On Sense and Sensibility in the Work of Talia Tokatly

Mati Meyer

Abstract: The Israeli artist Talia Tokatly paints, sculpts, and writes on clay, especially porcelain, the most ‘aristocratic’ and durable ceramic. The artist populates her world with beautiful, small-sized, fragile forms that create escapist avenues, yet they are also odd and disturbing: some draw their inspiration from objects made in Vienna that accompanied her childhood; later, Tokatly appropriated, renamed, and, through the casting process, incorporated them into her artistic repertoire. In this process, she may have changed an object’s gender and original shape, and ‘disfigured’ its wholeness, resulting in objects such as underwear devoid of the female body, desexualized "whores", and transgendered dogs. Tokatly’s objets d’art reveal a punctilious aesthetic sense, reflecting her inner, tormented world. They engage the beholder with ambivalence, as he/she cannot take his eyes off of, or run away from, these beautiful and sensuous, yet unsettling, objects. Drawing on established gender theories, the article contends that Tokatly's work bespeaks her attempts to surpass the limits of her innate female identity and, by disengaging herself from any gendered categorization, reflect on her artistic creativity in clay.


The Israeli artist Talia Tokatly received her initial training in ceramics many years ago. Feeling that her artistic ambitions were being frustrated by the constraints of that medium,[1] and intent on expanding the clay’s discourse with it, she began painting, sculpting, and even sewing in and writing on clay – especially porcelain, the most ‘aristocratic’ and durable ceramic – about fifteen years ago. To enhance the flexibility of the medium, the artist would alter its material characteristics and also apply perishable materials such as cotton, paper, pins, masking tape, embroidery threads, and thumbtacks. Tokatly is very much at home with other media as well, such as photography and the assemblage ofobjets trouvés.

            A small touched-up photograph (Fig. 1) shapes the artist’s formal language as she attempts to break from the constraints of ceramics. Striving both to touch a block of clay and embody it, Tokatly’s hand, seen in the photo, has scratched its surface in a violent gesture, invading its composition with a few white and gold paintbrush strokes. By doing so, she transforms the photograph into a near abstract work while inflicting it with ‘defects’ – an artistic gesture that would become a characteristic signature of her work.


Fig. 1

Talia Tokatly, Hand, 2008, reworked photo, mixed media, 13 x 18 cm. Private collection (photo Talia Tokatly).


The movement of the hand and its relationship to the rest of the body formed yet another artistic creation of a hand that would establish Tokatly’s artistic identity. She maintains that insight into the artistic process is manifested through tactile, sensory activity.[2] By forming an allegorical topos of the hand of God the Creator, she creates an alternative world to the physical, divinely created, one. The photographed-photographing-scratching-painting hand, which can be perceived as an expressionistic ‘male’-oriented abstract painting, is reminiscent of similar representations in art history; a most eloquent example is possibly the hand and face photo-montage of the Russian artist El Lissitzky.[3] Yet, unlike Lissitzky’s work, which clearly evokes the idea of Creator, Tokatly’s image of the hand engages thematerial and subsequently superimposes on it strata of paint. This technique blurs its original form and evokes a flimsy, elusive, and idiosyncratic reality that subsists only in an associative context. Furthermore, one can relate Tokatly’s physical touch of the clay to Auguste Rodin’s (1840–1917) The Hand of the God (La main de Dieu, 1896), in which the powerful hand of God the Creator shapes and gives life to Adam and Eve as an embracing sensual couple.  Most conspicuous is the sensuous touch of the artist's hands on the clay while kneading it to create, inter alia, Eve’s lower body emerging out of the primeval nothingness.[4]

            Belying the notion that working with clay involves physical, arduous labor, Tokatly’s world is populated with beautiful, small-sized, fragile forms, sometimes painted in soft pastels, creating escapist avenues of statuettes – of a child, a dancer, butterflies, and dogs. Some of the objects draw their inspiration from porcelain bibelots found in the luggage the artist’s grandmother sent from Vienna in 1938, which reached her father’s home in Israel in 1951, when the artist was two years old.

            Being extremely responsive and susceptible to external sensory stimuli, Tokatly later appropriated, renamed, and incorporated these objects into her artistic repertoire. Every so often she recasts the original in clay and reproduces it as an individual exemplar or a series of replicas. By stretching the clay before baking it, or in the reproduction process, she deliberately imprints the new castings with distinctive flaws:


I see a link between the message hidden in the work and its materials, between the ceramic materials and others used in the work of art. After choosing the objects, I create them anew according to a common material denominator – porcelain. The arduous work process evolves into a complex formal dialogue with the original figure; it may include disruption, conservation, dismantling, and assembling of the original object, or interfering with its original form, color, and arrangement, including dialogue with other materials. Even though the porcelain is the noblest ceramic material, still it is fragile and breakable and carries the burden of its broken/preserved record.[5]


In the casting process, the artist sometimes changes the object’s gender. By altering the gendered identity and shape of the original object, and above all by ‘disfiguring’ its wholeness, it becomes a new and unique work of art. This seems to confirm Walter Benjamin’s argument, that the mechanical reproduction of a work of art is not merely a replica, but a creation unto itself.[6] In this sense, Tokatly’s work is also an ongoing conscious recognition that the alleged borders between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art are permeable.[7] Speaking of both the sensory process of working the clay, and of familiar and threatening worlds, most of Tokatly’s objets d’art are odd and disturbing; her punctilious aesthetic sense, operating as a fetish, engages the beholder with ambivalence. The observer cannot take his eyes off of, or run away from, these beautiful and sensuous, yet unsettling, objects.

            Drawing on some gender theories that are used as methodological tools (to be discussed below), I will contend that Tokatly’s construction of the gendered images and their visual permutations[8] is largely dependent upon her personal idiosyncratic life experience and imagined memories; her visual response reflects her capacity for intellectual and aesthetic distinctions. By gendering her work, Tokatly attempts to surpass the limits of her innate female identity and reflect on artistic creativity disengaged from any gendered categorization.[9]

            Cinema critic Laura Mulvey claims in her influential essay that women are objectified victims of the ‘male gaze’, which is meant to incite ‘visual pleasure’ pertaining tosexuality and male desire.[10] The binary approach implied by the ‘male gaze’ theory pits the ‘female’ against the ‘male’.[11] Yet, postmodern theories debunk the binary gendered differentiation by rejecting the concept of fixed gender identity and argue for fluid or multiple identities.[12] The collected papers of Gilbert Herdt are a case in point, arguing that various forms of human socialization transcend historical and cross-cultural sexual dimorphism and reproduction; they create what he calls a ‘third gender’, wherein the female body can acquire a new identity and emerge on a par with the male body.[13] This démarche, creating a dissonance between anatomical sex, gender, and identity that disrupts gender categorization, was termed by Judith Butler as ‘gender trouble’.[14]

Feminist Identity

Tokatly first confronted the gender aspect in her work in 1996 in the form of a porcelain-cast pillow; this was to be followed by a whole series of "Pillows" over a ten-year period. “Pillow” (1996) seems to trick the beholder: while it appears to be a real pillow made of starched cotton, bearing the impression of a head that seemingly emits body heat, the hardness of the porcelain revokes its functional softness. The optical illusion is heightened by the repetitive basting stitch-like embroidery of the monogram TT engraved on the glass showcase in which the object is displayed. The monogram identifies the artist as the owner of the work, very much in the way embroidered monograms appearing on objects were once used in high society as a sign of ownership.[15] At the same time, the lettering somewhat offsets this association, since it also projects its shadow on the porcelain-cast pillow (Fig. 2) when the showcase and pillow are illuminated by an external source.[16]Once the light source is turned off, the ‘embroidery’ disappears just as fleetingly as a dream dissipates the moment one wakes up.


Fig. 2

Talia Tokatly, Pillow, 1996, porcelain, 40 x 50 x 10 cm. Private collection (photo Talia Tokatly).


The use of embroidery became a major feature in feminist art to advocate a range of issues.[17] For instance, Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, produced from 1974–1979 and shown for the first time in 1979, was used both to break down the traditional hierarchy of ‘high’ arts and crafts, which denied women the validity of their creative output,[18] and to celebrate the female experience and those forgotten female artists and prominent figures in world culture.[19] In some works of Ghada Amer, it served to point to the female nude’s sexuality and eroticism as an object of male fantasies.[20] In “Two Pillows” (1995), Amer embroidered on real pillows shown in showcases.[21] Yet, whereas Chicago’s and Amer’s works advocate using needlework as a tool for constructing feminine identity, Tokatly takes a hesitant, even ambivalent, stand. The deliberate dissociation between the object and the embroidery – examining their interdependence and consequently the limits of their separate existence – is a deconstructive act and therefore subversive; it bespeaks the artist’s refusal to accept the object/pillow at its face value, i.e., as a sign demarcating her female identity. The artistic gesture is meant primarily to delineate her multifaceted personality – artistic, creative, and intellectual.

            In other castings of “Pillow” (Fig. 3), the artist positions herself opposite her grandmother whom she came to know only through the needle and embroidery pieces from Vienna. Unlike her progenitor, who dutifully fulfilled her domestic role, Tokatly voices her discontent with having it forced upon her[22] via onomatopoeic phrases embroidered sloppily and in shades of white on a real “Pillow” (2004): “Kol kli koleh khol kol kli kholi khol kol kli koleh kol”, etc.[23]



Fig. 3

Talia Tokatly, Pillow, 2004, clay casting, 40 x 50 x 10 cm. Private collection (photo Talia Tokatly).


Tokatly’s quest for a precise artistic identity is expressed via one of her childhood heroes, the Viennese ballerina. Undergoing the clay-casting process for the “My Whore” installation, the small figurine (h: 26 cm) shows an oval-shaped face wearing a fashionable coiffure, a 1920s’ ‘Charleston’ dress whose folds reveal her naked body, her feet shod in dancing shoes, and her hands folded in a timid, obsequious, pose. The dress’s folds are set in a V-shape whose vertex ends precisely at the female’s genitals. The diagonal lines govern the figure’s composition and point iconographically to the main source of attraction – her sexuality. Reclaiming some critics’ interpretation viewing Tokatly’s work as nostalgic and sentimental[24] porcelain objects frequently associated with these notions, I would argue that nothing in the new casting bears on this interpretation or, for that matter, the erotic one.

            During the original’s casting process and reproduction, Tokatly changes its initial meaning. She skillfully transforms the verging-on-kitsch original figurine into a small sculpture (but nevertheless a sculpture) reminiscent of similar monumental Greek models; with a single gesture she destroys the illusion of the sculptures’ serenity by introducing a flaw into its classical appearance (Fig. 4). Occasionally, she may cut off the dancer’s feet to negate this figure’s main function – to dance.

            By making large holes in the dresses’ folds, which from the back look like butterfly wings, Tokatly develops a recurrent iconographic motif in her “Blood-Butterflies Squadron” installation bespeaking suffering and anguish (Fig. 5). Pinning butterflies to the wall is reminiscent of how butterflies were caught en masse for encyclopedic interest and also to please the eye with their beauty. In 16th–17th-century Europe, they were displayed beside other cultural curios in rooms or in glass-doored cupboards called Cabinets des Curiositésor Wunderkammern.[25] Thus, by dressing her dancers, bespeaking sexuality and beauty, with butterfly-like spotted skirts, Tokatly aims to draw attention to the natural, effortless, movement of the dancers’ bodies, forever disciplined by the nature of their profession, very much in the way that the butterflies’ flight became arrested by man so as to organize and control naturalia.


Fig. 4

Talia Tokatly, My Whore, 2000–2009, ceramics, 24 x 21 cm. Private collection (photo Talia Tokatly).



Talia Tokatly, Blood–Butterflies Squadron, 2009, installation, mixed media (dets.). Private collection (photo Talia Tokatly).


Tokatly flattens the once-voluptuous body, imposing on it traces of the casting process. Consequently, what may seem at first glance to interact with Mulvey’s feminist theory, that is, the objectivization of the female body by the ‘male gaze’, turns out to be an object devoid of erotica. The confident artistic gesture deflects and blurs the clear message of the original porcelain object; it mollifies the sugary naiveté of the porcelain figure and transforms it into a contemplative yet expressionless utterance, the way classical sculptures do, uplifting the object from its popular brashness into the realm of high art.

            Moreover, the “My Whore” installation dissociates the small figurines from any sugary reality. It propels them into the world of the socially deviant female figure that captured the imagination of writers – social critics in general and artists in particular – during the second half of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.[26] Like the outcast figure carrying the ills of society on her fragile shoulders, the artist senses that the yoke of her relentless creative process was in some way thrust upon her – whether by blood ties or self-imposed – to express the weight of the family’s memories. Tokatly uses this image to converse with her family’s somewhat decadent past, that of a well-to-do Jewish Viennese family before World War II. The artist identifies intimately with the image of the whore and uses it as her alter ego:


The images from the original, once intact, objects that represented the bourgeois aesthetics of Central Europe, bespeak complex passions and desires of an entire generation. My discourse with objects attempts to comingle with the world from which they originated and the world in which I live.[27]


By imposing aggressive gestures onto the delicate material associated with domestic interiors and femininity, and in a relentless process of metamorphosis of the ceramic objects that imply an extensive creative journey, Tokatly deconstructs these allusions, evoking her anguished introspection and apprehension.

            This artistic strategy is eloquently articulated in “Vessel/Vulva” from 2000 (Fig. 6). The vessel is made of white porcelain, reminiscent of an ample and sensuous female pelvis; its neck is painted distinctively in large brush strokes of red paint; the paint associated with the holes on the vessel's body seem to allude to menstrual bleeding – yet another ‘deficiency’ of the female body. However, for all its connection to real life, this body is rendered stationary and functionless by its self-imposed imprisonment in the ‘vessel’ The image of the bleeding vagina as an open wound and as an ontological quest for one’s identity was part and parcel of the female artists’ praxis long before feminist notions were voiced in works such as Frieda Kahlo’s “My Birth” (1932)[28] and Georgia O’Keefe’s fleshy fruits and plants referring to the fleshiness of the female's genitalia,[29] later to be followed by the conscious feminist and performative works of Carolee Schneemann[30] and Marina Abramović, for example.[31] Also noteworthy in this group is the later video art work entitled, “The Origin of the World” (2005) of the Israeli artist Dana Gilermann. Using Gustave Courbet's “The Source of Life” (1866) [32] as her point of reference, she overlapped the naked female torso, displaying the female genitalia in the painting with a video still of female genitalia gently dripping the menses, thereby attempting to reclaim the female body’s passivity as conceived for the pleasurable gaze of the nineteenth-century male and infuse it with a renewed vitality.[33]

            The female artistic discourse on the vagina corresponds with Julia Kristeva’s notion of abjection as an explanation for female oppression and discrimination.[34] Based on Jacques Lacan's psychoanalytical theory, Kristeva identifies abjection as one's moment of helplessness, when the child separates from his or her mother and enters the symbolic realm, or 'the law', of the father. As adults, we both fear and identify with abjection; more specifically, “The abject has only one quality of the object – that of being opposed to I.”[35]The opposition propels the “I” into an imaginary world, where a continuous state of transition and transformation takes place. Furthermore, Kristeva claims, “the abject is perverse because it neither gives up nor assumes a prohibition, a rule, or law; but turns them aside, misleads, corrupts; uses them, takes advantage of them, the better to deny them.”[36] Applying the concept of abjection to Tokatly’s “Vessel/Vulva” seems most appropriate. The vessel draws one's gaze by its distinct aesthetics while, at the same time, its association with the monthly female fluids is repelling. It manipulates the female body and its natural course in a way that seems to subvert the boundaries and conventions of what is appropriate or not according to societal laws. Consequently the viewer experiences a mental disruption of sorts, verging on the uncanny.


Fig. 6

Talia Tokatly, Vessel/Vulva, 2000, porcelain casting. Private collection (photo Talia Tokatly).


As noted, the female body, and particularly its vulnerability, is a major protagonist in Tokatly’s discourse on gendered ceramics. An eloquent case is the holey underwear inApparel (2004), made of ceramic and porcelain encasing a vessel filled with clumps of lint collected from the artist’s clothes dryer. The object, hanging askew on the wall by only a few thin woolen threads (Fig. 7), articulates the narrative tension that became a trademark of the artist’s work. The strain is expressed by the hardness of the material/underwear conversing with the ‘chastity belt’ (erroneously believed by many to be a medieval invention).[37] The contemporary object and the softness of the filling bespeak the presence/absence of the female body, an issue largely debated in postmodern art criticism.[38]

Fig. 7

Talia Tokatly, Apparel, 2004, mixed media, 8 x 4 cm. Private collection (photo Talia Tokatly).


The nature of the double artistic voyage Tokatly takes toward the female body – both annihilating its bodily sensuousness in the “My Whore” installation and endowing dysfunctional objects such as “Apparel” or “Vessel/Vulva” with a corporeal appearance, is shrewdly used in an intellectual scope – to disengage the objects from any established perceptions of intimacy and to render their sensuousness as void. The artist admits that she craves this sensuousness but is unable to attain it; hence, the conceptualization of the female’s vulnerable body.

It seems that the nature of this Janus-like voyage expresses more of an artistic self-perception than a discourse on feminist politics. On the face of things, the object recalls works of pop artists such as Tom Wesselmann, who rendered the woman as a faceless body emphasizing its erogenous zone. He thereby commercialized, sexualized, and objectifed the female nude as a symbol of the affluent society of 1960s America.[39]Reading Wesselmann’s image through the lens of Mulvey’s ‘male gaze’ would indeed reinforce her claim of imaging the female body for ‘visual pleasure’.[40] Yet, one can hardly apply Mulvey’s notions to Tokatly’s object expressing bodily defectiveness, evoked not only by the absence of the body inside its apparel, but also by its asymmetric form and crooked hanging angle on the wall. It seems as though Tokatly downplays the ‘fetishistic’ gaze; by eliminating the female body altogether and substituting it here with common lint, she annuls any erotic-voyeuristic innuendo and exposes the vulnerability of the female body. The presence of the female vessel and the absence of the entire body define the artistic value of the lint, which functions as a sign of Tokatly’s creative identity.

            The visual perception of feminine apparel, devoid of a body and worn as another layer of skin holding the secrets and the hopes of everyday life, has been explored time and again by feminist artists such as the French Annette Messager[41] or the American Kiki Smith.[42] Keeping in line with her predecessors’ tradition, Tokatly employs the presence/absence of the female body to find her artistic identity. Displacing the lint, symbol of her domestic obligations, from its natural environment, and confining it to the capacity of the ceramic vessel – the holey underwear – which functions as an imaginary extra layer of self-’skin’, as the artist puts it, dissociates the object’s artistic identity from everyday life and frees it from its ‘domesticity’. Thus, unlike the generations of feminists who strove to reveal and denounce the male dominating politics of the female body in visual arts, Tokatly’s work infuses the female body with a different set of ideas drawing on her personal experiences.

Being acutely aware and awed by the enormous load she carries on her shoulders – memories of the family’s past that the artist imagined and reinvented – Tokatly has reached a sort of synthesis in recent years that reaffirms her self-identity as an artist, and not as a craftswoman working clay,[43] with which she freely navigates in order to convey her message:


In recent years, I feel I can expand my ability to accommodate a variety of situations, perspectives, and modes of thought, as well as allow my own voice to be heard. My experience relays an exhaustive draining and refinement of sorts, value that I wish to continue to nurture. My completion and even renewed love with my material is part of the process, part of my insight into a life where there is no random choice, where my choice of ceramic material was exact. This is my material mother tongue.[44]


Cross-Gendered Identity

In contrast to the early quest for an artistic identity based for the most part on feminist discourse, in her other works Tokatly attempts to transcend the bounds of the binary gender categorization.[45] “Boy/Girl” draws on a Viennese bronze and colorfully painted figurine of a child. The original male-gendered figurine, cast into a miniature standing sculpture, exhibits a transgendered metamorphosis, which is also implied by its title (Fig. 8). The posture of the female figure pushing her hips forward from the rear recalls the familiar icon on lavatory doors of a boy urinating; by destabilizing the initial gender identity and creating ‘gender trouble’,[46] the small figurine is placed in a transgendered realm, that of the ‘third gender’.[47] The implied yearning to break through the boundaries of her gender is further enhanced by the upward-projecting ceramic arc of the watchtower on which the figurine stands. The combination of the female figurine and the phallic arc resonates with the Freudian theory of ‘penis envy’.[48] This interpretation is not surprising;as an avid reader of all sorts of texts, Tokatly is well acquainted with Freud’s writings, and although she has never undergone psychoanalysis, her choice of words is at times interlaced with such terminology.[49]


Fig. 8

Talia Tokatly, Boy/Girl, 2006, installation, porcelain. Private collection (photo Talia Tokatly).


Women artists tackling issues of gender identity and the blurring of its boundaries are well known. Drawing on the Hellenistic Hermaphrodite, or the “Sleeping Beauty,” which when observed from specific angles discloses unexpected changes in meaning – female from one side and male from the other[50] – female artists applied facial hair to their faces in order to transcend their own gender. In this regard, mention should be made of Ana Mendieta's untitled work (1972),[51] or of Catherine Opie's “Chicken (from Being and Having)” (1991), in which the former glued a moustache onto her face and the latter a moustache and a beard, in order to create a physical closeness with male traits.[52] Yet, while Mendieta’s and Opie’s acts are direct and obvious, Tokatly takes a more subtle, obscure, course. By dissociating herself from the male testimony, Tokatly’s new image, based on her childhood memories, acquires a newly construed double identity, combining what Carl Jung termed as anima and animus,[53] from which the artist draws her creative force.

            In an interview in August 2010, the artist maintained that cross-gendering the objects was a conscious gesture; it enabled her to gather strength, essentially physical and emotional male tools, whenever she deemed her innate female ones insufficient. The claim to a double identity, both female and male, merged into one in her self-perception as an artist, is indeed reinforced by the very nature of the material, hard and fragile all at once – the porcelain being reflected in two of her works (Figures 3 and 7).

            For Tokatly, the dog is probably the creature with which she completely identifies and to which she feels closest. The artist’s psychological identification with the dog hails back to her childhood, when she always had a dog by her side whose canine alertness and loyalty she trusted as much as she would trust herself. This identification was to be translated into her ceramic Climbing the Everest (2006–2009), accompanied by the legend, “I saw a big dog dawdling on the ceiling” (Fig. 9). It shows a pack of dogs strenuously trying to climb the wall. Cast in clay, replicated, and transgendered, the original young-looking bitch became a dog, its jowls drooping from old age. Some of the dogs wear muzzles, others are blind. In this sense, the dogs' incapability to play their role is congruent with the disfunctionality of the pillows, which are no more of a soft support than the dogs are of any use to their owner. What is more, the dogs show visible strains of the work process; the artist stretches the clay to its limits, consequently destroying its uniform appearance and resulting in scarred and holey objects. Grouped together by colored threads, with their backsides attached to the wall, the dogs somehow come together to climb the wall. The threads create a dynamic composition through diagonal lines that contradict the relentless yet arrested upward movement of the dogs. Their attempt to climb to the top is detained not only by the threads but by gravity. Therefore, the dogs’ futile attempt to reach their destination, which tells the story of the creative act, is in vain. Their Sisyphean journey expresses the very essence of Tokatly’s creative process, it is the embodiment of her artistic identity. As the artist clearly declares, she is ready “to die a thousand deaths for the act of creation”.


Fig. 9

Talia Tokatly, Climbing the Everest, 2006-2009, installation, ceramics. Private collection (photo Talia Tokatly).


Here again, as in the “Boy/Girl” installation (Fig. 8) where the artist creates a cross-gendered image, Tokatly strives to voice the artistic ‘male’ dimension, alluding to the arduous and relentless process of creating art. She is fully aware of this association:


He is always the image of a dog [accompanying me], but it is constantly changing. I am always altering/modifying it. Sometimes it can be a male, occasionally a female; at times with holes, at other times old; from time to time the dog is muzzled or carrying a load. It is perhaps not by chance that I choose an image bearing male connotations. And yet, I often transform male dogs into bitches. I believe that in certain situations we [women artists] must muster both male and female inner strength. In “Climbing the Everest”, the pack of bridled dogs seem as if they are on a climbing trek. This feat is particularly difficult, and even pathetic, especially for dogs made of porcelain.[54]


The internal discourse of the artist’s anguished soul revealing its physical vulnerability, which may be seen as the metonym for her feminine, sensitive, and susceptible sides, is most eloquently rendered in two consecutive works from 2006, enigmatically entitle The Object’s Discourse  (Fig. 10). The framed work show


a dismembered dog whose head and mutilated body, made of beautiful, fragile, nearly breakable fragments of porcelain, peer through a cardboard support attached by pins and threads.[55] The image of the animal’s head and body unable to extricate themselves from the entrapping cardboard arouses an especially sympathetic yet an emotionally stirring allure. It evokes the pangs that accompany the creative process, in general, and the constraints of the ceramic medium from which the artist attempts to free herself, in particular. And yet, the discourse of the maimed body in this work, which serves as a metonym of Tokatly’s artistic self, also seems to present a mental reconstruction of the once-virile male creature. The objects seem to reflect her existential condition, expressing the weakness of the body and embodying the artist’s association between the clay and the physical sensory touch. Owing to the affinities between clay and the human body, the material assumes a presence that resists, though also conveys, a sense of extreme fragility. Indeed, vulnerability is one of the themes that Tokatly embraces in her work with clay:


Although I possess a certain physical strength, the life I experience through my body is extremely vulnerable. This is why I am interested in working with clay, and in resistance to it – and perhaps with ceramics, and in resistance to it. Making art whose starting point is the material enables me to partake in my own bodily existence.[56]


Fig. 10

Talia Tokatly, The Object's Discourse, 2006, cardboard, porcelain, threads, pins, 24 x 29 cm. Private collection (photo Talia Tokatly).


It is probably not perchance that Tokatly identifies with Louise Bourgeois, who considers herself a descendant of female surrealist artists. Like them, she expresses her innermost self through bodily disfiguration.[57] Furthermore, she greatly appreciates Bourgeois’s awareness of her femininity and inner-self, especially in her advanced age, as well as her skill in applying her technique to convey clear-cut messages about her feminism.[58]

            The meaning of the dismembered body, which communicates an imperfection or inadequacy present in so many of the artist’s works, is to be sought in her acknowledgment of the fact that her basic experience is the actual shortcoming. She grew up in a household where the completely intact, pretty, sensuous appearance of the Viennese objects embodied the very notion of loss:


They were the living memory of those who perished during World War II. In fact, it was clear to me that I had to free myself of this baggage and understand its contents, and I had to use art as a tool. I must try to live with that which is lost as part of the aesthetics of my wholeness. The final product is often a result of the unexpected, since it can be experienced as spoiled or marred. The wholeness that I strive to create embodies that which is missing.[59]



For fifteen-or-so years, Tokatly has been creating a wide array of ceramic objets d’art that express the duality of her work. The childlike objects that initially mislead the viewer by their cute or innocent appearance actually give voice to an extreme emotional state. Damaged, fragmented, possibly bleeding, one is forced to approach the objects and commingle with the innermost world of both aesthetics and anguish; this is the voice of her artistic identity. The result is an intense discourse between matter and narrative, the original and its reproduction, the occult and the visible, where the artist interweaves in a virtuosic manner both her female and male feelings and sensitivities.

            Remaining on a par with international artistic trends, Tokatly’s first period of creativity is marked by an attempt to establish a gender thesis, voicing feminist topics in series such as “Pillows, “My Whore”, “Vulva,” and “Apparel”. Yet, unlike feminist women artists who revel in the female experience, Tokatly’s objects, which are detached from any collective or public act, can hardly be reconciled with the goals of feminist art as a political movement. At most, their message is ambivalent and sometimes subversive, depending on their context. They seem to deal mainly with reflective, critical, questioning notions such as artistic identity, in an attempt to become a distinct entity disengaged from its referent, the domestic identity.[60]

            Whereas the former castings (for example, “My Whore”) share visual similarity with the original object and preserve their initial gendered identity, in her ‘antithetical’ periodTokatly creates works that transcend the traditional gender boundaries. They are exemplified in installations such as “Boy/Girl” or “Climbing the Everest”. No longer appearing as a stable traditional notion, the initial gender of the object is transcended not only to create a discourse on the artist’s female uniqueness but also to point out the male aspects of the creative act.

            The bulk of Tokatly’s works over the last years, visualized primarily by the pack of dogs in “Climbing the Everest” or “The Object’s Discourse” series, points to the construction of an artistic identity possibly disengaged from a specific gender categorization. At the same time, it reveals an imagined reality scarred by harsh, violent, and anguished undertones. The result is the distressed discourse of the ‘afflicted’ objects, augmented by the narrative of the work: the fragmentation and mutilation of the body or the burden of the dogs’ slow climb toward an unreachable peak. Waging daily her own artistic battle through the distorted figures, Tokatly employs self-reflection in order to formulate questions of gender and creative identity. The artist's work attests to her ability to appreciate and respond to complex emotional and aesthetic influences, as well as display a delicate sensitivity that may induce her to respond to personal life experiences.

            The elusive reality that the artist constructs subsists essentially in an associative state. Paraphrasing Jean-François Lyotard, “… the ‘post’ in postmodernity does not mean a process of coming back or flashing back, feeding back, but of ana-lyzing, ana-mnesing, of reflecting”.[61] Tokatly’s artistic world, in which she processes through sense and sensibility imagined childhood memories, offers the viewer her embodiment of the creative process in a deep, reflective, and sensitive way.



[1] Tokatly (b. 1949), who also teaches in the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, is a versatile artist whose sculptures, paintings, and installations have appeared in numerous exhibitions. This article comes in response to the exhibition, Talia Tokatly. The Object’s Discourse: A Decade, curated by the author at the Open Art Gallery of The Open University of Israel, Raanana, November 16, 2009–January 14, 2010.

[2] This, as Tokatly states in a recorded interview with the author in October, 2009, is the “secret dialogue between touch and sight engaged in the clay”.

[3] This image, appearing in the artist’s photographs and paintings, is associated with Lissitzky’s “Constructor” (self-portrait), whose paintbrush was replaced by a technical device; see Margarita Tupitsyn, El Lissitzky: Beyond the Abstract Cabinet: Photography, Design, Collaboration, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999, fig. 118.

[4] Raphaël Masson and Véronique Mattiussi, Rodin (trans. Deke Dusinberre), Paris: Flammarion, 2004, pp. 139–140. The work was initially modeled in clay ca. 1896. At the beginning of the twentieth century several marble statues were executed on the basis of this model. See, e.g., the one in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, ca. 1907, h. 73.7 cm (08.210); Clare Vincent, "Rodin at The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A History of the Collection", The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, vol. 38/4, 1981, p. 30.

[5] Excerpt from my recorded interview with the artist in October 2009.

[6] Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936)”, in Gerald Mast, Marshall Cohen, and Leo Braudy (eds.), Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, 4th ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 1992; 6th ed. 2004, pp. 791–811.

[7] On this, see, e.g., Kirk Varnedoe and Adam Gopnik (eds.), Modern Art and Popular Culture: Readings in High and Low (exhibition catalogue) Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1990, esp. the Introduction, pp. 15–21.

[8] Along with Linda Nochlin’s seminal article, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”, in eadem, Women, Art and Power and Other Essays, New York: Harper & Row, 1988, pp. 147–58. See the definitive studies of Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard on women and their artistic creation: Feminism and Art History: Questioning the Litany, New York: Harper & Row, 1982; The Expanding Discourse: Feminism and Art History, New York: Icon Editions, 1992; Reclaiming Female Agency: Feminist Art History after Postmodernism, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005; see also Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock, Framing FeminismArt and the Women’s Movement, 1970-1985, London: Pandora, 1987; Katy Deepwell (ed.), Women Artists and Modernism, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998; Helena Reckitt and Peggy Phelan (eds.), Art and Feminism, London: Phaidon, 2001; Whitney Chadwick, Women, Art, and Society, London: Thames and Hudson, 2002; Carol Armstrong and Catherine de Zegher (eds.), Women Artists at the Millennium, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006.

[9] Griselda Pollock, “Rethinking the Artist in the Woman, the Woman in the Artist, and That Old Chestnut, the Gaze”, in Armstrong and de Zegher 2006, pp. 35–83.

[10] Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Screen, vol. 16/3, 1975, pp. 6–18 (repr. in Constance Penley [ed.], Feminism and Film Theory, New York: Routledge, 1988, pp. 57–68, esp. pp. 60–64). Critics such as Griselda Pollock (Vision & DifferenceFeminism, Femininity and Histories of Art, New York: Routledge, 2006) and Mary Ann Doane (Femmes Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory, Psychoanalysis, New York: Routledge, 1991) have amplified Mulvey’s arguments, proclaiming that the male gaze is one of the main strategies employed to maintain an oppressive patriarchal and ideological dominance over women.

[11] Mulvey’s theory fell short in subsequent female criticism, which contended, for example, that her study did not take into account female spectatorship and the pleasure women take in gazing at the male body. See, e.g., Miriam Hansen, “Pleasure, Ambivalence, Identification: Valentino and Female Spectatorship”, Cinema Journal, vol. 25/4, 1986, pp. 6–32; the special issue “The Spectatrix”, Camera Obscura, vol. 20–21, 1989; and recently Vicki Callahan, “Gazing Outward: The Spectrum of Feminist Reception History”, in eadem (ed.), Reclaiming the Archive: Feminism and Film History, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2010, pp. 9–16.

[12] For an overview and critical discussion of theories of gender and sex, see Chris Beasley,Gender and Sexuality: Critical Theories, Critical Thinkers, London: Sage, 2005. See also Seyla Benhabib et al., Feminist Contentions: A Philosophical Exchange, New York: Routledge, 1995.

[13] Gilbert Herdt (ed.), Third Sex, Third Gender: Beyond Sexual Dimorphism in Culture and History, New York: Zone Books; Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994. On the limits of crossing gender, see also Sabrina P. Ramet, Gender Reversals and Gender Cultures: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives, London: Routledge, 1996.

[14] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, London: Routledge, 1990, esp. pp. ix–xi (discussion of gender trouble in the Preface).

[15] See, for example, the monogram embroidered on the pillow of Queen Hortense (1783–1837), now in the Malmaison et Bois-Préau châteaux, France.

[16] Nirit Nelson, Femina Sapiens (exhibition catalogue), The Jerusalem Artists’ House, Jerusalem, 1996, http://www.taliatokatly.net/FeminaSapiens.htm.

[17] Rozsika Parker’s study has been particularly influential in challenging the notion of needlework as an inferior female artistic activity and in discussing its implications as a male suppressing and downgrading societal tool; see her The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine, London and New York: Routledge, 1989.

[18] Judy Chicago, Embroidering Our Heritage: The Dinner Party Needlework, New York: Doubleday/Anchor, 1986.

[19] Eadem, The Dinner Party: From Creation to Preservation, London and New York: Merrell, 2007

[20] Danilo Eccher (ed.), Ghada Amer (exhibition catalogue), Museo d’arte contemporanea Roma, Milan: Electa, 2007

[21] Kristin Chambers (curator), Threads of Vision: Toward a New Feminine Poetics (exhibition catalogue), Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art, Cleveland, OH: Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art, 2001, p. 27.

[22] See, e.g., Stéphanie Genz, “I am not a housewife, but… Post-Feminism and the Revival of Domesticity”, in Stacy Gillis and Joanne Hollows (eds.), Feminism, Domesticity and Popular Culture, New York: Routledge, 2009, pp. 49–63.

[23] Transliteration of the Hebrew letters:כל כלי כולא קול כל כלי קולי קול כל כלי כולא כל . . .

[24] See, e.g., Ruti Direktor’s review of the Fifth Israeli Ceramics Biennale (Eretz Israel Museum, Tel Aviv), February 27, 2009, where she evaluates Tokatly’s works as: “porcelain puppies [which] cohabit in full harmony with their identification as objects of beauty encased in glass…” (translated from Hebrew by the author). Seehttp://rutidirektornow.wordpress.com/%D7%9E%D7%95%D7%9E%D7%9C%D7%A6%D7%99-%D7%A1%D7%95%D7%A3-%D7%94%D7%A9%D7%91%D7%95%D7%A2-220808/.

[25] One such example may be the Wunderkammer of King Rudolf II (1552–1612), where in a separate wing of his palace he collected pictures and small sculptures alongside scientific instruments, books, and naturalia; see Thomas D. Kaufmann, "Remarks on the Collections of Rudolf II: The Kunstkammer as a Form of Representatio", Art Journal, vol. 38/1, 1978, pp. 22–28.

[26] For a general study of this topic in European culture, see Melissa Hope Ditmore (ed.),Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work, vol. I, Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2006. Regarding works of art, see, e.g., Sherwin Simmons, “Ernst Kirchner’s Streetwalkers: Art, Luxury, and Immorality in Berlin, 1913–16”, Art Bulletin, vol. 82/1, 2000, pp. 117–148.

[27] Excerpt from an interview with Naomi Tanhauser, January 29, 2010; http://www.erev-rav.com/?p=5066.

[28] Gannit Ankori, Imaging Her Selves: Frida Kahlo’s Poetics of Identity and Fragmentation,Westport and London: Greenwood, 2002, pp. 27–36.

[29] Noteworthy are her abstract works, “Blue Flower” (1918) and “White & Blue Flower Shapes” (1919); Barbara Buhler Lynes, Georgia O’Keeffe. Catalogue Raisonée, 2 vols., New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1999, vol. 1, p. 141, fig. 259; and, p. 157, figs. 291-192, respectively.

[30] See, e.g., “Self-shot” from the slide sequence shown in the performative lecture, "Ask the Goddess(1990); Carolee Schneemann, Imaging Her Erotics: Essays, Interviews, Projects,Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press, 2002, pp. 138–139. Particularly poignant is the soliloquy of the imaginary vulva, where the artist puts in its 'mouth' feminist perceptions of the true power of female genitalia; ibid, pp. 299–307.

[31] See, e.g., the “tableaux vivants” Abramović made in the eighties of the last century, showing the artist in an ‘Egyptian Pose’ in the color Polaroid picture from the series entitled, “Tuesday/Saturday” (1986). The unidentifiable silhouette of an Egyptian god was attached to the negative, thus casting the artist in both male and female role; see Art from Europe. Works by Ulay and Marina Abramović, René Daniels, Marlene Dumas, Astrid Klein, Pieter Laurens Mol, Andreas Schulze, Rosemarie Trockel (exhibition pamphlet), The Tate Gallery, London, 15 April–21 June 1987, London: Tate Gallery, 1987, pp. 7–8, fig. p. 19.

[32] Dominique de Font-Réaulx et al., Gustave Courbet (exhibition catalogue), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, February 27–May 18, 2008, New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2008, pp. 339, 378–379, pl. 187.

[33]  From an interview given by the artist in Tarbut Ubidur, 30.8.2005 (Hebrew);


[34] For a discussion of the dynamics of oppression, see Julia Kristeva, Powers of HorrorAn Essay on Abjection, New York: Columbia University Press, 1982. For a recent critique of Kristeva’s contribution to feminist theories, see Birgit Schippers, Julia Kristeva and Feminist Thought, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011.

[35] Kristeva, Powers of Horror, p. 1.

[36] Ibid., p. 15.

[37] Albrecht Classen, The Medieval Chastity Belt: A Myth-Making Process, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

[38] The literature on this subject is extensive, and I will cite only some of the more important works. On gender approaches in general, see Susan Rubin Suleiman (ed.). The Female Body in Western CultureContemporary Perspectives, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 1986; Corinne Saunders, Ulrika Maude, and Jane Macnaughton (eds.), The Body and the Arts, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. On modern and contemporary art, see, e.g., Broude and Garrard, 1982; Janet Price and Margrit Shildrick (eds.), Feminist Theory and the Body, New York: Indiana University Press, 1989; Lynda Nead, The Female Nude: Art, Obscenity and Sexuality, London andNew York: Routledge, 1992; repr. 1994; Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard (eds.), The Expanding Discourse: Feminism & Art History, New York: Icon, 1992; Rosemary Betterton, An Intimate Distance: Women, Artists, and the Body, New York and London: Routledge, 1996; Kathy Davis (ed.), Embodied Practices: Feminist Perspectives on the Body, London: Sage, 1997; Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard (eds.), Reclaiming Female Agency: Feminist Art History after Postmodernism, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.

[39] David McCarthy, “Tom Wesselmann and the Americanization of the Nude, 1961–1963”,Smithsonian Studies in American Art, vol. 4/3, 1990, pp. 102–127.

[40] See above, note 10.

[41] See, e.g., Annette Messager’s “Histoire des robes” (“Story of Dresses”), 1990; Reckitt and Phelan, Art and Feminism, p. 144.

[42] From this perspective, Susan Tallman’s discussion of the politics regarding Smith’s human body is of special interest; see her “Kiki Smith: Anatomy Lessons”, Art in America, vol. 80, 1992, pp. 146–175.

[43] It should be stressed that although some of her family members perished in World War II, it was never a subject of discussion during her childhood.

[44] Excerpt from an interview with Naomi Tanhauser, January 29, 2010; http://www.erev-rav.com/?p=5066.

[45] On women artists negotiating gender binaries, see Broude and Garrard 2005, pp. 259–299.

[46] See Butler 1990.

[47] See Herdt 1994.

[48] Sigmund Freud, On Sexuality: Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality and Other Works(trans. James Strachey), New York: Basic, 1975, p. 61.

[49] Tokatly readily acknowledges the critical role texts play in informing her art, providing her with fresh insights (recorded interview with the artist, October 2009). On a general discussion of texts in art, see, e.g., Elizabeth Bergmann Loizeaux, Twentieth-Century Poetry and the Visual Arts,Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

[50] Brunilde Sismondo Ridgway, Hellenistic Sculpture, vol. III: The Styles of ca. 100–31 B.C.,Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2002, p. 267.

[51] Documentation of an untitled work, color slide, 1972; Olga Viso, Unseen MendietaThe Unpublished Works of Ana Mendieta, Munich, Berlin, London, New York: Prestel, 2008, p. 21

[52] Catherine Opie, in Reckitt and Phelan, Art and Feminism, p. 169.

[53] Carl Jung claimed that there are four major recurring patterns of thought and action that all people and cultures share; two of them, the anima and animus, represent the subconscious of the true self, composed of two halves—the male and the female, and serves as the source of our creativity; Marie-Luise von Franz, “The Process of Individuation", in Carl G. Jung (ed.), Man and His Symbols, London: Pan Books, 1978, esp. pp. 205–208.

[54] Excerpt from an interview with Naomi Tanhauser, January 29, 2010; http://www.erev-rav.com/?p=5066.

[55] Bringing together all the work’s components conforms to the way in which Dada artists such as Jean Arp and Kurt Schwitters of the early twentieth century made use of natural and industrialobjets trouvés in their assemblages.

[56] Excerpt from my recorded interview with the artist, October 2009.

[57] Ibid, Same.

[58] See, e.g., Mignon Nixon, Fantastic Reality: Louise Bourgeois and a Story of Modern Art,Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005, esp. pp. 53–82.

[59] Excerpt from my recorded interview with the artist, October 2009.

[60] See, for example, Elinor Heartney et al., After the Revolution: Women Who Transformed Contemporary Art, Munich: Prestel, 2007; Jane Wark, Radical Gestures: Feminism and Performance Art in North America, Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2006, esp. chapters 3–5.

[61] Jean-François Lyotard, “Defining the Postmodern”, in Simon During (ed.), The Cultural Studies Reader, 3rd ed., London: Routledge, 2007, p. 145.


Mati Meyer is a senior lecturer at the Open University of Israel, where she heads the Art History Division and is in charge of the development of its undergraduate program. She is also occasionally curating exhibitions at the University's Open Art Gallery. She has published numerous articles on gender issues in Byzantine art, and a book: An Obscure Portrait: Imaging Women's Reality in Byzantine Art (Pindar Press, 2009). She has also co-edited (with Katrin Kogman-Appel) Between Judaism and Christianity: Art Historical Essays in Honor of Elisheva (Elisabeth) Revel-Neher (Brill, 2009). Mati Meyer is currently engaged in a work-in-progress on the narrative display of the female body in Byzantine culture.

On the Sensual in Art, October 2011