Using common natural materials – vines, thorns, grass leaves, petals – from the immediate environment of my neighborhood in the town near Tel Aviv where I live, and my own body, I carry out simple actions –  – playing with the physical and metaphoric possibilities of each material.

A catalogue of some of the works from the series, with an essay by Tami Katz-Frieman

Close to Home
Tami Katz-Frieman

“There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground…” Jelaluddin Rumi

She washes her face in a bowl of bougainvillea petals and weaves vines between her toes; she hems and stitches leaves, fashions a blanket from the shells of sunflower seeds, and pricks herself with the thorns of a cactus plant; she pokes her fingers into the flesh of rotten grapefruits, glues thorns to her neck and adheres petals to her body with her spit.

These are the kinds of eccentric actions that Lezli Rubin-Kunda performs in front of the camera. The materials she uses - plants, fruits, thorns, roots, weeds, leaves and flowers - are all specimens of nature from her immediate environment, from the backyards and fields that border on the neighborhood in which she lives. These actions do not take place in front of an audience; they are meant strictly for the camera’s lens. The activity itself is the source of the work, which gives rise to the secondary works - the video, and from that, the large format prints and the photographs that appear in this catalogue. The intimate, fleeting act that takes place in the yard or on the back porch is thus mediated twice, distanced from the actual moment in which it occurs, and translated into a more permanent language.

Into Rubin-Kunda’s contacts with the natural material of her surroundings one can read a contemporary version of one of the prominent directions of feminist art of the 70’s - a challenge to the hierarchy built into the equation woman=nature (and its derivative, man=culture). This discourse was based on the prepatriarchal and premonotheistic concept identifying woman with fertility (Mother-Earth, the great Earth Goddess) and with her role as gatherer and provider of basic material needs. Women artists within this tradition dealt with the materials of nature in a search for a personal and cultural “healing” and in an attempt to define and to clarify “female essentialism” - that which constitutes the uniquely and exclusively female position. This search was linked to Earth Art and to other expressions of ecologically-based art of the time. With the second wave of Feminism, this discourse lost its power and “female essentialism” was largely abandoned.

A prominent figure from this movement who comes to mind as an important influence on Rubin-Kunda’s work is the Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta. Mendieta searched for a rarified meeting of the physical and the spiritual (body-earth-spirit) and she hearkened back to the primal maternal sources of our culture. The similarities in their work are clear: like Rubin-Kunda, Mendieta utilized only two elements - her body (as a medium) and the earth’s materials. She also performed for the camera in what appeared to be private rituals (for instance, the imprinting of her body in mud) and what remained was the photographic documentation of the act.

A closer look, however, reveals an essential divergence in the two artists’ outlook and the generational gap that separates them. This difference lies in the very basis of the act of a “return to nature”. For Mendieta, as for many Earth artists of the 70’s, this return was steeped in the mysticism of a wild, untrammeled nature, sublime and unmediated. Rubin-Kunda does not take to the open spaces or the desert plains; she ventures, at most, as far as the backyard of her own house. The daily activity that she carries out arises directly out of the stuff of her everyday life, and from her tamed and imperfect surroundings. Her destination is not the Grand Canyon, but rather the untended spaces between the houses of Ramat Hasharon, the small town near Tel Aviv where she lives. At times it is prosaic and common materials such as sunflower seeds or bougainvillea petals that she uses. At other times, nature in her work is a kind of “still life” (Nature Morte) as in Fig Udders (cat. 10). And sometimes it is nature that has been domesticated or improved upon by technological advances, such as the store-bought poppies that adorn her thighs in Poppy Zone (cat. 14).These are bigger and more colorful than in their original form - a product of the wonders of modern agriculture. In these works, Rubin-Kunda’s eco-feminist stance leads in one sense to a modus-vivendi with the existing state of things, a comfortable coexistence with the world as it is.

Rubin-Kunda’s dispute here is not with the dismantled dichotomies of the 70’s, but with the still prevalent Western dichotomy between what is and what is not considered “natural”. Rubin-Kunda implies in these works that a spiritual encounter does not necessarily require a retreat to exotic or untouched habitats. It can occur even within the confines of the limited, more impoverished natural environment that we do inhabit. And yet there is, in these works, something that defies this yearning for a fusion with nature, and that reflects our inherent inability to achieve this perfect union. The futility of the painstaking work in Leaf Alterations (cat. 4) or the pointless task of licking her arm and then adhering petals in Petalled Arm (cat. 7) can be seen in this light. Here is no symbiosis with nature, but rather an acknowledgement of the impossibility of ever fulfilling that fantasy.

While Rubin-Kunda’s investigations can be read as “female”, they are not political in the classic sense of Feminism. Her involvement with the body does not require of her an identification with an essentialist ideology. What interests her more are the ambiguities of that paradigm, its multiple meanings, and the power with which this representation invests women in history and mythology.

More political undertones in her work arise rather from the specific locations in which she carries out her various “performances”; in each locale her activity assumes different significance. In a work done in Canada one can locate her complex attitude to her country of origin. In a performance piece titled Local Activity, which took place at the gallery of the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg - the city to which her grandmother emigrated from Eastern Europe - she collected materials and used them to carry out domestic tasks within the gallery space. (Treading on Crab Apples [cat. 6], and Milkweeds Falling [cat. 15]). In the Canadian context, what interested her was an exploration of the experience of rootlessness and the attempt to build a home in a foreign place.

Here in Israel it seems that things become even more complex. Her work can be read on one level in relation to her identity as an Israeli, and her ambivalent attitude towards the country to which she emigrated relatively late in her life. The work addresses the specificity of the earth here, and the concept of the Holy Land which carries with it such charged connotations in the conflictual politics of the Middle East. What emerges is the urge to create a home, to feel at home in this place, which is in some ways so “other”, so foreign. There is an impulse to connect to its rhythms, to become familiar with the simple nuances of its climate and vegetation, and to find points of contact at the most basic and visceral levels of belonging. Yet this connection brings with it a discomfort, a recoiling from the manner in which the issue of land is construed here. In Israel, when we talk of land, we are dealing with a national myth deeply implanted in the collective consciousness.

American Earth Art and British Land Art were utopian and metaphysical, and were also part of a movement to define spaces that would serve as alternatives to those of the museum. Here, any involvement with “land” touches on national myths: the very earth is appropriated by the figure of God (and his claim over nature), and held captive by history and the demands of state and nation. Thus “earth works” are subject to politicization, infused at their very root with questions of the justification of our national existence. The plants that appear in Rubin-Kunda’s work - the sabra (the local cactus), the poppies, the citrus fruits, or the khubeza (known locally as “Arab Bead”) - are all typical of Mediterranean vegetation. They recall the outings and the childhood memories of many Israelis’ upbringing. In her direct involvement with these plants, the artist offers an alternative to the masculine, heroic relations of ownership, conquest and domination.

Rubin-Kunda presents a new language, one that is both secular and ecological; a language that locates the sacred close to home, within the daily environment. There is a reverence for the land which is neither the abstract and exclusive honor granted to this environment in the Jewish religion, nor is it the glorification of the land often characterized by an insensitivity to and alienation from the land itself. It is, instead, a way of perceiving land free from politicization. Through direct body involvement and the simple and modestly-scaled activities that Rubin-Kunda carries out, she seeks to know the land, returning to it an unmediated contact and circumventing the manipulative political imagery with which it is imbued.

One can identify in Rubin-Kunda’s work two complimentary voices. One is the universal voice that addresses the fragility of our connection to this planet. The other is the local voice. In Israel, it is this voice that challenges prevalent mythologies - the cult of the land, the claims to “make the desert bloom”, and the ritualized manifestations of patriotism. The cactus, for example, is usually associated with dry and desert terrain; in its local context, as a sabra it becomes a platitudinous image battered around between competing identities. With its prickly exterior and sweet fruit, it was adopted as the symbol of native-born Israelis, while Palestinians drew symbolic significance from the hardiness of its roots (for example, in the well-known paintings of the potted sabra by the Arab-Israeli artist Abu-Shakra.) In Finger Pricks (cat. 17,18) Rubin-Kunda pricks her finger with the cactus thorns, and creates a new ironic image - part halo, part crown of thorns. Her cactus thorns no longer cover any hidden sweetness: they are truly poking and puncturing the flesh even as they provide it with a martyr’s halo. Similarly, her treatment of the poppy is layered. In Poppy Zone (cat. 14), poppies are seen climbing up the artist’s thighs. On a universal level, this becomes an erotic image of seductive challenge. On a local level, where the poppy, a “national flower”, is associated with the campaign of the Society for the Preservation of Nature against the picking of wild flowers, one can read an image of gathering, preserving and tending.

But perhaps, in relating to these works, interpretation becomes unnecessary. There is, in the simplicity of the images, their accuracy and aesthetic, something that communicates without the need for verbal explication. It is like the touch of a cool wind on the skin. In the movie American Beauty, there is a beautiful moment in which the boy shows his girlfriend a video movie he took of a plastic bag circling in slow motion in the wind. It is this marginal poetic moment, insignificant to the main drama of the film, that remains etched in my mind. So too in the work of Rubin-Kunda, what strikes me, what remains in the final analysis, is the poetics of the everyday, the song of praise to the backyards, the paths and empty lots, the daisies and the bougainvillea; the intimate, sympathetic touch with which she handles the simple natural materials of this burning place.