‘Sota Project’: Sealed With a Kiss

The Talmud is on display this month at the USC Fisher Museum of Art, but if you’re expecting a dry examination of rabbinic law and ethics, you’ve come to the wrong place. Ofri Cnaani’s “The Sota Project” offers a daring and even graphic take on Jewish views of adultery, sexuality and sisterhood through a little-known but fascinating piece of talmudic text.

Sitting in a conference room at the Fisher Museum’s offices, Cnaani was excited to discuss “The Sota Project,” though a little disappointed to hear she’d missed out on Los Angeles’ long-running heat wave. Born in Israel in 1975, Cnaani immigrated to the United States a decade ago to study art at New York’s Hunter College MFA program, and though she apparently misses the warm Israeli summers, she’s found great success in the States and in the New York art world, where her work has been on display at prestigious places like MOMA’s PS1 and the Andrea Meislin Gallery.  Her exhibition at the Fisher Museum marks her Los Angeles debut, and she seems particularly excited to be showing a piece like “The Sota Project,” which is so close to her heart.

The name refers to particular tractate in the Talmud that deals with the procedures taken in ancient times when a woman was suspected of adultery. “Sota is a word in Hebrew that people don’t use,” Cnaani said. “The literal meaning of it is ‘the pervert.’ So it’s a very harsh word. It’s not like ‘the adulteress’; it’s not like ‘infidelity.’ And it’s not like young Israelis who speak Hebrew know what it means; they don’t really use the word.

“This specific story is a story about two sisters who look alike. One was married in one town; the other, in another town.  And then the husband of one of them suspected his wife was cheating on him,” Cnaani explained. “Her husband wanted to take her to Jerusalem to drink from the bitter waters.”

The bitter waters ordeal was a process that was supposed to reveal whether a woman had cheated on her husband. A suspected woman would be taken to the Temple in Jerusalem, where the priests would concoct a bitter-waters potion from, among other things, ashes from the Temple, and ink used to write Torah scrolls.  The woman would drink the potion, and, if she was guilty, she “very literally explodes from the location of the sin, which is her abdomen,” Cnaani said. And, if innocent, she’d be blessed with a son in 10 months’ time.

“There’s this element of theatrical punishment,” Cnaani said.  “It’s a very literal punishment, super grotesque.” 

Still from Ofri Cnaani’s “The Sota Project,” video installation, 2011. Photo courtesy of USC Fisher Museum of Art

In the story of the two sisters, though, the sisters come up with a plan to get around the bitter-waters test. “I usually say this is where Hollywood kicks in,” Cnaani said, chuckling.  The sisters trade places. The innocent sister goes through the ordeal and is found pure. It looks like they’re going to get away with the deception, but the sisters meet up afterward and they kiss on the lips. “And it says because she smelled from the bitter water … she died on the spot,” Cnaani said of the guilty sister.

“I think it’s a very beautiful story, and for me it was, from the beginning, a story about sisterhood, about two young women who understand the system, but kind of, in English you’d say ‘work the system,’ or make the system work against itself. And it’s a story that ends sealed with a kiss.”

Cnaani also acknowledges that “it’s a very problematic story.” It isn’t even particularly Jewish in many ways, she said. “It’s a very Hellenistic story of the pages of the Talmud.  She’s trying to avoid her destiny, but punishment finds her … it’s dark; it’s grotesque.”

Cnaani often makes video installations, so she decided that she wanted to bring the story of the sisters to life with her own unique interpretation. “The projection covers all four walls from floor to ceiling, and the story develops not only in time — it’s 20-something minutes long — but also in the form of a spatial narrative … the space actually generates the story.”

The work uses nearly a dozen projectors to form an immersive, kinetic film that unfolds around you and includes dialogue, music and text along with visual projections. The movement forces the viewer to become an active participant in the story, following the sisters as they move along, and even across, the walls.  

“I looked at a lot of different forms in art history that use visual storytelling — mainly murals, because this is really a moving mural,” Cnaani said of “The Sota Project.” “It’s very not-cinematic, in a way.  There’s no close-up, no shot-reaction shot. It’s much more pictorial, even theatrical.”

Selma Holo, the Fisher Museum’s director, sees a lot to admire in Cnaani’s approach. “She is without question an important, young contemporary artist on the international art scene.  But she’s not afraid, because of the way things have moved in the world, to be able to plumb her own history, the Jewish roots of it all. And that’s a change from when the artists all wanted to be international, and barely show, in a way, where they came from,” Holo said.

Another factor working in favor of the exhibition was its sponsorship by the Philip and Muriel Berman Foundation. Cnaani is the granddaughter of noted Israeli sculptor Yehiel Shemi (he died in 2003), one of whose major patrons was the late Philip Berman. Berman’s daughter, Nancy, now the head of the foundation, was struck by Cnaani’s work and decided to fund the exhibition. Additional funding was provided by the Six Points Fellowship, a grant given to emerging Jewish artists.

For Cnaani, who grew up fiercely secular on a kibbutz in Israel, the chance to engage with talmudic text is a special treat. “For various historical and political reasons, a lot of the ancient or classic corpus is being held and mainly actively studied by Orthodox people, and [has been] missing from the cultural identity, or the intellectual cultural identity of the secular intelligentsia.”

Cnaani subscribes to the famous view of David Ben-Gurion that Orthodox Judaism and secular Judaism are “two fully loaded wagons” and that Jewish philosophy and classical texts belong to both worlds.

As a feminist, Cnaani knew that she’d have to deal with the issue of the Sota in a different way. “My good friend and teacher Ruth Calderon, who is a Talmud expert, wrote about this text, and she stopped before the kiss. She said, “They’re my sisters; I’m not ready to kill them because they had another man.”

But sometimes artistic integrity and theatricality get in the way of happy endings. “For me the story is sealed with a kiss, and that’s part of what it is, and I don’t want to kill that,” Cnaani said. “I usually tell her, you’re kind of saving them, but killing the drama.  I want them to kiss again.”

“The Sota Project” is on display at USC’s Fisher Museum of Art through Dec. 1. For information about the Fisher Museum,  visit fisher.usc.edu or call (213) 740-4561.

Heirs of owner of Nazi-looted ‘The Scream’ want explanation on display

The heirs of a German-Jewish banker who claim the famous painting “The Scream” was looted from him by the Nazis want a New York museum to explain its history in its new display.

The 1895 work by Edvard Munch is set to go on display Oct. 24 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the New York Post reported.

New York billionaire Leon Black purchased the painting last spring at a Sotheby's auction for nearly $120 million.

Hugo Simon owned the painting in the 1920s and 1930s, but the banker and top art collector was to forced sell it and flee Germany after the Nazis came to power in 1933.

His heirs contested the sale before the auction in the spring, but now say it is a moral issue and are calling on MoMA to explain in its display the painting's “tragic history,” the Post reported, citing Rafael Cardoso, a Brazilian curator and Simon’s great-grandson.

Simon consigned “The Scream” to a Swiss gallery before he and his family left Germany for Paris. In 1940, after the Nazis invaded France, Simon and his family immigrated to Brazil on fake passports.

Why the Museum of Modern Art’s curators wanted to meet my husband

When the curators from Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) came calling two years ago, my husband, Ron Magid, had prepared for them a veritable smorgasbord of art by the gothic filmmaker Tim Burton. Among the fare sprawled across our dining room table was a pointy-eared cowl from “Batman,” Jack Skellington storyboards from “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and puppets from “The Corpse Bride,” whose ghoulishly charming heroine sprouts a maggot from her eye. 

At the time, the MoMA curators, Ron Magliozzi and Jenny He, were on a global treasure hunt for work to include in “Tim Burton,” a career retrospective that would become the third-most-attended show ever at the museum — and is now on display, through Halloween, in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s (LACMA) new Resnick Pavilion.

Magliozzi and He had tracked down my husband through an archivist at Warner Bros. who knew Ron as a collector and purveyor of high-end movie memorabilia, specializing in horror and science fiction. To us, the prospect of entertaining curators from one of the world’s most prestigious museums sounded daunting, especially since, as Ron put it, “We’re not exactly Norton Simon.” 

Yet Magliozzi and He — who arrived with another museum colleague — did not prove to be art snobs. Rather, with the enthusiasm of youngsters in a macabre kind of candy store, they admired Ron’s Burton memorabilia, as well as the grisly décor in his office. They even made a faux-horrified remark or two about the 1933 “King Kong” shield that was carelessly stashed in a corner. 

But, to our surprise, they bypassed the cowls and the corpse puppets and began snapping photographs of a rather unobtrusive (or so we thought) prop from Burton’s 2001 remake of “Planet of the Apes,” that was sandwiched between some looming “Apes” warrior manikins. The “scarecrow head,” as Magliozzi calls it, is an approximately 3-foot-tall rustic structure, whose skeletal, simian visage sprouts shocks of twiglike hair. 

Entrance to MoMA’s Special Exhibition Gallery. Entrance designed by TwoSeven Inc.. Photo by Michael Locassiano

“That wonderful scarecrow head is very ‘Burtonesque,’ Magliozzi told me recently on the phone from London, where he is now researching an exhibition on the stop-motion animators, the Brothers Quay. “It’s almost like a fright, but it’s also appealing at the same time. It ties in with Tim’s visual theme of the carnivalesque: a liberating mix of the grotesque with the humorous in defiance of the status quo.” 

As it turns out,  we are one of only a few private collectors represented in the exhibition; the more than 700 items on display reflect not only Burton’s films but also his non-cinematic artwork. The curators had intended to focus the show on his movies, props and such, but decided to spotlight his two-dimensional work when they discovered Burton had already catalogued thousands of his drawings, dating from childhood and including numerous personal projects, in his archives in London.

Ron’s scarecrow head is one of relatively few props in the exhibition; he came to own it in a fashion anomalous for one in his profession, and it was, essentially, a gift. Actually, the head at one time had been for sale at a price of several thousand dollars, but hadn’t sold, and the owner, a friend of Ron’s, didn’t want to bother with picking up the enormous artifact at the auction house’s remote warehouse. He told Ron to feel free to take the piece — and so Ron did — although he was disappointed he would have to leave the work’s 20-foot-high base behind because he had no room to store it.

At LACMA, visitors enter the show through the mouth of a giant monster, which also sprouts twiggy hair, inspired by a film project Burton hasn’t yet brought to life. A lolling red-carpet tongue leads into the galleries, which display drawings, cartoons, short films, props, sketchbooks, ephemera and storyboards organized in three sections: work Burton created in response to his alienated childhood in Burbank; pieces he rendered while attending CalArts and as an animator at Walt Disney Studios; and works completed after his first cinematic success, “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” which in 1985 launched his career as Hollywood’s reigning morbid auteur.

Tim Burton “Untitled” (Edward Scissorhands), 1990 Private Collection. Edward Scissorhands © Twentieth Century Fox. © 2011 Tim Burton

Burton’s inspiration often returns to what Magliozzi calls “the Burbank muse,” the suburb as a mind-numbing place the young artist “hated and acted against and survived through his creativity.” Likewise, Burton’s protagonists, like Burton himself, tend to be sensitive misfits and misunderstood youths battling a repressive, cookie-cutter world, from the sad-eyed Edward Scissorhands to characters in his 1997 book, “The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy & Other Stories.”

“[Burton’s] attention to the creaturelike qualities of his characters is a way for him to access their humanity,” Magliozzi wrote in his catalog essay. “The cartoon concept art for Batman and the Joker emphasizes their damaged psyches; the drawings of Edward Scissorhands’ sinister bondage gear and Jack Skellington’s freakish emaciation translates to their soulfulness on screen.”

My husband — who is a movie journalist as well as an entrepreneur — identifies with Burton’s characters, as well as with Burton’s disaffected childhood. “I felt pigeonholed as a nerd who liked monsters and hated sports,” Ron told me when I wrote about Ron’s love for the 1933 film “King Kong” in 2006. Ron views Frankenstein as an abused child; he also came to understand that there was something distinctly Jewish about his bond with monsters — Jews have also been reviled and accused of unspeakable crimes. “Planet of the Apes” — Burton’s version, as well as the original — could serve as a metaphor for the Third Reich: “When you have a master race enslaving people, what does that remind you of?” he asked, rhetorically. 

Actually, it was the original “Apes” that launched my husband’s career as a buyer and seller of memorabilia, in the nascent days of that profession. At 12, he once walked into downtown Long Beach wearing a gorilla mask and wielding a prop rifle from the film, both procured through friends at a science fiction convention. His mission on that hot summer day was to hand out fliers advertising “Apes” goods for sale. But when he became tired and chanced to sit down in front of a bank, he was stunned when police cars screeched up, cops drew guns and ordered him to take off his mask, mistaking the already 6-foot-tall preteen for a would-be bank robber.

“When they saw I was a kid, they laughed and drove me home,” recalled Ron, who was more embarrassed than frightened by the incident.

Fast forward to 2009, when Ron — like Burton — had parlayed his childhood obsessions into a career as well as a collection that was threatening to overtake our Westwood home.

The author’s scarecrow head from “Planet of the Apes.” Photo by Dan Kacvinski

“Actually, your house reminds me of Tim’s place,” Magliozzi told me when I complained about the mess. “Tim’s house [in London] is rather what you’d expect after seeing the exhibition — it’s like a big toy chest. I was more surprised by the fact that Ron has a whole exhibition going on in his office — that was intense.”

Magliozzi and He chose more than 500 pieces from Burton’s home and archives for the exhibition, which they organized with Rajendra Roy, MoMA’s chief curator of film. “We wanted to trace the current of Tim’s visual imagination from childhood to his feature films,” Magliozzi said. “In our gallery exhibitions, we tend to treat filmmakers as artists.” 

Not everyone has been so enthusiastic. A New York Times reviewer who lauded Burton’s films critiqued what he perceived as a “sameness to all Mr. Burton’ two- and three-dimensional output that makes for a monotonous viewing experience.” 

“That critic didn’t get it,” Magliozzi said of the review. “All artists have recurring themes in their work. And MoMA has been doing gallery exhibitions for cinema artists since the museum opened. I think the fact that Tim has created so much art that is not necessarily from his films has been more challenging for critics. But it’s art that speaks to a large audience and has influenced so many other artists, and that alone is enough to bring it into the museum. Our mandate is to put Burton next to Picasso, in the sense that viewers come for Burton and they go to see Picasso — that’s the kind of dynamic we want.”

Britt Salvesen, LACMA’s curator for the exhibition, agrees. “The show’s opening in New York was not only full, but undeniably all kinds of people were talking to each other,” she said. Salvesen has also organized a parallel exhibition, “Tim Burton Selects,” which consists of art from LACMA’s holdings that resonate with the filmmaker — it’s heavy on the Symbolists and German Expressionists.

In an e-mail, she called the scarecrow head “a real highlight” of the main exhibition, which proved thrilling for Ron. And even more exciting was the possibility of meeting Burton at the opening reception.

“Back when I was a special effects journalist, I had hoped to write about Tim Burton’s movies, and finally got the chance with “Planet of the Apes,” even though I didn’t get to interview Burton himself,” Ron said.

“I had hoped that ‘Planet of the Apes’ would bring us together, and of course, now it has — it just took an additional 10 years.”

For more information about the exhibition and related events, and to purchase tickets, visit lacma.org.