On the invitation to her exhibition at the Efrat Gallery in Tel Aviv (January-February 2000) Tanya Preminger had printed a photograph of a round stone sculpture with ten udders bulging underneath. Set on a table covered with a map, the round body was flanked by two burning candles on candle stands, and a sign reading “Hear O Israel, the Lady our God is one Lady” [in Hebrew feminine declension] hung above. Preminger’s kiddush (blessing) ceremony made a pagan, female statement: the celestial had turned into a heavy, earthly body in which omnipotent maternal animality merged with the form of a sealed container. The back of the invitation featured a photograph of another “divinity”: again, a round, heavy body fully leaning on a host of udders and whose head, a round orifice reminiscent of a volcano crater, conferred on the “animal” a container’s qualities. A white surface (milk?) “floated” on top of the maternal container. And on the side, the phrase“Blessed art thou, Lady our god, queen of the universe, which nourishes the whole world in her goodness” enhanced the female theological message.
A divine mother or a nursing god-mother has reigned over Tanya Preminger’s sculptural world since the second half of the 1990s. In 1996 she sculpted Sky and Earth, a dualist basalt sculpture that revealed metaphysical tension: the Earth was represented by an ancient four-horn altar. At the tip of the four horns laySky, also a basalt structure, a heavily riddled globe (similar to a celestial body damaged by meteorites yet adamantly surviving), whose five “feet” were nipples suckling at the altar horns. Keen in both its presence and message, this work turned the monotheistic heaven into a giant udder-shaped maternal being. This is an ambivalent divinity–feeding, that is, lavishing benevolence, but no less devouring and sucking its milk from the blood of human sacrifice, from the altar. Unless, as Preminger would be quick to confirm, the altar is yet another core aspect of the divine mother herself, whose life is the sum of her sacrifices to her children.
The marriage between altar and divine udder has haunted Preminger ever since her Super-Woman (1994-1995), a minimalist, rectangular marble table with a four-nipple udder dangling from its bottom, and whose head was the large orifice of a container filled, so to speak, with a red “fluid” (a painted aluminum surface) probably signifying blood. In rituals, the altar was often replaced with a table; even the Talmud writes that “as long as the Temple stood, the altar atoned for Israel; now man’s table atones for it.” Here the altar-container received the victim’s blood, turning it into mother’s milk. Still, instead of reversal, this sculpture may spell the duality of giving life through the mother’s milk and the blood of the birth-giving woman.
Judaism has fiercely warned against mixing blood and milk (“Even a drop of blood in milk makes it unclean,” Rashi, Masechet Iruvin) 1 and has forbidden eating meat with milk. But if one accepts the interpretation that transfigures milk into blood, that is, reverses life and death, Preminger’s pagan space is different. A square dolomite table (1994) resembles an animal on four legs with a large udder hanging from its “belly,” while the sleek angular sawing of the legs serves as a counterpoint to the pristine rawness of the upper surface, the rugged sacrifice area. Basic sculptural tensions between the geometrical cutting and amorphous rocks echo the tension between the cube-“altar” and the ball-“udder,” an confluence of contradictions similar to the round-square paradox. The 1997 sculpture Mater nostra (our mother, a retort to the Christian “Pater noster”) is also a heavy, vaguely Oriental, square stone table, whose giant six-nipple udder thrusts out of both flanks, while the table head features a slightly pregnant swelling. The altar has the presence of a house and gates, and the house (the Temple?) is the ambivalent place of her who gives and takes life or gives life with her milk and blood.2 No wonder, then, that Preminger designed her 1993 self-portrait, holding sculpting tools, as a large 1.6-m-high stone structure reminiscent of both a pre-historical sarcophagus and a Russian doll that gives birth to other dolls. Does the mother sacrifice herself or her children? Preminger would say: herself. The interpreter who sees Preminger’s work through the archaic prism of “the great mother” would say: the mother devours her children. Let the viewer/reader choose her own prism.
Prodigal and devouring fertility goddesses have been part of civilization ever since; the history of sculpture is unthinkable without them. Preminger’s reclaiming of these goddesses no doubt blends the female act of changing God’s gender with a theological outcry against the absurd marriage of grace and inclemency. From a psychoanalytic angle her act may even harbor a love-hate attitude toward the mother figure. Still, Preminger’s call is also tantamount to worship of motherhood as the ultimate life-giving power and to the latter’s expansion to transcendental dimensions of unconditional giving. The word “mother” recurs in many sculptures, among which The stone mother (1999), an eight-udder animal-altar, and the marble-and-ceramics sculpture Four mothers(2001), an overwhelming totem of eight breasts soaring every which way. Any political connotation of the term “four mothers” (the mothers’ protest against the IDF presence in Lebanon) pales against the fusion of myth, femaleness, and psychoanalysis. Preminger’s sculptures are a possible retort to Menashe Kadishman’s Ram (1985, steel cut-out), which has turned from victim into an idol that claims Isaac’s head. In Avraham Ofek’s 1981 bronze sculpture, the mother’s, Sara’s, arms rise from the altar like ram horns, bewailing and grieving over the sacrificed son (Isaac’s ram horn is lying opposite). Preminger, too, has fused the altar with the mother and her son, but her sculptures may attribute to the mother-altar the meaning of infinite giving and, as such, refute any reference to sacrifice. From the artist’s point of view, neither Sara, nor Mary, nor Hator, the Egyptian cow-goddess, underpin her sculptures but the shechina, that is, God’s female attribute.
The hybrid of animal, table-altar, udder, and container may focus on or highlight a specific element in this quartet. For example, the 1997 Pot is an udder table headed by a wide, round, red orifice. The 1997 Jug also stresses the container dimension (its clay pays homage to a long tradition of pottery), yet does not minimize the presence of the animal’s udder and limbs, i.e., buttocks and legs. The combination of red loam and clay enhances the “mother-earth” aspect, as In Goodness of Earth , Preminger’s earth work of 1998 and 2003, which featured three earth mounds, pregnant swellings topped with a gaping round orifice. The black, white, and red tints of the upper formica surfaces signify, according to the artist, oil, milk, and blood: “Black is oil, industrial energy, white stands for human milk, and red for blood, for divine power.” The earth mounds are the thriving, fertile offshoots of the good mother, mother earth, pervasively present in Hebrew poetry and which the Hebrew language has deftly imbricated with sexuality: shdema (field or vineyard) = shad (breast) + adama (earth); sade (field) = shad (breast); har (mountain) = heraion (pregnancy). A recurrent principle in these sculptures, the absent, “severed” head, which has been and replaced with the round, red neck orifice, signifies the erasure of the (monotheistic) “spirit” in favor of the earthly body. And yet, with the crescendo in the sculptures’ spiritual presence, their earthly, material being, too, gathers momentum. For example, the 1995 Cloud translates the cloud’s celestial lightness (marble) into a horizontal three-nipple body lying as a pre-historical lizard on a dolmenic or totemic basalt body. Here too, heavy, black, phallic, that is, male earthliness blends with a celestial quality incarnated in hovering female corporeality.
Highlighted in some of Preminger’s work, the sexual dimension transpires in all these sculptures. An absent head may be converted into a vaginal form in the stone sculpture Mater2000 (1999). The sculpture Mamma, of the same year, is a body lying on its fourteen nipples, while its upper back features a vaginal cleft along its entire 1.7 m. This is the birth organ in its supreme divine-maternal function, but also the reproductive organ, the core site of intercourse, and a sarcophagus, a tomb. Birth and death. And the perennial question comes to mind: who is lying in the tomb?
But not common sexuality is at stake here. The sexual act suggested in Preminger’s sculptures is the metaphysical-cosmic intercourse of heaven and earth. This is not an harmonious act of surrender. Rather, it is suffused with the enormous tension of sparring contrasts and the role reversal whereby femaleness gets the better of maleness. The reversal of traditional roles imposes on the earth obtuse maleness and on the sky female qualities.3 in the 1996 Sky and earth, which features two identical rectangular blocks, albeit contrasting in material and color, the white of the upper marble block penetrates the black of the basalt block lying underneath. In traditional terminology, heaven is fertilizing the earth (mother-earth). But in terms of Preminger’s reversal, which imposes femaleness on the firmament, the woman possesses the man.
A year before she made this sculpture, Preminger took a raw rock and erected from it a finger in classicist-realist style. The artist’s aggression, conveyed already in the work’s title, Fuck, leaves in her sculptures a last, disdainful trace of male potency in its traditional incarnation as imperious, earthly wildness, even though the male organ is dwarfed by the power of the giant rock. Or is this the mythical maternal earth pointing a defiant finger at him who possessed her? Either way, from now on, cosmic femaleness is the penetrating, possessing agent. Female sexuality, an autonomous category in Preminger’s previous sculptures (Containers, 1982, a dozen vaginal clay sea shells), has now been coupled with male sexuality, defeating it in a cosmogonist victory.
Precisely Preminger’s more abstract sculptures, those referring to the “order of the world,” as she says, harbor the tension of intercourse as heavy pressure (The tension field, 2000: two giant superposed stone disk halves slightly separated by two stone wedges); the tension of deviation and adjustment difficulties, as in Universe, 2003, where the two halves of the universe disk, separated by a sinuous yin-yang line, refuse to adjust; the tension of penetration that joins and cleaves at once (Five, 1997: the mutual support of the two hand-like rocks, a human hand and a divine hand, was created by mutual piercing). And yet, in the fertilizing intercourse, the fusion of sexual contrasts extends into the fusion of other contrasts: physical/ metaphysical, earthly/celestial, material/spiritual.
Preminger embarked on her artistic career in Israel after immigrating in 1972 at the age of twenty-eight from the Soviet Union, where she had studied at the Moscow Academy of Art. She first worked with wood, paint, and other materials that “corresponded” with Russian folk toys (an exhibition at the Sharet Gallery, Givatayim, 1987, curator: Igal Ben-Nun). Indeed, a free ludic quality, which has preserved the spirit of an eternal child is the key to the artist’s astonishingly creative world. Her prolific work with an unlimited range of materials and media bespeaks a dynamic world that cuts across definitions: she touches on archaic sculpture, pop-art, geometric minimalism, earth work, figurative sculpture, garden design, conceptuality, body sculpture, anything. Already in her 1988 exhibition at the Herzliya Museum, curated by Yoav Dagon, and no more than a year after the “toy” exhibition, her inexhaustible passion to sculpt, her creative verve and fiery imagination have attested to her venture into new artistic domains. A minimalist sensibility directed Preminger to basic forms sawed in parallel lines and to new materials, such as wire hoops, Perspex disks, etc., which defied the raw stone again and again. Geometric drawing-line abstraction defied biomorphous lines. A printing mold carved into stone was combined with tiny plastic imprints. The earth had begun to speak its mind, and the spirit of the Eros myth erupted from its entrails. From then on, any material, any medium was suitable, and, as in the well-known spiritual, “she’s got the world in her hands.”
Until the late 1980s and early 1990s, one could still notice where Preminger’s archaistic stone sculptures were indebted to Dalia Meiri’s basalt sculpture or to Avraham Ofek’s mythical stone sculptures (five round hollows she carved into a basalt rock in 1989 are reminiscent of Ofek’s biblical sculptures from the late 1970s. Clock, which she created in 1989 by setting up mostly raw basalt rocks, brings to mind Dalia Meiri’s work of the early 1980s). But at that time the earth and rocks began to grow protrusions resembling the horns of a prehistoric animal, and the soil was piled up into a mound shaped like a horned altar (Altar, 1990; hair placed at the altar head represented remnants of Eros). The earth began to seethe and, as early as 1989, it grew mysterious bellies or spurted swollen orifices on the lawn. The earth displayed a giant, yawning vaginal trench, which, in 1989, was a swollen fissure in the earth with red flowers planted around it as a symbol of blood, or it “became pregnant” with a swollen body with bursting hair, etc. Such is the divine mother’s epiphany in Preminger’s work.
In Window to another world (1989) Preminger dug into a lawn at Givat Brenner six rectangular windows (in a reticular structure of 3 x 5 m) and underneath installed mirrors. In this well work, which suggests an affinity with Micha Ulman’s artistic language, the “windows” resemble tombs. Here the munificent earth reveals its other face–“for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” With the underlying mirrors reflecting the sky, the work conveys the unity of earth and sky. And when the earth turns celestial, mother earth is crowned as ruler of the queendom of heaven. Here Preminger has come close also to Andy Goldsworthy’s work, the British artist who works in nature with natural materials and organic elements.
Preminger refined this enhancement and anthropomorphic transformation of nature, its infusion with the power of birth and death to the point where she made rocks move: The mountain came to Muhamad (2002) is a large marble block, a sort of rock-breast “moving” on minute legs like an ancient animal (on the political level, Preminger responded to the 9/11 disaster and the growing strength of the Islamic world).Promenade (2000), a stone cube with soft hollows, marches on four legs. In 1997 four granite Christian tombstones walked in line, each on four legs, like monks in a file.
Preminger’s work is based on systemic disruption. Her sculptures, which confirm her interference with the cosmic order, insist on bringing about changes in and deviations from absolute categories and rational order. The Kabbalah claims God created the world as a lark, and Preminger, too, seems to create out of such ludic impulse. She is, indeed, the great goddess: she transforms solid into liquid (hard into soft), inanimate into animate, small into large, a practical domestic object into an exterior impractical object, and so on. In her domestic-object sculptures she responds to the stay-at-home woman with the vigor of the free woman-goddess who torments kitchen utensils and products. In her nature work she bends a blooming tree like an arc, its top now buried in the earth (2001), yet another reminder of “for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return”; she paints shadows in the form of a tree (the white shadow is the tree’s death shadow), or a horse whose shadow a dog casts in A dog’s dream, 1991; she designs a fissure in marble for a liquid jet as though it were bursting from a rock (Event, 1997), as though she were Moses striking the rock and bringing forth water. Preminger stands up to God and plays pranks on the order of the world. Did she directly defy the creator of the world when, in 1988, she carved the phrase:”Made by GOD “ in a giant rock? And yet, she was there the omnipotent creator.
In 1998 Preminger created Baggage, a 1.4-meter-long heavy rectangular body designed like a movable object for human transport, with two handles on each side, a sort of thick stretcher that cannot be carried. Yet another paradox. The sculpture inevitably evokes a coffin or the biblical Holy Ark. This is the duality of the containers the people of Israel carried on their wandering through the Sinai desert: the Ark of the Covenant and the coffin with Joseph’s remains. Either way, Preminger’s ark-coffin is a piece of furniture emptied of its sacredness, whether life’s or God’s. Totally anonymous, this “Baggage” bears no marks of either the Torah or the dead’s name. The only language here is that of sculpture. The “Baggage” is a movable stone block from which the artist will “beget” anything she wishes. The great goddess creates sculptures, and the sole “sacred” is sculpture.
The great mother is mother to four children and a spate of sculptures, mythical and anti-mythical. Preminger creates a ritual sculpture and winks. In every pathos she implants the seed of smiling, which is the seed of disruption and subversion that counter male omnipotence with female omnipotence. All her sculptures populate a universe where her udder-altars are “grazing,” imposing their power everywhere.
1. In her writing and collage works of the 1974-1976 period Michal Ne’eman, too, fused blood and milk, as, for example, in Kid in its mother’s milk.
2. In the 1998 Altar the udder table features a cupola reminiscent of a mosque or Middle-Eastern temple.
3. Jewish tradition identifies the sky with fertilizing maleness and the earth as fertilized femaleness. Rain is a fertilizing act meant to bring fulfillment. As already said, Preminger has turned things topsy-turvy.
Translated by Beatrice Smedley