December 18, 2018

Time is of the essence in ‘Zol Zayn’ exhibition

“Alot of the way I work is by creating so much desire to see something that you actually project that into the space,” Jonas N.T. Becker said on a recent morning at the Shulamit Gallery in Venice. She’d just finished giving a tour of her new exhibition, “Zol Zayn” (“What If”), and was relaxing on one of those extremely expensive couches that looks like a sculpture and seems incapable of being cozy, yet magically is. In Becker’s case, such a couch provides a double sort of comfort, as she loves living and working among ironies and paradoxes. Her comfort is evident in her newest exhibition, a response to apocalyptic visions in Judaism, which leads visitors on a video journey through a world at the edge of forever.

Becker, who was born in West Virginia, started out shooting fashion and did so through her mid-20s, before discovering her love of video art. “Zol Zayn” is centered around four video installations — “End(s) of the World,” “Prodigal Sun,” “Almost Always” and “The Pile.” The works make use of four very different styles of filming and use sound to create four unique visions of what time — and, most appropriately, the end of time — really means.

“In most of the works, what I was interested in was either a balance or a cycle,” Becker said. “For Jews, thinking about the end of the world is really about the here and now, and thinking about how to make the here and now a better place in preparation.”

For “End(s) of the World,” Becker and 31 collaborators shot video at locations across the globe that have been called “the end of the world” at one time or another. The video features no people, merely shots of the vistas, some notably grander than others. Although, as Becker tells it, the piece that seems so empty of humanity is anything but. “In a weird way, I still consider my work to be all portraiture … the absent character is always the subject.”

There’s no such absent character in “Almost Always,” a series of stitched-together videos from New Year’s Eve celebrations in 2012. People abound, cheering, screaming, singing, but each video cuts off right as midnight is about to strike, jumping to another clip and locking the viewer in an endless cycle of build-ups to a new year that never comes. “We’re all expected to jump for joy the minute the clock hits midnight, but for most people it’s one of the most anxiety-producing evenings of the whole year,” Becker said. “That’s the part that’s interesting to me.”

“Prodigal Sun” is perhaps the most high-concept of the videos; it features video shot directly into the sun juxtaposed with images from a European circus performance. The sun continues to eat up more and more of the space on the screen until, by the end of the piece, the film is literally burning.

The most ambitious work here is “The Pile.” When entering the gallery, visitors encounter a stack of red felt objects that reaches nearly to the ceiling. Upon closer inspection, the objects reveal the desires of 1,000 people who participated in an earlier exercise, in which Becker asked people to write down what thing would most make their life better, then insert their writings in a box. Becker’s mother and a couple of friends stitched together the felt symbols representing those desires — a house representing the security of home, a caduceus representing affordable health care.

The physical pile is paired with a stark video shot entirely by Becker over the course of a year at her family’s farm. Her mother is shown sitting in a cornfield, stitching the felt symbols together, and as the video progresses, the seasons change around her, the field’s crop grows, and then withers and dies away. In many ways, this is the most menacing of the videos in the exhibition, featuring subsonic sounds that rumble as the pile appears on screen.  

“I’m really interested in the relationship between the two-dimensional and the three-dimensional,” Becker said of the piece. “What does it do to have this big red pile? Is it evidence? Is it a new creation? Which is the genesis, like chicken and egg?

“When you have that, you are able to create a conversation between what you’re seeing and experiencing and a memory of that experience, or a projection of that experience.

“I very much ride the line between the optimist and pessimist,” she said. The works are as utopic as they are dystopic.

“One of the things that I love about the pieces is that they do allow you to sort of unpack them further and further,” Becker said, explaining that, in many ways, the work is about “how we package time.”

Nowhere is this more clear than in “Almost Always,” her New Year’s exploration, which projects onto a ball that hangs from the ceiling of a dark room. “I think a lot about climax and gratification in terms of being a narrative, and that piece never gives you that.”

And while Becker’s pieces don’t offer easy answers, they do provide quite a bit of thought-provoking material. “A lot of the way I work is by creating so much desire to see something that you actually project that into the space,” she said. “There’s always going to be one more desire.”

“Zol Zayn” runs through March 8 at the Shulamit Gallery. For more information, visit