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Jewish Journal

Staging a Body of Work

by Naomi Pfefferman

September 25, 2003 | 8:00 pm

What's a nice Jewish feminist performance artist to do when she's heavily covered in tattoos? She creates a solo piece, "Jewess Tattoess," exploring the conflict between her heritage and her body.

In her multimedia show, Marisa Carnesky examines the Jewish tattoo taboo by fusing elements of Yiddish melodrama, Victorian sideshows and Grand Guignol theater. She becomes the night demon Lilith, a possessed preteen and the Whore of Babylon, who in the piece is indisposed and on vacation.

"She's sick and tired of women's sexuality being demonized in traditional cultures, so she's off sunbathing with her friends, Salome and the Queen of Sheba," the sunny Carnesky, 32, said from her London home.

The character allows her to comment on "the clash between religions like Judaism and the choices we make as modern, feminist women."

Carnesky noticed the conflict as a girl while sitting in the "ladies' gallery" of her modern Orthodox synagogue: "It was hot and uncomfortable, and all about the hats and the outfits, and you couldn't really see what the men were doing," said the artist, whose pieces include "Carnesky's Ghost Train."

By age 15, she'd abandoned her Habonim youth-group friends for "arty-punky" circles at her multicultural public school. While she dyed her hair purple to immerse herself in the horror-rock Gothic scene, she refused to wear the de rigeur crucifix, favoring instead a Star of David.

"I wanted to be a Jewish Goth," she said.

Jewish concerns were also on her mind when she was 19, as she began acquiring body art based on photographs of Victorian tattooed ladies.

"I was obsessed by Holocaust imagery of bodies piled up, their humanity taken away," she said. "My macabre thought was that if that ever happened to me, they wouldn't be able to steal my personality because my body is so tattooed."

Carnesky was prompted to turn such issues into "Jewess Tattoess" around 1999: "I had met a number of Jews in the theater and felt I had a lot in common with them," she said. She studied Jewish folk tales, books on the Torah prohibition against tattooing and photographs of shtetls and showgirls; one picture depicted Jewish silent actress Theda Bara covered in jewelry as the biblical temptress Salome.

"The very sexual, decorated woman is reviled in most cultures, and I was looking for characters that societies have created to guide people away from them," she said.

"Jewess Tattoess" has guided Carnesky back to Judaism by introducing her to alternative subcultures such as Heeb magazine.

So what's next for this Jewish performance artist?

"Maybe a Star of David tattoo," she said.

The show runs Oct. 1 and Oct. 3-5 as part of UCLA Live's second annual International Theatre Festival; www.uclalive.org  or (310) 825-2101.

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