. It seared and felt like fire and then, just as abruptly as the pain had come, it was gone. I breathed. My body shook. Then he said “Ok, now let’s continue.”
At first I couldn’t control the shakes. Having a tattoo done on your spine makes your nerves, your physical nerves, tingle and jump. My arms felt like they were buzzing with currents, and my shoulders shook uncontrollably for a few minutes. But I mastered myself, my body, and the pain. It became bearable – even enjoyable in a perverted way, because it was pain that was marking my body with a beautiful design, one I’d chosen years ago.
But it did hurt. It felt like someone using an excruciatingly sharp marker on my skin – I could feel the tattooist coloring in the lines, the needles going back and forth on my skin. Again and again he wiped away ink and blood with a paper towel. Again and again I breathed in a sigh of relief when he loaded the needles with ink again and let my skin breath and relax for a few moments before beginning again.
When it was done, I had my design. I had my tattoo. I had my ink.