Text accompanying the exhibition:
Johanna Burton, "Weasel Words: Orit Raff’s ‘Hunt-the-Slipper’ in Two Acts"
I’ve heard that weasels can suck the contents out of an egg with such force and precision that the shell is left empty but perfectly intact; that northern weasels camouflage themselves in winter, turning a snowy white with the exception of the very tip of the tail; that weasels have bodies so lithe that they can elongate themselves and squeeze through spaces no thicker than my finger; that weasels emit a pungent odor that is impossible to get rid of; that weasels are symbols of fertility; that weasels are symbols of death; that weasels give birth to their young through their mouths and ears.
Of course, some of the list above is myth, some is fantastic truth. It is this intersection between myth and truth that makes up the foundation of Orit Raff’s installation, ‘Hunt-the-Slipper.’ The work, in two parts, is to be viewed in ‘acts’ – as in-process, moving, unstable, and (true to the etymology of the word ‘act,’) as incomplete records or traces of ongoing pursuits; as performances of play: games without defined rules or outcomes.
Act One: ‘Hunt-the-Slipper’
On more than one occasion, Lacan, when writing about the complications of signification, the elusiveness of meaning, uses the phrase, ambiguité de furet (ferret-like ambiguity.) His pairing of the ferret with the instability of language and conscious thought gives a lucid illustration of the slip-slide of what is graspable to the human mind. The ferret, or the weasel for that matter, is an ambiguous embodiment. Linked to the feminine through myth but emphatically phallic in bodily stature, it is simultaneously ferocious and silent; able to sidle through spaces and disappear through color-camouflage. As a metaphor for unstable meaning, the ferret and the weasel are figures of resilient survival- almost as supple as water, the rodents’ bodies defy spatial confinement. Lacan’s ferret is derived from a very particular context: the child’s game jeu du furet (hunt-the-slipper.) To play the game, a group of children form a tight circle, holding their arms behind their backs. One child is ‘it’ and stands in the center of the circle. He or she must hunt-the-slipper, which is literally of the furry sleepwear variety. The goal of the group is, of course, to conceal the whereabouts of the slipper, and the goal of the hunter is, of course, to uncover those whereabouts as quickly as possible. To conceal the movement of the slipper as it travels around the circle, the children all squirm and shift about. In effect, the circle of children becomes one large moving mass, a kind of gyrating spontaneous architecture that strangely mimics the ferret the game names. So, we might ask, is the ferret the slipper or the children’s movement? The answer remains as ambiguous as the ferret itself.
The strange translation of Lacan’s French jeu du furet into the English hunt-the-slipper stops me in my tracks, pushes the boundaries even of metaphor. How does the literal translation, game of the ferret turn, between languages, into hunt-the-slipper? Does fetishism so easily move from animal to footwear? Projected low and large on a wall, Raff is showing a film (Hunt-the-Slipper). There are two repetitive images: first, a weasel, with fur as blinding-white as the snow it is skimming across – an electric blur searching out the next tunnel, its tail dotted with a jet-black smudge that makes the weasel appear to write calligraphic signs while darting to and fro across the frozen terrain. Next, human legs with feet clad in oversized furry slippers, jump and jump, pause, and then jump again. Resounding thumps compose the soundtrack as gravity exerts its force on the small human body laboring to propel itself, if momentarily, airborne. The weasel and the legs intersect as the film cuts between them, and these images become a hybrid inter-text of primal effort. The weasel is an index of ambiguous uncertainty. Is the animal pursuing prey or being pursued itself? Perhaps it displays the nervous energy of maternal instinct, and the weasel is scouring the northern plains to feed her family. Or, is the weaving dance being performed one that is meant to entice, the black tip of the tale twitching in time to a silent, snaky tempo? The human legs beat out a tempo, too, a fatigued tempo that complicates the effortless twitch of the weasel – awkward and unwieldy, the human limbs attempt to approximate a kind of animal grace. The dual image in Raff's film, endlessly circling, oscillates between extremes - the animal’s raw, economical movements are entirely focused on pursuing tangible facts of survival: food, shelter, breeding. The jumping legs, on the other hand, inhabit a purely domestic geography, where manic impulses derive less from immediate physical threat and more from psychic and social trappings. The (obviously female) legs bounce, with growing effort and fatigue, from furniture to ground, ground to ground, up always only to come back down. Traveling but going nowhere. Repetition that is ultimately deferral. The weasel will be made to twitch indefinitely here, diverted from its fretful tasks, and the fur-clad-feet will never fully become human or animal. Caught at the very moment where images defy conclusions (in both senses of the word - as endings and definitions), Raff isolates an axis where jeu du feret (mis)translates perfectly into hunt-the-slipper. We, the hunters, can point and point, but we’ll never accurately locate which member of the circle is actually holding the furry fetish, since it is necessarily in two places at once.
A second film, able was I ere I saw Elba – Palindrome, plays at the other end of the room. As with the first film, Raff cuts between images of an animal and a woman. Here, the terrain occupied by both figures is a raw, arctic landscape. A pacing coyote, its hair bleached a rough silver, paces feverishly, searching for water or prey. The coyote proceeds rhythmically, its instinctual imperatives acted out in a way that resembles a kind of obsessive-compulsive repetition. Cut to an igloo, carved out of ice, camouflaged by a shelf of heavy snow. Inside, a woman wearing a thick fur pelt but no shoes begins unrolling thick squares of felt onto the igloo's icy floor. Methodically stacking the felt, the woman enacts a kind of quietly hysterical pacing, not unlike the coyote's. She keeps herself warm by manipulating the felt, rather than covering her body with the material, as one might expect. A strange task, one part Sisyphus, one part Joseph Beuys, the economical movements of the woman become, over time, vaguely animal-like, as she crawls back and forth across the growing stack of felt. The title of the film hails from perhaps the most famous of all palindromes – these are the (perhaps imagined) words of the exiled Napoleon Bonaparte as he stepped onto his island prison. The palindrome, a uniquely circular mode of language, where words mirror themselves and move forward and backward at once, derives from the Greek "running back again, recurring." Both figures in Raff's film "recur" again and again, searching out indistinguishable, ephemeral, modes of satiation, modes of satiation which threaten to disappear the moment the body stops moving.
Together, the two films map a topography that tracks unexpected correspondences between instinct and compulsion, domesticity and drive. Raff's continued emphasis on exploring gender, obsession, and cleanliness takes on an urgency here that is stark as an arctic winter
Act Two: Hermon #13 and (Dis)located Land
Orit Raff’s grandmother lived at one address, Hermon #13, her entire adult life. The street, Hermon, is named for the highest mountain in Israel, a mountain Raff’s grandmother could get a view of every time she went to her roof to garden. The mountain has three peaks, one in Israel and two in Syria, and never loses its snowcaps, year round. I imagine Raff’s grandmother pruning while looking at those peaks, peaks spanning such distance, covered perpetually, even in the heat of summer, with snow. After working in her garden, she would go inside and embroider. She embroidered obsessively and only one item: dust catchers in the form of snowflakes. Some small, some large enough to cover tables, all took the crystalline form of snow-round, diamond, rectangle. These are intricately woven mimics of the snow that refused to melt from the mountain.
Raff’s installation, Island (Mount Hermon #13) multiplies the obsession of the dust catcher. Her floating formica floor hovers six inches from the ground and is made up of an array of hobbled together domestic table-shapes: mismatched coffee-tables, end-tables, kitchen-tables, all cut at the knees and imprinted with photographic traces of dust-catchers. The ankle-high sea of tables defies utility and the dust-catchers have become phantasms of themselves, printed rather than woven. Tables that are no longer tables, dust-catchers that catch no dust. Raff crowds a room with useless usefulness- multiples of form that belie function.
Of course, catching dust is itself an endless task, and a pointless one. No matter how many dust-catchers one makes, how many one lays down, the dust will keep coming. There is no end to it. Dust-catchers are archives of everyday accumulation - they seem to stay perfectly clean until one day suddenly saturated. Accumulation works slowly but is apparent only in an instant. Accompanying Raff’s floating floor is a series of dust photographs - an incomplete and incompletable archive of the invisible. The series, entitled (Dis)located Land is a painstaking exploration into the function of accumulation as well as a disclosure that what is most intimate to us is also the most alien on close inspection. Raff isolates inch-by-inch spaces, maps those spaces, and takes specimens which are photographed at magnified scale. Hair, skin, seeds, dust, detritus and fingernails come into high focus and are made strange. Raff’s photographs of (dis)located land expose that there is always too much and never enough at the sight/site of loss. Where there is no body, no land, no presence, there is always something left behind, though this might not be immediately apparent to the eye. Raff’s hope to begin the impossible task of archiving the invisible, much like her grandmother’s hope to continue the impossible task of collecting all the dust, ensures both failure and success. One need never worry about running out of things to do, but the task will, of course, never be done.
Curtain: Weasel words and Ferret-like Ambiguity
Raff’s Hunt-the-Slipper, suggests that everything can be read in two directions at once - snowflakes or dust, weasel or woman, archive or obsession. Leaving the egg intact even after extracting its interior, Raff suggests that perhaps many questions are most promising when perpetually deferred.
June 2002, New York
Johanna Burton is Director and Curator of Education at the New Museum. Prior to holding this position, she was the Director of The Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College Masters program, and Associate Director and Senior Faculty Member at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Independent Study Program. Her writing has appeared in publications including Artforum, October, and Texte Zur Kunst.
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This text was extracted from
Johanna Burton, "Weasel Words: Orit Raff’s ‘Hunt-the-Slipper’ in Two Acts" in the Hunt-the-Slipper catalogue, pp.92-87,
The Museum of Israeli Art, Ramat Gan, 2002
2001, 16mm film transferred to DVD
00:01:20 minutes (projected in a loop)