Anat Ben David: MeleCh

8–18 January, Stanley Picker Gallery, Kingston upon Thames

By Robert Barry

Anat Ben David, MeleCh, 2014. Courtesy the artist Anat Ben David, MeleCh, 2014. Courtesy the artist

“Propagate air,” she intones elastically, her voice morphing from a childish treble to an inhuman basso profundo. “Blast the spine that has become reptile… keep breathing, as it will save you, as it is electricity… Sound athlete…Body-instrument… Source-transmitter.”

Anat Ben David’s Deleuzian-Dalcrozian text score cum-manifesto is performed to a backing track of looped electronic croaks and stutters in the main gallery at Stanley Picker. Simultaneously stripping back and complicating the code sand gestures of pop, Ben David is multiplied and transformed by diverse digital prostheses (echoes, loops, harmonisers, video projections); her machinic, Cathy Berberian-esque Sprechstimme itself becoming the arch double of a pop singer’s affected hyper-affectivity.

This electrifying performance is just one aspect of Ben David’s current show, but the way her stage equipment remains set up throughout the life of the exhibition suggests that a concert might spontaneously erupt at any moment (and, indeed, Ben David is apt to rehearse here during gallery hours). Ultimately the artist considers the whole show to be one work, MeleCh (king, 2014), with each iteration housed in the gallery’s two rooms – photographs, video, performance, text, a vinyl album – sprouting from the same technical-conceptual seed. That process, elaborated in the text already quoted, combines the surrealist art of automatic writing with the biomechanical theatre practice of Soviet director Vsevolod Meyerhold to forge a versatile autopoietic discipline.

In the first room of the gallery we find a series of black-and-white photographs that immediately evoke images of Meyerhold’s avant-garde workshops, with Ben David herself striking a series of dynamic poses: arms outstretched or crooked at 90 degrees, legs bent and poised for action. But in the next room we find a set of strikingly different – though formally similar (A4, portrait, colourless, etc) – images. Here the artist throws her body violently against the ground, her naked torso brutally contorted.

Though wrung from the same technique, these images present a dramatically different image of the body from the futurist strongmen in the other room. It is significant, perhaps, that Ben David worked alone, snapping herself on a timer. If there is a relation of subjection to be dealt with, it is the artist’s relationship with herself – or with the device.

The three videos in the main room at once provide the mirrored reverse of the photographs while closing the circuit back to the performance. Their bright primary colours contrast with the photographic greyscale. Though set in constant motion, Ben David’s variously starched or supine static poses counterpoise the sprung vitality of the stills.

Each video emits noises, mostly layered vocals processed into lolling oscillator whoops, and superimposed they produce a strangely inviting kind of cacophony. It is from the third video that the show takes its title. Though generated as spontaneously as the others, the sounds subsequently evoked for Ben David a ritual of supplication to an Egyptian king.

Developed by Aleksei Gastev as a kind of Soviet scientific management for the socialist workplace, in Meyerhold’s hands biomechanics became a utopia of mind and body, physical discipline and futurist dream. Anat Ben David’s work reaches towards these other worlds with disarming frankness. A soft machine for the production of new myths, as engaging as it is unsettling.

This article was first published in the April 2014 issue.