Novelist Rick Moody pins down the silicone postmodern language of Yael Kanarek’s latest works, which struggle with notions of affiliation and territory while pointing to the potential to transcend those boundaries.
Does the artist Yael Kanarek actually exist? Kanarek, whose nationality and point of view is so contested? On the basis of her compelling recent show notyetness, we would have to conclude that there is a constructor of these works whom we can, for the sake of convenience, call Yael Kanarek, she who fashioned this rich, evocative, allusive work, these assemblages, these scraps of video and holes in the wall, and bits of sculpture, and rubberized utterances. In each, and in the work taken as a whole, we can’t help but struggle with her struggle about language, epistemology, and the relationship of these to the plastic arts, which struggle takes place in order to create what we have before us; yes, there is a point of view, though contested, and if there is a point of view, there is an artist, and a role for the artist, even in contested spaces, on the highway, even, between Palestine and Israel.
Again and again in Kanarek’s work we find ourselves looking for, longing for, an outside of language and culture, a place where we can operate upon the signs of postmodernity rather than having them operated upon us, and while we continue to find this need for affiliation, this way to speak that is not contested by the history and politics and culture that afflicts Kanarek, we struggle, and thus Kanarek’s linguistic dance, her rubberized, silicone linguistic dance, which affirms the ubiquity of a cultural and linguistic framework, and the way in which these always result in force, and subjugation. She is home and not at home in English and Hebrew, and her attempt to render in the plastic arts such contested words as “whore” in these languages (and three others: Arabic, Yiddish, and Spanish) and to construct “art” out of the renderings of these words, makes this unsettling bit of Old English dreadful and new, while draining it of all certain denotation, trying to wear it on her body, and trying to reject the language, until we are able to see words as visual objects, no longer words of particular intention and history. Does Kanarek repurpose the word whore? Does she repossess the word whore? By reconstructing language as a visual object does she efface the speaker of the word entirely? Or does she wear the word like a person from a contested land that is a nation and not a nation at the same time?
And if all the problems of human comfort and human psychology are settled by the political superstructure of global capital, why all the conflict between the languages, English, Hebrew, Arabic, Yiddish, Spanish, and others, and why is there always the feeling that the answer is yet to be provided? And that we are so much in need?
When Harold Bloom spoke to the ubiquity of belatedness in literature, he perhaps failed to anticipate the related and more postmodern condition, the post-9/11 condition of notyetness, in which we look to the arts of the Third World and of non-Western traditions, to the post-Judeo-Christian world, for an idea of the human character as it is yet to be, which idea is then exported back to the industrialized nations as an example of their own failures. In Kanarek’s works, whose pathos creeps up on us with a solemn familiarity—part and parcel of her unassumingness, her effacement of the speaking subject—language is a material item, and it brings with it, inevitably, a legacy of cruelty and regional conflict, though this is mediated in these works also by wit and invention, by a play and artifice and joy that are routes out of the horrors of politics, at least for the duration of manufacture. Kanarek is just one artist, and notyetness amply demonstrates how the dire situation of politics in the lands of the Abrahamic faiths is insoluble by individuals, but it also indicates the importance of moving on, and attempting to find ways to live and breathe, in the cauldron of politics and epistemology.
Kanarek makes survival sound plausible, graceful, and this is one of her bits of alchemical magic. She empties herself into the work, and makes her art a repository for belief in survival, in the will-to-transcend tribal difference, even when on the ground this seems so hard to do. She finds a humanism and a need for art in the most dangerous places, and she fashions this humanism from rubber, on which a falling body will inevitably come harmlessly to bounce.
Rick Moody’s latest novel is Four Fingers of Death, available now from Little, Brown and Company.