John Wood and Paul Harrison, installation view from ‘I DIDN’T KNOW I DIDN’T KNOW IT’, Contemporary Art Gallery, February 12 – April 24, 2016. Photography by SITE Photography

Exhibitions from the Archives | Ruti Sela and Maayan Amir

Ruti Sela and Maayan Amir, installation view from 'Beyond Guilt – The Trilogy', Contemporary Art Gallery, April 8 - June 5, 2011. Photography by SITE Photography

Throughout summer 2018, the CAG blog will host a throwback series, Exhibitions from the Archives, exploring the gallery’s rich history. To kick it off we begin with Ruti Sela and Maayan Amir’s Beyond Guilt – The Trilogy, (2003-05), shown at the Contemporary Art Gallery from April 7 to June 5, 2011. The duo’s first solo exhibition in North America screened their video trilogy, also shown to international acclaim at IMA in Brisbane, Australia (2007), the Istanbul Biennale (2009), the Berlin Biennale (2010),  followed by Manifesta in Murcia, Spain (2010), 1646 Gallery in The Hague, Holland and at Tate Modern in London (2010).

Sela and Amir are from Tel Aviv, Israel, where their practice moves between public engagement, curating and education, using the tools of cinema and video. Characteristic of the artists` interests are borders and territory dispute, national identity, militarism, sexuality, authority and power dynamics.

With the recent Israel/Palestine conflicts coming to the forefront of international news again and the resurgence of feminist dialogue, #Metoo and discussions about masculinity, this powerful and poignant video series is particularly resonant to today’s political climate. The work involves the two artists inviting strangers to hotel rooms and night club bathrooms in Tel Aviv to speak to their experiences often outside of the mainstream, including sexual situations and with conversation frequently turning to military roles pertinent to the situation in that part of the world.

The first of the trilogy, Beyond Guilt #1, takes place in different club bathrooms. The artists unabashedly negotiate sex with various groups of men and women, while ambiguous shots of half-clothed people illustrate a suggested before and after, interwoven with sharp questions about military experiences – “Did you shoot your gun?”, “Do you have trauma?”, “I do”. A young woman boasts of the violence she sees from “the coolest” Gaza army base and her deep anti-Arab prejudice and nationalism. From behind the lens one of the artists barters sexual favours for a man’s necklace, offering explicit group sex acts to no avail, and he says, “it seems to me that you girls think boys are whores… but I’m hard to get” thus highlighting the gendered role reversal that underlies much of the work.

Ruti Sela and Maayan Amir, ‘Beyond Guilt – The Trilogy’, 2003-2005. Video still

In Beyond Guilt #2, the artists invite men from online dating chatrooms to a hotel room, with guests often overlapping. We see men bring along bondage paraphernalia, speak of their sexual prowess and show-off in general. They speak of their military experience — the emotional roles they must take, body-searching other men, robbing the Arabic population and sustaining stab wounds. Things feel deeply tense when, after a man refuses to answer if he has killed anyone, Sela keeps persisting. After she asks “so did you kill the one who stabbed you?” he stares at her and says softly, “I didn’t say that”. The feeling of risk reaches a high point here, the potential threat slowly mounting since we were shown Amir in one of the men’s handcuffs as he describes the often painful things he would normally do to a woman involving an act of bondage.

Ruti Sela and Maayan Amir, ‘Beyond Guilt – The Trilogy’, 2003-2005. Video still

The overall tone of the work shifts in Beyond Guilt #3, becoming less sexual as the artists invite a prostitute to a hotel room, have her take charge of the camera and turn it upon themselves. They collectively take part in dressing up in kitten ears and feather boas, jumping on the bed with a Joanna Newsom song as the a soundtrack. We never see the face of the prostitute—she wears a cat mask for the final scene—while the artists interview her about clients, if she works during menstruation, how she feels about her work and how she loves her job but she hates men. She speaks of her disgust for many of her clients, their stench and their drug abuse, and mentions her sexual traumas, attempted assaults when she was a child and the abortions she has had in her career as a sex worker.

Ruti Sela and Maayan Amir, ‘Beyond Guilt – The Trilogy’, 2003-2005. Video still

In combination, the three works reflect the same unbiased and non-judgemental approach of the artists, while using the female gaze as a means to question power dynamics between genders and subvert the relationship between viewer and subject. By placing themselves in potentially risky and vulnerable situations, the artists make the personal political, revealing stories of a militarized country, nationalism and male expectation; disputed territories of trauma and violence.

The opening night at CAG was packed, full of energy and surprise at the boldness of the exhibition. An article from the Vancouver Sun highlighted the filmed interactions as “being made from a woman’s vantage point. [For once] the male gaze was not dictating the terms of the engagement.”

After leaving the Contemporary Art Gallery the exhibition was shown at 126 Gallery in Galway, Ireland and at Kadist, Paris, both in 2011.

On June 29, 2018, a group exhibition will open at Triangle France in Marseilles; VOS DÉSIRS SONT LES NÔTRES feauring work by Ruti Sela and Maayan Amir along with artists Pauline Boudry & Renate Lorenz, Kudzanai-Violet Hwami, Jean-Charles de Quillacq, Roee Rosen, Liv Schulman, Ghita Skali. The exhibition will run until October 21, 2018.

This post was written by Tianna Barton with research and images taken from the Contemporary Art Gallery archive.