In the storefront window of Transformer, a one-room gallery at 14th and P streets, N.W., nine plaster-filled latex gloves stand. One pair of disembodied hands holds a small black ball, a single hand is perched on a funnel, another has a watercolor paintbrush protruding from a gloved finger. Some of these gloves are medical green; one, yellow; another is bright blood red. These are all artworks from a small but provocative show by Israel-born, Brooklyn-based multimedia artist Tamar Ettun. Running through Oct. 25, My Hands are the Shape of My Height utilizes plaster casts of female body parts – those hands; a flexed foot, ankle and shin; even a torso – to wrestle with ideas of destruction and repair, of fragments torn from a whole, and of found objects given new meanings and uses in Ettun’s able hands.
One of four children raised in an Orthodox home, Ettun learned to love art from her grandmother, a painter, although on the more traditional side of the contemporary art continuum. A graduate of the renowned Bezalel Academy in Jerusalem, Ettun studied at New York’s Cooper Union before earning her MFA from Yale in 2010, where she was the recipient of the Alice English Kimball Fellowship. She has found artistic stimulation within the large and varied New York art world, hinting that the art world at home is both much smaller and offers less opportunity to experiment outside the box and show work.
Beyond sculpting with figurative plaster casts and found objects, Ettun also focuses on serious conceptual projects, which she documents on video and in live performance. For “Standing Prayer,” each Saturday during a year while she was still in Israel, she walked from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, documenting her journeys and the road kill and scrap metal from car accidents she found along the way. She also climbed light and electricity towers rigging herself with ropes to hang horizontally in midair. There she swayed, bowed and shuckled like a yeshiva boy – replicating the traditional choreography of prayer commonly seen among Orthodox Jewish men. Interestingly, as a sculptor, Ettun has also studied dance, taking classes in Jerusalem and in Tel Aviv, where she gleaned much about freedom and impetus from within at classes in the popular gaga movement language, developed by Batsheva Dance Company’s artistic director and choreographer Ohad Naharin.
At Transformer, “It’s Not a Question of Anxiety,” another video project shot this year in Brooklyn and the Lower East Side of New York, underscores personal rituals because Ettun said she learned that the repetition of rituals can be the result of personal trauma.
The vivid imagery of the video includes a woman’s mouth filled with a sardine can that is pried opened; a pair of women who lace their shoes with strands of each other’s hair – still on their heads – and a hand squeezing the pulp out of a fresh, whole orange. Throughout the video an excerpt from “Yedid Nefesh,” the Friday evening Sabbath song, accompanies the often odd and discomfiting vignettes – another features a man standing on his head, his face hidden by a potted plant, while water-filled soda bottles are attached to his shins and drip down his legs. The religious undertone of the singing blurs the line between sacred and mundane in this excavation of repetitive habits and their psychological ramifications. That is exactly Ettun’s point.
It’s hard not to attach political resonances to works of art by an Israeli artist working seriously in such contemporary thematic material. Ettun acknowledged the recent war and did not dismiss the possibility, when asked whether the latex gloved-cast hands might remind some that such gloves are used in traumatic incidents to treat the war wounded and are worn by Zaka, the volunteer clean-up crews that sweep Israeli streets for body tissues and blood after a terrorist bombing. Though Ettun pointed out that her art, like all art featuring the human figure – or in her case parts of the human figure – is as much about the formal technique and the artistic vision as it is about the politics. There’s also a staunch feminist streak in the pieces: her models are primarily female. As well, the female form isn’t idealized or burnished to perfection; instead, her casts from life are much more focused on mediating reality than in depicting the perfection of the female human figure.
Ettun suggested a Jewish undercurrent infiltrates some of her pieces, particularly the videos, and that she has found her voice in her ongoing connection to her Jewish roots – her grandfather was a rabbi, her father studied in the local yeshiva – in New York. Another way this one-time Orthodox high-schooler stays connected to her Judaism is by tutoring Hebrew school and bar and bat mitzvah students.
On Oct. 11, Ettun returns to the District for an outdoor performance-oriented work that will feature her supersized, handcrafted balloons, inflated with the help of a leaf blower. Interested participants will meet at Transformer, the tiny storefront gallery a few doors down from the Whole Foods on P Street, N.W. Following an artist’s talk, guests will walk over to a local park where Ettun will launch her balloon. Artistically she suggests that it’s an exercise in “temporality and permanence” and, with participation from onlookers who can help launch the supersized latex creation, “It’s also a lot of fun.”
My Hands are the Shape of My Height, by Tamar Ettun is being exhibited at Transformer in the District. Hours: Wednesday-Saturday, noon – 6 p.m. and by appointment. Call 202-483-1102 or visit www.transformerdc.org.