The Space Between: Israeli-born artists nomad mind mixes archaeology, myth

You may not have heard the news, but apparently God’s chariot from the book of Ezekiel was recently discovered in the Marin Headlands. In another stunning find, one of the four portals into Paradise was unearthed at the entrance to the West Oakland BART Station.

Or so says Sarah Gray, whose Oakland-based Sarah Gray Research Headquarters has presented ample “evidence” in the form of videos, pottery and other documentation.

Sarah Gray is the alter ego of Israeli-born artist Merav Tzur, whose humorous mixing of art, science, Bible and YouTube-style videos has just earned her a coveted SECA Art Award nomination from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and one of two prizes awarded by the Dorothy Saxe Invitational, as part of the Contemporary Jewish Museum exhibition, “Do Not Destroy: Trees, Art and Jewish Thought.”

Tzur is soft-spoken and rigorously serious in person. Until she starts talking about Sarah Gray — in the third person.

“Sarah Gray is a normal person, doing what we all do, re-examining things carefully to try to give meaning to them,” explains Tzur, 45. For instance, to create her faux video tutorial on grafting the Tree of Knowledge for “Do Not Destroy,” Sarah Gray entered “tree of knowledge” into the Internet and used the first ten pages of results as the “official” record of possible fruits. The result is a hilarious send-up of both science and biblical interpretation, while asking serious questions about truth, curiosity and the intense human need to create meaning. The fact that this experiment is doomed from the start adds an additional level of poignancy.

Tzur credits her Israeli upbringing — including growing up on a kibbutz halfway between Tel Aviv and Gaza — with most of the raw material for her work. For instance, she explains that Israel built an identity, in part, on “proof” of ancient Jewish residence on the land. But what happens to that identity, she asks, if specific evidence is proven to be ambiguous, or even false?

“Take the Masada story, for instance,” she explains. The story of Jewish fighters holding off the Roman army before committing mass suicide was a foundational story for a young Israel, buttressed by the archaeological findings of Yigael Yadin in the 1950s. But new research suggests that the actual history might have been quite different. What happens, Tzur asks, when an Israeli national myth “pivotal for the country’s sense of identity was likely not true?”

Her installation, “The Discovery of the Celestial Chariot,” is a commentary and recreation of Yadin’s excavations. As she drolly explains: “The chariot crashed in the headlands, and Yigael Yadin and Sarah Gray work together to unearth the information. The installation is the findings from the dig.”

Merav Tzur (left) with Sarah Gray Research Headquarters collaborator Michael Goodier, preparing for an experiment in the California desert

This installation, presented as part of a student group show at U.C. Berkeley, was singled out by the San Francisco Chronicle as “hugely ambitious and completely enchanting.”

Tzur’s work mixes high theory with accessible performance, and acknowledges the importance of play to artistic creation. The creation of “Sarah Gray,” for instance, was not a premeditated act of post-modernism. “I was in a pizza place,” she said, “and after many instances of having to say my name, and then spell it out, I told them I was Sarah Gray. It just came out. Suddenly I became anonymous.”

With this anonymity came freedom, which is jet fuel for an artist. And in this new space between background and future, or truth and fiction, her art began to reveal itself, and a theory of artistic practice flowered.

“It doesn’t make sense in today’s world to work in one little space. Look at the structure of the Internet, where everything is connected, instead of being hierarchical,” she explains. The theoretical term for this approach to art is “rhizomatic,” but Tzur is fond of the term “nomad mind,” which feels more Jewish. “The nomad mind is one that moves through different realities and spaces, and feels comfortable in all of them. This is what the contemporary world is all about.”

In a recent installation at the Krowswork Gallery in Oakland, part of a group show called “Ficciones,” Tzur attempted to transform her personal “space between” into a communal one — a kind of artistic kibbutz. As Sarah Gray, she invited people — artists and non-artists alike — to submit a research project to the Sarah Gray Research Headquarters. Winners of this contest (and every applicant won) would have an opportunity to explain their projects to visitors, and work with them to pursue their research.

“I’ve become less and less interested in just my own ideas, and more interested in bringing people together to create what you could call a socio-dramatic space,” she said. Drawing on her childhood playing in the kibbutz junkyard that passed for a playground, Tzur aimed in “Ficciones” to give people an opportunity to improvise, build and discover, and in so doing give meaning to things, the same way our ancestors created rituals out of the spiritual materials around them.

Where is the idea of truth in all this? Tzur tells me a story.

“My father is a great storyteller. We all sit around, and he tells us about the time he and mom met. And my mother always says, ‘But this is not how it happened. This is not how we met. We didn’t go all the way to the top of the mountain.’ But the story was so good! So we told our mom, ‘Who cares about the truth?’ The truth is overrated.”



Dan Schifrin
Dan Schifrin

Daniel Schifrin, a local teacher and writer, is writing a play about medieval Jewish Spain as a LABA Fellow at the JCC East Bay.