In his writings, paintings and films, Roee Rosen has staged political strife in the bedroom, turned Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis into a children’s film, produced scholarly writings about a fictional surrealist pornographer and told the story of Eva Braun, Adolf Hitler’s mistress, via a distressingly droll virtual-reality experience. Using humour and alter egos to deflate and provoke, Rosen, who is based in Tel Aviv, is fiercely sceptical about the political instrumentalization of historical trauma. His works, as he writes here, vindicate an understanding of humour as political opposition. On the eve of his retrospectives in Paris, at Centre Pompidou and Jeu de Paume, Rosen explores the anxiety of influence and its imbrication with artistic invention and emancipation.
Considering my influences leads me to experience a radical sense of reversal. An ‘influence’ refers to the fixed sources that inspire an artist, but my works often summon influences that are selected and then become a part of the work. This is because, in my books and films, the identity of the maker is often malleable, fictive or – in a work such as The Confessions of Roee Rosen (2008) – outsourced to other people who are asked to become ‘Roee Rosen’.
This form of reversal is clearest with Justine Frank, my first fictive persona. She was a Belgian-Jewish surrealist, pornographer and author of the book Sweet Sweat (1931). Moulded, in a way, as my ultimate influence, as the grandmother I should have had, she stands intently at the junction of many roads that have affected me, both by will and imposition: Jewish theology and mysticism, the history of Christian anti-Semitism, the European avant-garde, libertinism, feminism and Zionism. These influences appear in several layers, both in her oeuvre and in the scholarly work on her, all of which is invented. But she also represents an agonistic understanding of influence: the past as staged in the present and actively contested, politically and culturally.
In the case of Frank, these influences can be seen as referring back to my biographical self. In the case of my other fictive persona, the Moscow-born poet and artist Maxim Komar-Myshkin, the setting is the incredibly complex context of Russian culture, to which I don’t belong. The work required something close to a re-invention of influence, while also broadening this to encompass collective notions of authorship and identity. Komar-Myshkin led a fictive collective of ex-Soviet artists, The Buried Alive Group, and authored a manifesto for them. The Buried Alive Group’s ideology is avant-garde in reverse, looking backwards not forwards, and aspiring to isolation. They were deeply informed by clandestine groups during the communist era: the absurdist OBERIU collective and Daniil Kharms, who perished under Joseph Stalin, as well as the unofficial artists of the 1960s and ’70s who operated within secretive, autarchic art scenes. Ilya Kabakov and Viktor Pivovarov’s invented image-word hybrids in the form of albums directly influenced Komar-Myshkin’s Vladimir’s Night (2011–14), in which Vladimir Putin is tortured and assassinated by animated objects.
The emancipatory dimension of inventing one’s influences encompasses self-doubling and dissimulation, but also self-parody: through these lineages, I pretend or profess to tell something that has a documentary status, but the scholarly mode and one’s own authority become parodic as they are rehearsed. The self-parodic dimension is one of the aspects of the comic mode that has long been crucial for me. Only later, when I intellectualized this transgressive usage of humour, could I connect it to a lineage including Sigmund Freud’s Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1905), André Breton’s Anthology of Black Humour (1940) or Gilles Deleuze’s beautiful book Masochism: Coldness and Cruelty (1967), in which humour and irony are discussed in the context of the Marquis de Sade and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch.
But the first thing that comes to mind when considering my influences is a joke my father made when I was around nine years old. This was in the early 1970s and, at the time, there were terrorist scares in Israel. At my school, they built a big, intimidating fence, and the parents had to take turns guarding the entrance. During his shift, my father said: ‘It’s good that the entrance to the school is in the middle of an alley: if the terrorists come on one side, I can escape on the other.’ I remember feeling exhilaration and pride upon hearing this joke: it conveyed the authenticity of fear in a culture where the imaginary Israeli identity was all about heroics and virility – something that I felt, as a child, very much alienated by. I could never identify with that national fantasy and the joke channelled another imaginary identity that was closer to my heart: that of the diasporic Jew negated by Zionism; a Jew that was effeminate and ‘unheroic’ in that pervasive masculine sense.
My father has a bifurcated persona: a Holocaust survivor, he came to Israel and supposedly became a bona fide Israeli, an officer in the army and so on. This made the power of the improper joke so memorable in this moment. I recall nightmares from the time: Nazis occupy the school, fry children in big pans next to the main staircase and I try to escape. In my child’s mind, these elided a fear of terrorism with Holocaust stories. In that sense, it directly led to my piece Live and Die as Eva Braun (1995–97) and its ventriloquizing of Braun, Hitler’s companion: comicality as directly related to pain and polemics, with humour one of its tainted devices. When treated properly, humour is really an oppositional tool.
In Buster Keaton’s silent film Sherlock Jr. (1924), there’s a scene in which Keaton, who plays an operator in a cinema, falls asleep and departs from his body to join the action in the movie being screened. There’s an ambivalence in Keaton’s work, whereby the comedy is entirely physical while remaining emotionally complex. This self-doubling is a leitmotif in my own work, too. A different kind of self-doubling occurs in Francisco de Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, from ‘The Caprices’ (1797–99): it’s a self-portrait, though one in which you cannot see the artist’s face and, as with Keaton, the realm is both reality and dream. My work The Blind Merchant (1989–91), in which Frank resurfaces, ends with a series of variations on Goya’s piece.
Growing up, art seemed to exist against the odds. Jewish hegemonic culture is, for the most part, iconophobic, stemming from the Biblical prohibition against the graven image, which informed Zionism as well, construing beauty and art as dubious and devoid of purpose. But, also, I had little access to actual artworks in Israel. As a result, I had a sense of experiencing art second hand, as something intangible, far removed from what Viktor Shklovksy called faktura: the texture, the material actuality of painting. I relished prints and books as well as ivories, textiles, comics and children’s book illustrations. These are minor modes that are hybrid, small-scale and unheroic but also cheap, tactile and mobile. This predilection for the slight and discarded does not only inform most of my painterly production: almost all of my films begin by thinking about sub-genres or dismissed genres – the blooper reel and the trailer that come with DVD editions or public-access television programmes made by non-professionals.
As a teenager making art, I felt ambivalence towards what art is and a sense of alienation from the culture surrounding me. One of the local painters I appreciated was Michal Na’aman, who was well-known in Israel. Na’aman’s works were bracketed as conceptual painting: they combined texts and image, but also Hebrew and English. Things would be wilfully lost in translation; animals would be hybridized. The artist drew from both Stephen King and Ludwig Wittgenstein, sometimes in the same work. She has a very dark sense of humour to boot. Her work Jehovah Über Alles (1976), takes the pram from Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and transplants the Nazi anthem to the context of Zionism. Another work, Trees of Light, Golden Showers (1993), is a diptych that juxtaposes the wolf’s tree rendered by Freud’s famous patient, Wolf Man (Sergueï Pankejeiff), with the yellow light of the menorah. Light becomes urine and the Zionist’s lofty symbol turns into a scene of sexual perversion. This ideologically critical dimension was very liberating for me in the 1970s. Na’aman is a conceptual artist, also dealing with Franz Kafka, and she was a role model to me in showing the possibility of painting being smart, perverse, funny and multi-layered: for painting to be more than painting.
I studied in New York in the late 1980s and early ’90s, and I came across a work whose hybridity and complex beauty affected me: The Ivory of the Ascension (c.400 CE). It shows the three mourning Marys and a scene of the ascension, with two guards and Christ all doubled. I loved not only the superimposition of two scenes into one small frame, but also the strange and haunting stout figures’ bodies. I learned that the same craftsmen probably also produced classical-looking pagan ivories where the proportions are Hellenistic; as Christians, they devised another bodily language to give a special look to this thing they felt invested in. We often see religion as something restrictive and dogmatic but, in this ivory, we witness it in a moment of flux: performative, urgent, flexible, becoming.
This fluidity extends to the experience of sex and gender, another important dimension of multivalence. In The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Christianity (1988), Peter Brown describes how early Christianity allowed women to renounce themselves from the obligations of childbirth, so as to read and write; asceticism was a framework of freedom and rebellion against social norms. In the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, Christ says to his disciples: ‘I shall make Mary male.’ I took this statement literally when painting Saint Eugenia as a bearded woman. I read in Brown’s book that the image of a woman growing a beard, if it appeared in a woman’s dream, received a radically different interpretation in Roman times, when it was a cipher for a wife’s obedience to her husband. But, in Christianity, this hair symbolized her holiness. Body hair, about which our own social codes convey inhibition, fascinates me in its ability to defy categories of purity.
The work I am currently doing is centred on one of my strongest influences, Kafka, yet performs an ambivalence towards him, as both love and abuse. It is entitled Kafka for Kids (2018) and is presented as the pilot for a television series that renders Kafka fit for toddlers, with The Metamorphosis (1915) as the first episode. The story is told by a parent figure to a child within a Pee-wee Hermanesque house, where the pieces of furniture, all hosting actors, occasionally burst into song. But, as in several of my other projects, the work itself metamorphoses as it unfolds, exposing a more documentary layer. The juxtaposition of children with Kafka, for whom tropes of the law and its implementation were so crucial, leads to an investigation of the ways in which childhood is being defined by Israeli military law in the occupied territories. The trigger was the case of a 12-year-old Palestinian girl who was sentenced to four and a half months in an adult prison after being caught at the gateway of a settlement with a knife. As you know, the occupied territories offer a doubled law: the settlers are ruled according to Israeli law while Palestinians are under military law, with a very different definition of childhood. Children are nuanced observers of film and television. As a father, it was interesting for me to see how quickly they recognize the truth of genres. If a television presenter has the wrong facial expression, a six year old will soon ridicule it. In my case, it’s a bit different: I can remember the first moving images that I saw, since television did not exist in Israel when I was young. It was established when I was four or five years old, and I saw my first film around the same time.
The film The Flying Matchmaker (1966) – to which I later did an homage – is a musical rendition in Hebrew of a Yiddish shtetl tale about a matchmaker who dreams of the perfect match. In one scene, the nebbish, ultra-orthodox Jew is confronted in the forest by a doppelganger: a dandy, secular Jew disguised as him. The stuttering, unfortunate Kuny Lemel sings a memorable song about being two years old and not knowing who he is anymore. I was scared and haunted by this scene. For my film Confessions, I translated the poem from Hebrew to English and, in the musical interlude, the ensemble delivers Kuny Lemel’s song. I clearly remember the television being turned on for the first time and, before the signal appeared, my aunt told me with great authority: ‘This is snow.’ I had never seen snow in my life and thought: this is what snow is like. Then the snow cleared and there were people on the screen.
Introduction by Pablo Larios
Main image: Abraham Goldfaden, Di Tsvey Kuny Lemels (The Two Kuny Lemels), 1880, front cover of the Yiddish play on which the film The Flying Matchmaker, 1966, is based. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons and Haimlevy
Roee Rosen is an artist, writer and filmmaker based in Tel Aviv, Israel. His retrospective, ‘Stories in the Dark’, is on view at Centre Pompidou, Paris, France, until 29 October concurrently with his film retrospective at Jeu de Paume, Paris. He is the author of Live and Die as Eva Braun and Other Intimate Stories (2017). In February, a retrospective of his work was held at the Ficunam International Film Festival, Mexico City, Mexico, and in May he led the Oberhausen Seminar, Germany. Selections from his forthcoming feature film, Kafka for Kids, are being shown at Steirischer Herbst, Graz, Austria, until 14 October.
First published in Issue 198