Jewish Surrealism
Roee Rosen, Hilarious

Jewish Surrealism

BY Karol Sienkiewicz

He uses humour as a tool with which to probe the resilience of social taboos. Roee Rosen in Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw till 3 July

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I admit I can be naïve at times. My “ah-hah!” moments come with a time-delay fuse. You can imagine my indignation when I read in Gazeta Wyborcza [Polish daily – ed.] that the construction of the Museum of Modern Art at Parade Square was being canceled, and that the shopkeepers were coming back with a new sheet-metal market. It took me a moment to connect that fact with the date of its publication: 1 April. I was also taken for a ride the first time I saw the paintings of Justine Frank, a Jewish artist associated with the French surrealists, whose pieces combined Jewish, erotic, and scatological themes. Why had I never heard of her before? How could art history have overlooked such an oddity? Was insubordination of this type even possible in the 1920s? Even the provocative charge of Salvador Dali’s art pales in comparison to that found in the work of Justine Frank, which goes far beyond grilled-cheese clocks and thinly-veiled sexual innuendos. It’s hard core erotica, complete with menorahs, peyot, and Hebrew letters, although the style is admittedly old-fashioned. It’s a forgotten chapter in the story of porn, one that finds no continuation in contemporary adult productions (even in the first gay pornographic film to feature a completely Jewish cast, Men of Israel).

Justine Frank, Homage to Goya, 1927I first saw Justine Frank’s work not on April Fool’s Day, but at an exhibition titled “The Raft of Medusa”, held a few years back at Warsaw’s Królikarnia. Frank was featured next to such artists as Sigarit Landau and Hila Lula Lin, as their rediscovered predecessor. She was a friend of the surrealists and had an affair with Bataille, after which she decided to leave for Palestine. There she found the next love of her life, this time a woman. It wasn’t until I was on my way out that I realized that Frank was a fictional character created by the contemporary Israeli artist Roee Rosen, who conceived her biography and identity, and was responsible for her entire oeuvre. An exhibition running since mid-April now presents his best-known pieces and projects at the Centre for Contemporary Art in Warsaw – this time under his real name.

How to become Eva Braun

Roughly half of the pieces on display at the Ujazdowski Castle are ones ascribed to Justine Frank. They are now presented as what they are, an artistic provocation and fabricated identity. The fictional story is supported with evidence such as Frank’s private photographs and a documentary film titled Two Women and a Man (2005), devoted to the ambiguous relationship between the artist, her fascinating work, the woman studying her art (another fictional character), and Roee Rosen himself. The exhibition makes apparent the numerous similarities between Frank’s paintings and Rosen’s own work, such as the series Martyr’s Paintings (1991–1994), on display in Warsaw.

Roee Rosen, Live and Die as Eva BraunWhy assume the identity of another? Why invent an entire person instead of simply signing the pieces with your own name? The mechanism behind sockpuppets, multiple identities used in online communities, could be one explanation. It’s easier to be dirty under an assumed name, especially when what you want to be is a liberated, somewhat crazy, bisexual woman, the perfect fulfillment of male fantasies. Rosen forges the missing link. If there never was a person like Justine Frank, then she simply needs to be invented. Even if we weren’t aware that something was missing, we now know exactly what we were missing out on.

In another project, Rosen invites exhibition visitors to take part in a similar experiment. Following his instructions, we are encouraged to assume the identity of Eva Braun, Hitler’s famous lover, “experience” her death in a Berlin bunker, and find out what became of her in the afterlife. The text is accompanied by black and white, perverse, contour drawings depicting the internal nature of the character we are to become. Titled Live and Die as Eva Braun, the installation was also featured at the controversial “Mirroring Evil” exhibition hosted by the Jewish Museum in New York. When it was first shown at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, the show sparked protests from right-wing groups. (You might find it hard to believe that here in Poland, even the act of peeling potatoes in an art gallery has been known to provoke controversy.) As far at the art itself goes, it’s both a bit terrible and a bit funny.

Funny ha-ha

In one of Woody Allen’s best movies, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Allen’s character is seen ridiculing comedy film director Lester (Alan Alda), who responds with a few truisms on humour: “When it bends, it’s funny. When it breaks, it’s not funny”, “Comedy is tragedy plus time.” Rosen appears to be trying his luck with both approaches. He doesn’t use humour as a defense mechanism behind which to hide his awkwardness, but rather as a tool with which to probe the resilience of social taboos. Are Israelis ready to look at the Holocaust from the perspective of a lascivious lover who ends up in hell? Is it too soon to start telling jokes about the World Trade Center attacks?

Roee Rosen, Hilarious

In the film Hilarious, one of Rosen’s latest works, an actress delivers a stand-up comedy bit to an Israeli audience, eliciting laughter that comes across as somewhat forced. The actress ratchets up the tension by making weird and inappropriate gestures. She finishes with a joke about 9/11: Three people are waiting for certain death in one of the flaming towers when a golden fish appears and promises to grant their wishes. The first, a Jewish doctor, wishes to have gefilte fish one last time. The second, a rich collector, wishes to see his mansion before he dies. The third, a pregnant Swedish woman, refuses to wish for anything. “I’m going to die and my child will never see the world. I don’t want anything.” Is this still a joke? The comedian concludes: “We’re all going to die!” adding that it’s “both funny and true.” She ends the show with a personal revelation: “I have cancer.” Is it still funny? What if we were to imagine the joke taking place aboard a Tu–154M, aircraft number 101?

We’re all going to die

The “hilarious” conclusion of Hilarious could serve as a motto for the entire exhibition. After all, its title is “The Dynamic Dead Roee Rosen”. The artist also fantasizes about his own funeral. Rosen has been painting pairs of circular canvases every other year, since 2006, portraying his own funeral from the perspective of the cadaver. Each installment features a different cast of characters (the 2010 painting even contains a reference to the Warsaw exhibition). This reminds me of a Jewish joke: “Mendel died. Are you going to his funeral? — Why should I? Is he going to come to mine?”

In his film The Confessions of Roee Rosen (2008), the artist predicts his own death and makes a reckoning of his career. His confession is delivered by three women, whom he has possessed: illegal immigrants from Bulgaria, India, and Ghana. The actresses don’t understand what it is they’re saying — they’re just sounding out the words. “The Funeral Paintings” leave us unsure if the artist dies with a mischievous grin. The idea of his death has possessed him during his own lifetime. Typical Jewish surrealism. When in doubt, assume it’s about the money.

Roee Rosen, “The Dynamic Dead Roee Rosen”, Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw. Runs till 3 July, 2011

translated by Arthur Barys

Tekst dostępny na licencji Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 3.0 PL.