Between Muteness and Speech / Hilla Ben Ari

translated by: Margalit Rodgers

Is a gesture mute or does it have a voice? I wish to propose a notion whereby a gesture maintains a paradoxical bodily state of simultaneous muteness and speech.

A gesture is an act that creates a disruption of the linear sequence, and functions as a separate time-space unit that is located within the timeline but at the same time also deviates from it. A gesture gains its meaning by virtue of being part of a sequence, but out of context it is absent the power of mythical speech. In other words, a gesture exists in a state of contradiction, simultaneously present and nullified: by virtue of the sequence it receives the voice of the collective, historical narrative that becomes its own voice. But at the same time, its detachment from the sequence leaves it lacking.

In the exhibition Phoneme (2016) I presented a video installation that showed four individual gestures. The gestures were not presented in the context of a complete story, but in and of themselves, as detached, continuous units. Each one presented a figure that signified a voice or produced segments of sound, and together they created a kind of mute chamber quartet. A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound in a linguistic system, a unit within a structure. Like a gesture, it does not possess a meaning of its own, but within a context it creates presence and at times even accumulates a certain kind of political power. A phoneme, therefore, is a mute, detached sound, but still a sound.

A phoneme and a gesture possess limited power of speech and – like femininity – are perceived as a space without a time of its own, whereas the historical, linear sequence builds an action of meaning on their foundations.[1] They are never full and do not exist as a rounded, multifaceted presence. Their anorectic presence gains expression in the space and on the timeline. They are squashed, flat, and almost static. The two-dimensional state is associated with the inability to physically and metaphorically produce sound, whether it is a squashed echo chamber or a feminine (or other) identity that cannot emerge within the power systems. I saw the four works from Phoneme as physical and vocal postures that make persistent efforts to create presence as they are saturated with the pain of nullification. Their sound is blocked, signified, or articulated in the sequence, seeking to emerge out of spatiality (the body) and into the timeline (acknowledgement).

Hilla Ben Ari, Phoneme, 2016, from the video | Performer: Avital Barak | Photograph: Asaf Saban

A voice attains its presence on the timeline, and needs it in order to gain expression. What is the state of a body placed within a narrative that does not represent it, within a voice that is not its own, while it actually lacks a voice of its own? Detachment is an immanent state of the feminine in this cultural yoke. The process of separateness that should lead to identity formation, to self-definition, and to creation of a basis within the social order, is not realized as it should be. Detached is she who tried to separate, but also she who remained attached.

However, the detachment of a gesture makes an act of opposition possible, and not only a constant and continuous experience of pain. A gesture is a physical act that disrupts the linear sequence, that is torn from the timeline, and provokes it. The disruption of the timeline creates a kind of opportunity and possibility, an opening in the fortified fence of the myth, of the collective narrative. It is an opening through which the body can refuse to take part in the big story in which it is located. In other words, at the same time the muteness and silence of the gesture is the “voice” of the “other” body’s refusal.

A gesture can serve as an opening not only against the powers of the historical sequence and collective narrative, but also against the arid and static space of the trauma. The mute entity is always located in the space of trauma. It is not a chronological event or sequence that contains pre-, trauma, and post, but a constantly existing static space. In this regard I wish to think of gesture as a dissociative act – splitting as a defense mechanism. The dissociation is manifested in the recurrent repetition of an obedient body that follows all the rules and performs them over and over while concealing its own excesses (femininity or “other” identity). In other words, the two-dimensional body is sent forward as a façade and echoes the sound of the system in which it is located, while the bodily-material voice is hidden, protected, and shielded until it is not familiar even to the body that can produce it.

In both forms of a gesture’s opposition, whether in refusal to take part in the narrative or in employing a defense mechanism, the expression of the “voice” is in avoidance, that is, silence. I wish to examine how that volume-less, anorectic body can still function as a kind of thin string, and even though it lacks an echo chamber it has the power to presence a voice.

I also sought to examine the partial voice that appeared in Phoneme in the midrash I created for the play Tubal-Cain: A Primeval Play in Five Acts, which was written in 1951 by Nahum Benari, my grandfather’s brother. At the center of the video project is Naamah, a mute gleaner and Tubal-Cain’s sister, and although her part in the plot seems marginal, I consider her a key character.

The play is a complex and trenchant interpretation that binds together Jewish sources and Greek myths. I seek to read the play through one of the implicit connections in it – the analogy of the differences and similarities between the mute Naamah and the rebellious Antigone. Even though it does not appear explicitly and overtly, this analogy positions Naamah as a significant character. Additionally, the connection between the two protagonists raises the engagement with the feminine voice that both in silence and rebellion is unable to make itself heard or stand up to masculine aggressiveness. Accidentally crushed by her father, Naamah’s voice is silenced, and as it fades the thunderous, violent voice of her brother Tubal-Cain rises and increases.

The video is composed of dozens of gestures assembled into a five-act structure, moving between the storyline and staticity and restriction, simultaneously tracing and deconstructing the mythical dimension. One gesture is of Naamah in a bow pose, a net containing grains of wheat tied to her arms and legs. This gesture appears several times during the sequence, and through it a kind of recurrent attempt is made to accord volume and vocal presence to the mute body. The word “volume”, which refers to intensity of sound and to three-dimensional space, creates the overlap and context.

Naamah’s gesture is a performance that creates intersection between her body and a musical instrument. She echoes the string instruments of her two brothers (the musical bow of Jubal, the inventor of music, and the killing bow of Tubal-Cain), blending with the soft sound she produces as the grains of wheat fall to the floor. This is a physical-spatial gesture that measures time like an hourglass or a reverse pregnancy. A kind of contradictory state of empty-full presence that echoes sounds but also accumulates a voice of its own.[2]


[1] In Space, Place and Gender Doreen Massey writes about the gendered division of the time-space dichotomy: according to her, in Western society time is perceived in masculine terms, defined by such things as history, dynamism, and change, and is associated with concepts such as progress and culture. By contrast, space is defined in feminine terms, defined by lack, absence, emptiness, natural state, staticity, and passivity. Time, which is the privileged signifier, is perceived as establishing and structuring the empty and lacking space. Massey, D. (1994). Space, Place and Gender. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, pp. 256- 263.

[2] According to Gillian Rose, the only possible space for the feminist subject is a paradoxical space that contains both the hegemonic space and the “other” space of resistance. Being in a paradoxical space means simultaneously occupying contradictory spaces; being that is in effect perpetual movement of contradiction and multiplicity. Rose, G. (1993). Feminism and Geography: The Limits of Geographical Knowledge. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, p. 140.