Blood may be the last substance of real symbolic power left to us. Nearly everything else has been trivialized, virtualized, demeaned, cleaned up, or turned into a marketing tool. But blood remains defiantly actual; dangerous and distinct, it is at once the basis of our reality and life’s supreme metaphor. Blood is naturally sanctified, and it can be sacramentalized–but it cannot be sanitized, for it contains within itself the certainty of its own decay. Blood means life and continuity, but it also means the opposite: death. Yet blood, no matter how potentially or actually tainted, is our most precious substance, as long as it remains within the body. Invisible, blood is the life force made manifest. But what is it when removed from the living body and used like ink? Do its powers still hold when it is brought into the light, or does corruption gain the upper hand?
These are only a few of the many questions raised by the work of Israeli artist Uri Katzenstein, who uses his own blood, among other substances, as an art material. Katzenstein has been in Durham since March 19 as the inaugural artist in the Evans Family Cultural Residency Program at the Freeman Center for Jewish Life at Duke University. Funded by the family of former Durham mayor E.J. Evans and his wife, Sara N. Evans, the residency program is designed to bring Israeli artists and intellectuals to Duke, and provides the wider community with some follow-up to the extraordinary introduction to Israeli art offered by the state’s North Carolina-Israel cultural exchange during 1996-97. Katzenstein’s work appeared in one of the exhibitions associated with that exchange, Ketav: Flesh and Word in Israeli Art, at the Ackland Art Museum.
In this group of works, Families, Katzenstein evokes some of the meanings and associations of blood. We speak of bloodlines, blood covenants, blood brothers, blood kin, blood sacrifice, the virgin’s blood on the bed sheet. We sweat blood; our hands are bloody, our fields soaked in blood, our history bloodstained. Our children are our lifeblood. Some of us are redeemed, washed in the blood of the Lamb. We sing to our lovers: “You are in my blood like holy wine, so bitter and so sweet.” All these images and 100 more arise in the mind of the viewer and shimmer miragelike off the calligraphic lines drawn with Katzenstein’s own blood.
Families consists of three parts: “Family of Brothers,” four sculptures with a video installation, at the Freeman Center for Jewish Life (through March 31); “Relatives,” an exhibition of performance videos and video prints at the Louise Jones Brown Gallery, Bryan Center (through April 2); and “Surnames,” a series of blood drawings, at the Duke University Museum of Art (through April 1). Katzenstein seems concerned with issues of torture, loss and survival associated with the Holocaust and the state of Israel, but he is perhaps more deeply interested in the way things are paired, working with paradoxes and binary oppositions, with virtual and actual, with past embedded in present, with ideas about the simultaneity of death and life. So perhaps it is only appropriate to have opposing responses to his work.
I find the sculptures and video of “Family of Brothers” minimally interesting–conceptually clever, but visually uncompelling. However, even a single still image of Katzenstein in his blood-drawing gear sends me into a dark swirl of nauseated horror. Katzenstein is not the first artist to use blood, but that knowledge does not mitigate my response. It seems sick, wrong, demented, in defiance of common sense and just plain frightening that a person would insert an intravenous needle in his arm–not to let in some needed substance, but to let the blood out! It’s worse than watching a junkie pull the blood up into the syringe after the dope hits the bloodstream. Here, the blood flows down a tube to the artist’s hand, and he uses it like a viscous ink in an awful example of risk-taking artistic brio, in a mockery of the meditative immediacy of Asian calligraphy. The bile rises in my throat, thinking of it.
And yet. And yet. The drawings are beautiful. And they have made me think all these thoughts.
“Surnames,” a performance art event by Uri Katzenstein, will take place at DUMA on Wednesday, March 29 at 5:30 p.m.