Artist Tamy Ben-Tor performs some of her weird, unsettling characters live this weekend as her latest show closes
The artist Tamy Ben-Tor, whose new show of performance work is currently up at Zach Feuer gallery in Chelsea, has been compared to Sarah Silverman, Tracey Ullman, Cindy Sherman, and George Orwell. Which is another way of saying there’s nobody quite like her.
An Israeli native who moved to New York in 2004, Ben-Tor, 36, is best known for videos in which she dons bad wigs, fake facial hair, and shabby costumes to embody a range of deeply flawed characters. In Women Talk About Hitler, a mockumentary that appeared in a 2005 exhibition at Zach Feuer, she portrayed a handful of characters with sympathetic takes on the Fuhrer. As part of that show, she also performed live as a Holocaust-denying gospel singer and a dry Swedish academic who specializes in xenophobia.
The total commitment she brings to these absurd personality types makes the videos both hilarious and a bit unsettling, even scary. In person, however, Ben-Tor is almost disarmingly friendly, open-faced, and laid back. (She is also surprisingly tall.) She came to acting, while in college, almost accidentally, she said, after discovering she had a gift for mimicry.
“We were given these assignments in which the teacher said, ‘You can paint it, sculpt it, or act it out,’” she said when we met at her Williamsburg apartment. “And I realized I could just embody these personalities. My skill was imitation, like a parrot.”
This skill is on ample display in Ben-Tor's new exhibition. In the video Lunch Special, she plays a bigoted and clearly deranged Arab talk-show host who speaks in what sounds (to the untrained ear) like Arabic, but is in fact mostly gibberish. Among other examples of intolerance, the host blames the creation of Photoshop on the Jewish people. “Only the Jewish mind could come up with this way of manipulating our perception of the truth,” he declares.
Another video, titled “Time and Space,” features a deliciously self-serious contemporary artist (pictured above) in the midst of explaining her work. “I’m fascinated by the notion of boredom, but I’m very bored by the notion of fascination,” she says in a wooden, emotionless monotone. Despite her fatuous ideas, the fictional artist claims to have received many grants, one of which sent her to Europe to investigate “couches as places of leisure and relaxation.”
Ken Johnson, in his favorable review of the show for the New York Times, noted that Ben-Tor’s work targets the sorts of academic institutions that support similarly ridiculous research. But while that may be part of her intent, she is also railing against the sort of ideological inflexibility that prevents people (artists, academics, television hosts) from growing and opening their minds. For her, this inflexibility is particularly prevalent in the art world.
“Art should be an intellectual search judged over the course of a lifetime,” she said. “But the art market is consumerist, reductive, and deadline-driven, which can inhibit an artist’s development.”
Ben-Tor grew up in Jerusalem, and served in the Israeli Defense Forces before enrolling in the Jerusalem art institution The School for Visual Theater, which she describes as a “paradise.”
“It was an incubator for creative people with no particular career ambition,” she said, adding that she focused on performance and puppetry. “I had this great acting teacher who once told our class, ‘You have too much ambition! It’s disgusting! I can’t even look at you!’”
The transition to Columbia University, where she enrolled as an M.F.A. student in 2004, came as a shock. “It was a battlefield,” she said. “It all seemed fake and I couldn’t relate to anything.”
Then again, there were some upsides to her move to New York. She met her husband, Miki Carmi, a painter, through the program. And working in an environment that you dislike has its benefits. “You have to think: ‘What am I doing? What do I care about?’” she said. “It forces you to form yourself.”
In addition to her gift for mimicry, Ben-Tor gravitated toward acting because she had trouble working with inert objects. “I’m amazed by great sculptors and painters who can bring dead materials to life, which I was never able to do,” she said. “The body is also like a dead thing, but not as dead as clay, or paint.”
The most unsettling aspects of Ben-Tor’s videos stem from watching her grapple with the spiritual deadness in others. They also come from witnessing characters stuck in a hardened idea of themselves and the world, from which they are unlikely to ever break free.
Having become a critically and commercially successful artist while still working on her M.F.A. at Columbia (she graduated in 2006), Ben-Tor is naturally wary of the pitfalls of such rapid ascendance. She takes care to avoid developing similarly narcissistic or unbending opinions about herself or her work, lest either become calcified and risk a loss of vibrancy or meaning. It’s partly for this reason that she has tried to distance herself from the art world, which tends to identify her strictly with the talking-head video pieces, despite the fact that she’s been making more surrealistic, narrative-driven videos for several years. These include a 2009 video called Polam, a collaboration with her husband that appeared in the 2010 show at both Zach Feuer and Stux Gallery called Disembodied Archetypes.
“The art world has a tendency to reduce people to a certain category,” she said. As an example, she cited Cindy Sherman’s recent retrospective. “You can see how quickly she was accepted into the institution. A gap exists between her student work and the film stills. She was searching, but then she found the film stills and bam! After that she was producing to be accepted.”
Ben-Tor considers herself lucky to have been embraced so early in her career. “It allowed me to become disillusioned immediately,” she said. For a popular young artist she lives a relatively quiet life, rarely venturing into the after-party circuit. She commutes to her studio in Greenpoint every day, where she writes, edits, and films her performances and tests out new characters by performing them in front of a mirror.
She takes comfort in the fact that she still feels uncomfortable performing in front of an audience, which she will do at 4 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Zach Feuer gallery.
“I’m not a big dancer or acrobat type of person, so it’s always been kind of an embarrassment for me perform,” she said. “But there’s a challenge there that I think is interesting.”
'Tamy Ben-Tor: New Performance Work 2012' is on view at Zach Feuer Gallery, and closes Apr. 28; Ben-Tor will be performing live at the gallery Apr. 27 and Apr. 28 at 4 p.m.