A Reluctant Bricolage of the Sublime and the Popular: Eliyahu Fatal’s “Broken Cisterns”




Feature and banner image from Broken Cisterns, courtesy of American Jewish University.

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HIGH ON A HILLTOP in the Santa Susana savannahs of Southern California sits a large structure composed of nested concrete cylinders, the House of the Book. In 1954, Shlomo Bardin — founder of the Brandeis-Bardin Institute — commissioned architect Sidney Eisenshtat to erect the neo-futurist edifice, setting off a nearly 20-year project of revolutionizing Jewish education with a dual-function synagogue and preparatory college in Simi Valley. To many, certainly to Bardin, the lush and golden landscape is reminiscent of the hills surrounding Jerusalem, a similarity that imbues his Institute with a biblical gravitas. The gray House, bathed in sunlight, sprawls crudely against this landscape, its futuristic whorls making it a popular filming location for campy sci-fi.

But the House is also a monument — one might say, a eulogy — to Bardin’s experiment in Jewish education and community. During his years at the Institute, he developed an influential method of education that combined American recreational pedagogy with the Danish folk high schools he admired (the Danes didn’t, after all, give in to Hitler) and the cooperative ideology of Labor Zionism. This self-described “social laboratory” for Jewish education hosted myriad summer camps, “Aliyah” retreats for college students, and learning centers for adults. An experiment that established Jews as modern American subjects and citizens of the world, the Brandeis-Bardin Institute became a paradoxical kibbutz of the diaspora. A 1972 Time article described Bardin as a “burly, white haired, Ben-Gurion-like man”; another evoked the House as a Masada-like fortress. And yet the House itself never became the Judaic academy that Bardin envisioned, remaining, for the most part, empty.

Such is the charged context within which Eliyahu Fatal presented his site-specific work היהיה (Hayihyeh?), a satellite installation of the artist’s solo exhibition Broken Cisterns, which was curated by Leah Abir and Rotem Rozental and housed at the American Jewish University’s Platt and Borstein Galleries from August 26 to November 12, 2018. The artist arranged a series of vertically stacked plastic beads in a grid that cut across the House’s internal and external terrain. With coy indifference to the stark concrete walls, the points marked by the beads on the hilltop’s uneven grass and cement foundation sketched out the five letters of the unusual and esoteric Hebrew word, hayihyeh.

Fatal’s movement from Jerusalem to Los Angeles retraces Bardin’s own journey, from Haifa, where he taught at the Technical Institute, to Southern California, where he settled and launched his creative experiment. Their layered routes seem confusing at first. On the one hand, they reverse the transit that typically, in Zionist mythology, directs Jewish movement toward the land of Israel. On the other hand, their movement from East to West recapitulates Zionism’s Eurocentric posture. So, does this site in the Simi hills represent Zionism’s negation or its fruits, its affirmation or its excess? While the House certainly takes Jerusalem as its point of reference, it is most publicly recognizable as the Command Center in the children’s TV series Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, the citadel from which “five teenagers with attitude” defended planet Earth against an alien sorceress. The desert frontier that links the site with contemporary Israel thus becomes entangled with the juvenile bravado of sci-fi adventure, making the House a reluctant bricolage of the sublime and the popular.

Broken Cisterns also marks the artist’s return to his Iraqi-Jewish family’s Arabic surname, Fatal. Its Hebraicization in Israel had shifted the pronunciation to Petel (raspberry), a fruit indigenous to Ashkenazi Europe. But if the exhibition signals a return, it also enacts an arrival. The artist’s first solo show after a nine-year fast and his first ever in the United States, it dissolves Eli Petel’s notoriety as a Mizrahi wunderkind in favor of an aesthetic playfulness that is anonymous, intimate, and vulnerable.

When I walked through the House of the Book last November, I passed through the almost undetectable word, hayihyeh, inscribed on the landscape in a minefield of beads. Attached to rocks on the inside and books on the outside, the plastic beads taunted the concrete ambition of the edifice, in an irreverent play of the sacred, the natural, and the mundane. Yet just as the word’s subtle tracery produced an impish minefield, the viewer toeing detonation, it also made legible a blueprint of creation. The Kabbalistic and Hasidic traditions of Torah teach that the world was created via this word’s very letters, yud and hei, revealing and concealing according to the four-letter name of God — Havaya, or “Being.” To walk through Fatal’s word was to walk through a visible articulation of existence itself.

But Fatal’s word also transforms this phonologic inventory of creation. He includes at the beginning an additional letter, hei — which, by an operation of Hebrew grammar, poses a question: could it be? The heretical question signals at once the allure of utopian fantasy and the bemusement of skeptical doubt, a complicated stance given the House’s grandiose historical ambitions. The additional letter also makes the word into a palindrome, creating a cheeky dismissal of any unidirectional logic or linear causality.

This is not Fatal’s first installation to play with this mystical language: a 2007 work composed of a beaded curtain also spelled out the Hebrew word. The artist has remarked that, when he first encountered the strange word, he could not read it: “Imagine that you couldn’t recognize your own mother, it felt like that — being unable to read something in my mother’s tongue.” The hanging curtain — simple, folksy, “Oriental” — functioned as a gate, its loose beads beckoning entry at the same time as the godly word resisted penetration. It is at this threshold of misunderstanding and curiosity that the artist locates the sacred.

Fatal’s היהיה (Hayihyeh?) works with similar beads, deconstructing and scattering them into a vague and dispersed presence. No longer marking a portal, the beads delicately dot the landscape in a sacred game with the magisterial House. To stand inside the question, detectable only as scattered signs, was to experience a gentle confrontation. But it was not a provocation, and the work was not argumentative. The House, rather, was enraptured in its sacred movement.

Fatal’s grid of beads toyed with the dream and failure of creation, the comic hubris and tragic collapse implied by world-making. In 1969, Israeli architect Zvi Hecker built a brutalist synagogue composed of concrete hexagons on the Israeli army’s BAHAD 1 training site in the Negev Desert. That synagogue was constructed on top of a water cistern, and the circular concrete of the House of the Book also recalls a massive stone cistern. The beaded grid of letters cut across and through the House’s stern mastery, a circuitous and playful critique of the sabra brutalism ubiquitous in Israeli community construction. For all its aspirations to functional unity, equality, and strength, the House could not contain the constellation of letters and the creative force they unfolded, which spilled out onto the surrounding grass. Fatal’s question thus tempered our dreams of communal world-making by exposing the limitations of structures designed to contain them. As in the rebuke delivered by the prophet Yirmiyahu, the artist’s installation hints at a twofold wrong: “They have forsaken Me, the spring of living waters, to hew for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns that do not hold water.”

Walking into the exhibition space at the Platt Gallery in Bel Air, I was struck by an uncanny pair of freestanding, upright jeans, which made up an artwork entitled Ma Lemala Ma Lemata (What is Above, What is Down Below). Projected down below, inside the denim, was a video and sound work of the artist jogging through Tel Aviv at night as he recited the taryag mitzvot (613 commandments), a traditional, Iraqi-Jewish recitation for a memorial ceremony. The strenuous ritual, conducted in the artist’s Arabic-accented Hebrew, is captured through disorienting low- and high-angle shots, as the artist pushes through the city darkness. He haunts an Israel that conceals its Arabness, just as he is haunted by it. The pair of jeans, an objet trouvé of sorts, probes the very possibility of Mizrahi art outside of its reduction to social struggle.

Behind the jeans were positioned 18 large-scale paintings, fragments of a white airplane striped in pink and purple. The worn retro palette alludes to the low-cost, Eastern European airline Wizz Air, implicating contemporary transport to and from Ashkenazi Europe in the artist’s play with movement. Fatal literally transported these paintings of an airplane on an airplane, scrolls within a vessel. The House of the Book, in design and name, invokes the Israel Museum’s Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem, built in 1965 to house the Qumran scrolls. Fatal’s worn fragments in the Bel Air gallery thus complete a kind of geographic palindrome, presenting a disorienting drama of disintegration, movement, and scale.

The rest of the gallery’s walls featured a series of colorful drawings, Untitled (Runoffs), that trace intersecting, circular lines of calligraphy, with containers between them within which ink seems to spill, collect, and overflow. This abstract, conceptual work ironically suggests an aerial perspective on the House of the Book, evoking a series of cylindrical structures that fail to contain their own excess. This perspective would have made Fatal’s question-word at the House legible, flattening it into a two-dimensional text the viewer reads (as opposed to walking through). The scribal lines privilege the visible inscription of ink on a page, which the Talmud describes as “black fire upon white fire.” The abstract shapes and colors suggest the artist’s restless attempt to inhabit a formal logic or language, elemental and even mystical. The paint leaks, but it also cradles — like water in a cistern — the shaded gray zones within.

Eli Petel’s arrival in Los Angeles is a return in more ways than one. Although his name has been Hebraicized in Israeli society, it is in fact recorded in his Israeli passport as Eliyahu Fatal. Paradoxically, the very mark that permits his movement beyond his state’s borders also registers his Arabness. His embrace of this name in his first American exhibition appeared less a withdrawal from Israel and its art world than a play across and between boundaries, at once a confrontation and an evasion. With striking interplays of painting, sculpture, and text, Fatal implicated unsuspecting viewers at the American Jewish University in a game of questions, in which efforts to control, order, and master were plagued by unrelenting flows and movements. The concrete fails, the ink drips, the plane is torn, and the Jewish-Arab voice spills out.

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Ben Ratskoff is a Los Angeles–based writer and scholar. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of the Jewish quarterly Protocols.


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