Curator: Tamar Dresdner
"Rikmarikmarikmarikmarikma," the Hebrew title of Batia Shani's show, was conceived as homage to Charles Ledray's 2010 show "workworkworkworkwork," at the Whitney Museum in New York, in which many works included miniature men's outfits, made by him. Shani's title is a compulsive repetition of the Hebrew word for needlework (rikma), repeated five times, resulting in an uninterrupted sequence which contains several other Hebrew words with meanings such as only, what, fast and how many. Oddly, the letters of the name of the artist's mother, Rika, are also present.
Since her mother's death Shani has been using scraps from her dresses as raw material for her needlework. The bits of fabric, imbued with the memory of the mother's physical body, function as a carrier for memories and as an aid in dealing with the processes of parting and severance. The snippets constitute a physical expression of the close connection between mother and daughter, which endures through them after the mother's death.
Shani grew up in a family where sewing wasn't just a hobby, it was a profession. Her grandfather had been a tailor in Vienna, and her aunt made costumes for the theater. As a child she used to sit at her aunts' feet while they sewed their clothes and played with the bits of fabric which fell to the floor. Before WWII her mother worked in a clothes factory in Bucovina, where the dresses were cut to her body's measurements.
The main installation in the show simulates a giant metal cage hanging from the ceiling, where miniature dresses hang, made by Shani out of fabric scraps and paper. The immediate association is of a caged female body, but the dresses are really a visualization of the absent. They may be seen, together with the whole installation, as a fetishistic moment, perpetuating a state of simultaneous absence and presence. A unique effect is created – on the one hand, overcoming the absence and the emptiness, and on the other, a simulacrum which points to the absence and to the anxiety-provoking situation with a constant potential for a breakdown.
A glance at the installation leaves no doubt as to the other female presence in the space, present and absent at once. Louise Bourgeois, the high priestess of 20th century art, who may be viewed as Shani's artistic mother, used to say that her work has always been based on biographical elements. Many of her own works dealt with her complex relationship with her father and with her mother's untimely death.
Shani, who has been doing needlework since she was a child, has studied the technique, and holds a degree from the Royal School of Needlework in London. Despite her interest in Feminist issues, four decades after Judy Chicago's Dinner Party the use of needlework in art is quite common (by artists of both genders) and does not necessarily imply a Feminist stand. The act of needlework, which evokes joining but also stabbing and wounding, is a childhood memory, taking the artist back to a safe place but at the same time awakening terrors, pain, and frustration, evident in the obsessive activity and in the unplanned disruptive processes in the works.
The needlework pieces bring together on the fabric female figures, objects, text, numbers, and scraps of material, which are a visual expression of the artist's inner struggle. The conflicts between the need to contain the shapes and bring them to "wholeness" and the need to let go and leave them open; between a fear of the void and hence the obsessive need to fill the space, and the eventual relief from anxiety and letting greater areas remain empty; between the wish to employ a wide range of colors and the slow recognition of the power of the monochromatic image. According to Shani, the images and texts in the works rise from the subconscious, but in some cases their placement on the canvas is neat and precise. Thus the decision to display both sides of many of the works, allowing the back side to expose the uncontrollable, unpredictable aspect of the work.
I suggest that the distorted texts in the works presented at the show demonstrate Shani's interest in the body, in the anxiety which rattles normality, and in the constant tension between the urge to break through barriers and the tendency towards routine, closure, and the striving for perfection. The embroidered sentences are a combination of real language and of a sign language which Shani invents and embroiders on the fabric in an order and a regularity which simulate words and sentences. Post-Structuralist linguistics looks at the text as texture, a material woven of many threads. According to Jacques Derrida, a text is linked etymologically to textile and texture and is characterized by the same multifaceted materiality of fabric. When Derrida says that "there's nothing but text" he emphasizes the materiality and physicality of the language which is a sequence of signifiers, flowing into each other while crossing and cancelling accepted boundaries and binary contradictions.
The embroidered sentences often appear in the form of a question. In the work "how do you draw a longing?" (Catalog page 29) the yarn grips the fabric like surgical stitches pinching human skin. A Hebrew letter in the sentence appears both in print and in longhand, and the question mark is upside-down. The sentence, which undermines its own perfection together with the frayed fabric, draws the gaze to what is imperfect, trivial, marginal and distorted.
"A man has built himself a house. How many nails?" (Catalog page 17); "How many chairs?" (Catalog page 33) – the counting and quantifying embedded in these questions in both works, are apparent in the Chairs work also as a row of numbers from one to ten, as well as a list:
The mixing of Hebrew and English, the change from the masculine to the feminine (in the original Hebrew), from quantitative counting to sequencing, interferes with the familiar flow of reading. The viewer/reader remains confused and wonders whether the text refers to and supports the images. If it does, why has the counting gone awry? If it doesn't, what is it referring to? Are the images but a footnote to the text, where the real drama occurs? The legitimacy of raising unanswerable questions is in constant conflict with the need to answer them and to solve problems, a deep need stemming from Shani's experience as a social worker dealing with families of fallen soldiers.
"Need to bring more chairs" "כמה כסאות?" "עוד כסא אחד ודי"
The multiple voices, which really are one voice, the artist's, create a restlessness stemming from the attempt to draw a mental boundary – “just one more chair", versus the compulsive excess of "need to bring more chairs, a characteristic of people living in a prosperous, consumerist society
It is interesting to point to Roland Barthes's analysis, in his book S/Z, of the novel “Sarrasine” by Honoré de Balzac, where he exposes the struggle between the different "voices" which make up the text. He defines this as a struggle between legible, realistic text, which follows accepted cultural codes, and thus is easy to comprehend, and a written text, which resists easy interpretation while smashing those bourgeois codes.
In the Chairs piece the meaning of the text creates irreducible multiplicity. The text has no boundaries, it is a subversive entity undermining the image and introducing a range of meanings and questions which likely would not have come up had the viewer been watching just an image of a chair.
And what is better fitting than to end with the embroidered sentence in one of the works:
"So many questions await answers." (Catalog page 11).
 Roland Barthes, S/Z, trans. Richard Miller (Hill and Wand, New York , 1974)