Complex issues knitted into the fabric of art

by David Labi

Special To The Japan Times

It’s difficult to say something new about the Holocaust in face of an immense body of work produced over seven decades. Consequently more outlandish forms of expression are often required to inspire a fresh reaction.

Israeli artist Gil Yefman works with text, textures and textiles, weaving works that present a colorful version of sexuality and human identity. In the apt prisonlike setting of The Container (a shipping container inside a Daikanyama hair salon), the topic of an Auschwitz sex slave is treated with originality and creeping power for the exhibition “H.” The title is a play on the Japanese “ecchi” — a slang term to describe sexual fantasy, roughly translated as “dirty” or “naughty.”

The centerpiece is a knitted sculpture of a dismembered person manacled on a bed. Viewers are invited to touch — and the fact it is knitted from brightly colored fabric gives it a tactile, friendly appearance, arousing conflicted reactions. It seems to be mostly a woman, but an erect phallus protrudes from its head questioning its gender and ejaculating squishy knitted drops of blood. A vaginalike orifice meanwhile gapes like a flower inviting a willing hand. The body is studded with watchful eyes, organs roll about, intestines dangle. Even the chains binding its legs, which appear worn down to cartoonlike bones, seem cuddly and cute.

One of Yefman’s inspirations is the novel “House of Dolls” by Ka-Tzetnik 135633, an Auschwitz survivor who wrote under his prisoner name. The book deals with “Joy Divisions,” — groups of female prisoners forced into sex slavery. The book has been criticized for blurring fact and fiction, but such ambiguity translates well into an art installation where an immersive experience brings history experientially to life. On a personal, emotive level, history is subjective; facts blend with memory and impression.

Yefman spent years researching his topic, and his dedication shows in the work’s richness. An Auschwitz prisoner card sits under glass. Hanging on the wall is a haunting portrait of Hitler’s mother, contrasting with the subhuman monstrosity that the prisoner is now. A TV shows a placid pastoral scene, and a soundtrack of tweeting birds communicates nature’s beauty that lives on stubbornly in peace. The footage is in fact the view of the SS residence outside Ravensbrück concentration camp. A CCTV camera points at viewers, echoing peep holes in the doors through which SS officers would monitor the goings on inside. The camera also brings new technology into juxtaposition with traditional craftwork — while exacerbating the viewer’s role as both voyeur and exhibitionist.

Visitors to opening night would have been lucky enough to view a performance by Yefman. He lay under the bed of the centerpiece, with his head inside that of his knitted creation — a detachment of head and body, evoking a rape victim’s emotional reaction to the abuse. It was shocking to pick up the distended parts of the victim, fighting back childlike enjoyment, while witnessing silent communication from the artist’s eyes peering out through holes in the fabric.

Yefman lived for two years as a woman and has spoken about the prison that expectations of each gender has trapped us in. His self-objectification of stepping into the piece forced viewers to interact with his exploration.

Duality in various forms runs through “H.” The person on the bed is both man and woman. It’s sexual, like an adult’s toy, and sexless like a child’s. The traumatic subject matter does battle with the playfulness of the form. But perhaps the most unsettling conflict is how the viewer becomes both torturer and victim — opening a new perspective on a horrendous chapter of history that is not easily shaken off.

“H” at The Container runs till Oct. 28; open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. (Sat. Sun. and holidays 10 a.m.-8 p.m.) Free admission. Closed Tue. the-container.com