“Enchanted I Went with Them into the Night”

On Eitan Buganim’s “The Orientalist”
by Dr. Rotem Rozental

 

The most fantastical acts of sorcery require a structure, a system—an inherent logic that propels the improbable into existence. Eitan Buganim’s “The Orientalist,” a multi-channel video installation of four short films created in complete synchronization, engages the contradictions and connections between magic and mundane, intention and chance; from the depth of chaos that threatens to tear away at the everyday, and yet remains beneath the surface. The moment that precedes the eruption, the collapse of order, provides these videos their driving force.

The videos, each six minutes and twenty-five seconds in duration, are inextricably linked, woven together by their structure and pulse. Every plot twist and editorial intervention happens at the same moment. It is a reflexive experiment in shifting points of view and authorial roles, undermining our expectations as we await an impeding catastrophe, a reversal, or, at the very least, some sort of retaliation, a punishment to those who may have sinned. The four frames tell four mysterious stories. A beggar falls asleep while his cigarette drops on the ground and burns him alive as a group of people is getting ready for a party and ignore him; a woman who may or may not be cheating on her husband; a crying child emerging from the waves instead of the older girl that went into the water (portrayed by the artist’s children); a young woman hovers in the air, hypnotized and powerless—these characters conflate the positions, motivations and agonies of beholders and those being seen. Each piece ends with no severe consequences and yet, they harbor dangers and a climactic anxiety, which remains on the verge, unrealized, restrained. 

Two minutes in, a song takes over and transports the plot and the characters to a plane where anything can happen, where anything may have happened, or perhaps only took place in the imagination. It is an enigmatic in-between space, uncharted although it unfolds in front of us. “Ringing Bells” by Ahuva Ozeri, Jackie McCaiten’s “The Black Magic,” “The Sounds Came” by Haim Moshe, and Zohar Argov’s “It Was a Cloudy Evening” were all mega hits in Israel during the 1980s and 1990s, performed by musical giants that struggled to claim their place at the top. Each storyline is driven by these classic hits from the genre then referred to as “oriental” or Mizrahi music, and is now commonly referred to as Mediterranean music, indicating its origins in the Jewish communities of Arab descent. Jews emigrated from Arab and Islamic countries in large numbers in the early decades of pre-state Palestine, and also prior to the emergence of the Zionist presence in the region. It was only there, in the nascent Jewish nation, that they became Mizrahim, easterners, as opposed to the western Ashkenazi Jews who came from Europe.

At the time, these were songs of the disenfranchised, the marginalized shunned by an Ashkenazi hegemony that much preferred Eastern European folklore beats and songs of pioneers over gripping melodies of quarter-tone scales and Arab-infused ballads. Musical experiences that draw their listeners to oblivion, to Avalon, follow rhythmic structures, rules of melody and the enchanting forces of repetitive tempos. It is the structure that touches the psyche and releases our drives. And it is precisely this structure that renders music magical and dangerous, a harbinger of something unknown, decisively tempting and captivating. Precisely this structure renders the songs featured in “The Orientalist” so alluring, occupying the domain of the enchanted Other, the Mizrahi. In each of these videos, the late critic Galia Yahav noted, the characters reach a threshold for a miracle or catastrophe just as they begin to listen to these songs[1] – an irony since “Mizrahi” music was once the underbelly of Israeli culture, roaming the consciousness of local audiences, breathing down the neck of those who sought to repress it and ultimately failed.

To call this series “The Orientalist,” then, is to nod at shifting dynamics of cultural powers and social points of views. For English speaking audiences, “Orientalist” immediately evokes a position of privilege, of colonial bias and prejudice. For Hebrew speaking viewers, however, the title has an added layer of significance. Titled Ha’Mizrahit, meaning, the oriental or Mizrahi in female form, the title consciously conflates the ways in which this musical genre was referred to, and how both its creators and consumers were viewed. The title seems to hold these various perspectives, between the pains of the day-to-day, from which it is impossible to escape, and the fantasy to observe life from a bird’s eye view, to relinquish control and enter a phantasmagoric space of experience. The works ask us to behold these positions and ambiguities simultaneously, to dwell in the uneasiness of their shared existence.

The move between fantasy and physical presence, between succumbing to temptation and latching on to rationalist thinking, appears explicitly in the video “The Woman That Hovered Under the Moonlight.” We behold a theater, where a female lecturer on stage discusses the impact of music on the body as she hypnotizes a young woman. She talks about the magnetic field created between bodies, a force that can only be measured in its vitality, which cannot be described, only felt. “Oriental music,” she adds, “is able to direct its vital energy toward the listener, and release blockages in the natural flow of the human body. Balance, harmony, can be restored.”  She then moves her chair closer to the woman, in front of an audience whose faces cannot be seen. All forms of music, she continues, can encourage a trance-like state. As she discusses repetitive pulses in Mizrahi music, in mizrahit, she moves her hands up and down the woman’s body, who responds by closing her eyes. The lecturer describes how lyrics can trigger memories, how melody can envelop our bodies, how music reminds us we are part of nature.

Her words, measured and flat, then become shrouded in Yehuda Keissar’s famous guitar riffs in Jackie McCatien’s 1982 hit, “The Black Magic.” Keissar’s guitar, McCaiten’s voice, and the lecturer’s hands overwhelm the woman’s body, now in a deep state of trance. It won’t be long until she will tilt her head back and her body levitate toward the ceiling. She is alone, observed and examined, and remains suspended, slowly twisting and turning in the air. She has surrendered to the seductive gesture of the lecturer, the music, the guitar, which led her to that force field where blockages might be released. What will happen after the release? We are given no answer. The scene moves between scientific curiosities and pseudo-scientific perils, reflecting and riffing on the theoretical structures of psychoanalysis endlessly searching to figure out what to do with all those women suffering from hysteria, who must be analyzed, diagnosed and cured, amid the appeal of the erotic dimensions of the human psyche. These theories are as enthralling as the tantalizing guitar, as analytic and methodical as they are emotional and mysterious. Freud’s own early followers were drawn to the occult; Carl Jung advocated for expanding psychanalytic theory into the realm of spiritualism.[2]  Much of this wisdom has been categorized as Eastern, as feminine and irrational. In Buganim’s video, though, magic meets theory, and the erotic drives of the mind struggle to make their way to the surface. The artist is simultaneously the narrator, the editor, and the magician who stretches the limits of experience to its possible edge, conflating black magic with suspended bodies, the forces of temptation with the structures we create to hang onto existence.

The song, hovering and bewitching, had its own journey on and off stage, between bodies and the force fields of culture. In every iteration, it was embraced by marginalized creators, who then ushered it into the mainstream. Originally written in Spanish, it was recorded for the first time in 1942 by the Mexican singer Toña la Negra as “Angelito Negros.” [3] Its lyrics and undertones focused not on unattained love but on the erasure of the Black body. In 1953, the American singer Eartha Kitt recorded it as “Paint Me Black Angels,” a protest against racial discrimination. Performing the song for a German radio station, she opened by noting, “every time I walk into a church I see white angels. Why?” Kitt sang about a painter with “a foreign paint brush” who followed “so many old painters.” “Paint little black angels for me,” she pleaded, “why have you in painting your paintings forgotten black people […] paint me some black angels now.[4] By the end of that recording, her face was covered in tears. The hit song found its way to Israel of the 1950s, and lyricist Avraham Broshi decided to translate it into Hebrew for the admirers of the salon dance scene, the complete opposite of the ruling austere Zionist establishment. In the revised lyrics, he sought to capture a sense of “distant, exotic love that took shape mostly in the imagination.[5] Kitt’s missing black angels and her plea to the painter became a mysterious woman, referred to as “black magic,” whose body is “blacker than black,” that turned his “heart to a slave.” The missing bodies of the black angels then became the feminine, Mizrahi body, enslaving yearning lovers. If being Mizrahi meant being differentiated and oppressed, the female body was then subjugated as both black and feminine, the product of a twofold deviation that produced a seductive, destructive other. Broshi’s translation was recorded in 1954 by the Holocaust-survivor singer Nisso Matityah Dario and became a huge hit across the isolated struggling country. It took three decades until the song resurged with McCaiten’s cover, followed by additional versions by other later superstars, who, unlike McCaiten, became fixtures of Israeli pop.

Buganim navigates these shifting perspectives and histories in this project. “I deconstructed my life to a few points of view,” he says when we meet in his studio in Tel Aviv. “I was walking outside the studio here one day and saw a beggar smoking a cigarette, and it dropped. He was lying on cardboard. I saw that and paused. There was this moment when a narrative developed, that he is in danger. He was not, of course, but I found myself imagining what might have happened, wondering about my involvement in my immediate surrounding, and the world at large.” This haunting image led him to explore inner conflicts and emotional struggles around parenting, relationships, and cultural disparities. In “The Beggar,” the man is engulfed in flames, while a DJ and three other people disregard the disaster as they set up her station and monitors. Motionless, it seems he is also unaware of his own tragic demise. Each of the films involve a dimension of physical metamorphosis, which is unexpected, or perhaps only imagined. In “The Treacherous”, we see a woman sitting in a car, speaking to her husband over the phone, sharing the night’s successful concert. A man enters the car, and they begin to passionately embrace and kiss. The scene ends abruptly, and she is suddenly alone again in the car. Was he ever there? Was she imagining his presence? We cannot be sure.

Each video in The Orientalist conjures an asymmetric relationship, signified by a natural element, in which one side seems to have an advantage, and yet, we wonder who holds power over whom. The characters struggle between the need to make sense and the desire to cast spells out of sight, to let go. “The sounds came and drew me after them,” sings Haim Moshe in “The Crying Child,” while the mother watches her daughter running into the waves, returning as a weeping younger boy, “bewitched I followed them into the night.” Here, as we follow the sounds, fire, earth, wind and water strike down logic and offer acts of resistance, fueled by the emotional peaks of the songs that, with their distinctive melodic structure, might be casting spells of their own.

[1] Galia Yahav, “The Secret of Black Magic,” Ha’aretz, April 19, 2016. [In Hebrew]

[2] Livia Gershon, “When Psychoanalysts Believed in Magic,” Daily Jstor, January 22, 2019. https://daily.jstor.org/when-psychoanalysts-believed-in-magic/

[3] Dudi Fatimer, “The Salon Dance Classic that Was Translated from Spanish and Conquered Israel in 1954,” Ma’ariv Online, November 7, 2020 [In Hebrew]. https://www.maariv.co.il/culture/music/Article-776772 

[4] Eartha Kitt, “Black Little Angels,” performed for Sarre-Saarland Radio, Saarländischen-Rundfunks, Germany, October 25, 1970, accessed on Youtube.com https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cnPga2-sfkY 

[5] Fatimer, “The Salon Dance Classic,” Ibid.