Izhar Patkin’s monumental glass sculpture, The Messiah’s glAss, was produced over a period of five years at the Centre International de Recherche Sur le Verre et les Arts Plastiques (CIRVA), Marseille, France, and is presented inside You Tell Us What to Do Act III, a painting for four walls on pleated illusion (tulle) veils, which envelops the gallery like a continuous, ethereally translucent mural.
Both the emblematic, transparent sculpture and the ephemeral images in the painting seem suspended between appearance and disappearance. Patkin’s translucent materials and associative narratives work together to convey a purposefully multifaceted encounter for the visitor. He creates cinematic dreamscapes in which histories, memories, and ideologies coalesce.
About the Work
A collage of ghostly imagery drawn from foundational events and myths of the creation of modern Israel greets the viewer. We see Arabs clustered on a beach between Tel Aviv and Jaffa before 1948; a hybrid Bauhaus-Orientalist synagogue built by Patkin’s great-grandfather in Netanya; and a boy on a donkey. In the foreground Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, presides over a stately European dining table. On the center wall the ship Altalena burns, destroyed in June 1948 in a confrontation between two branches of the nascent Israeli military. Before it, a desolate road leads to the Red Mountains of Jordan. A cart of antiquities thieves carrying busts of the Roman emperors Tiberius and Caligula stands near a cruciform utility pole. These suggestive images play hide-and-seek through the folds in the veils, offering impressions of fleeting, refracted forms.
The glass sculpture addresses the same foundational themes in allegorical terms. The decapitated head of a donkey lies atop a palanquin like the one that carried the biblical Ark of the Covenant. This table doubles as the animal’s body—legs, tail, and testicles. The title refers to a tradition originating in the Book of Zechariah, who prophesies that the Messiah will arrive riding a lowly ass. Parallel to Herzl’s vision, at the turn of the twentieth century, the influential Zionist theologian Rabbi Abraham Kook used this image as a parable of the creation of the State of Israel. For him, the donkey represented the secular Jew whose material power and energy would make him the vehicle of God, creating the nation-state of Israel. This event in itself would correct the profane secularity of the age of modernist Enlightenment. Its rider was the religious Jew, who would eventually lead it. The theme has been invoked to justify a range of national and religious ideologies concerning righteousness, redemption, and liberation. The contemporary scholar Sefi Rachlevsky, tracing the history of the idea, uses the Messiah’s Ass to argue that religious orthodoxy has overwhelmed secular Israel. In his 1998 best seller, The Messiah’s Ass, he names Patkin’s secular contemporaries the generation of the Messiah’s Ass.
Patkin’s metaphors respond to this layered, contentious narrative. In the sculpture the ass’s head wears a crown made of donkey ears. Is it a pagan laurel wreath? A Torah crown? Is the donkey the artist himself? The imagery imprinted on the diaphanous veils and in the crystalline sculpture is thus freighted with biblical promises, Zionist aspirations, autobiographical allusions, and, not least, the realities of contemporary Israel.
About the Artist
Izhar Patkin was born in Israel in 1955 and has lived in the United States since 1977. He gained recognition in the mid-1980s with The Black Paintings, done in white ink on black rubber curtains. These were an inventive visual adaptation of Jean Genet’s play The Blacks: A Clown Show. His work has been collected in depth by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; the Museum of Modern Art; the Whitney Museum of American Art; the Tel Aviv Museum of Art; the Open Museum, Tefen; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; and many other prominent institutions. He has exhibited extensively worldwide.