In Mother Economy, a nineteen-minute video by Israeli artist Maya Zack, an unnamed woman walks around a World War II–era German apartment meticulously taking notes and measurements that seem to make sense only to her. She traces household objects on the floor—cigarette ash, pocket change—or finds them—a ring, torn stockings—scattered about, and what seem like the mundane contents of a regular apartment immediately become part of a complicated scene, the significance of which viewers can only guess at. Does anyone else live there? Are they coming home? Who is this woman? What is her history? We can only hypothesize answers based on our own—often erroneous—preconceptions.
Zack, who is thirty-two, studied art at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. She lives in Tel Aviv and teaches at Tel Aviv University. Her work has been exhibited at the Israel Museum, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, the Artneuland Gallery in Berlin, and elsewhere. Zack co-wrote and co-produced Mother Economy with Yitzchak Roth; earlier this year it took Germany’s Celeste Art Prize and is on view at the Jewish Museum in New York through October 23.
How do you explain this film to viewers?
It’s about the calculus of every day life, of objects, of emotions, of spaces, of relationships inside a family, things that we usually don’t consider quantifiable. The mother in the film is a feminine figure, we don’t know whether it’s the mother or the maid or it’s one of the daughters, but we expect this woman to be compassionate and endlessly loving. And actually what we see her doing is executing economic procedures. She becomes like a scientist, and all of a sudden we see what is behind the scenes of this traditional role of mother or woman. The film is about exposing this, and maybe showing how creative, or responsible, or strong and full of control and influence are the actions that women have been doing throughout the years.
This woman has a little notebook, she’s tracing and measuring everything meticulously. Her actions, her decisiveness, subvert the idea of the mother as a warm, “let me embrace you” type.
Mama. Yeah, that’s why I chose this rather thin, maybe tough-looking character, so she would seem a bit like a teacher. Or a clerk. At the same time, there is a lot of sexuality and juiciness in the actions, in the materials and sounds. She has fallen in love with those actions—passing papers, tracing. So it’s about tension between cold bureaucratic things that you cannot relate to emotionally. But, in the deeper sense it’s about showing how even such things actually express human needs—obsessions and desires and passions about objects. It’s a duality of science and art, of objectivity and subjectivity.
Sometimes people look at something they valued, a photograph, a locket, and suddenly don’t care about it. It’s lost its sentimental value. What is the significance of objects—books, pencils, pocket-change—to this woman?
That’s my major interest, to think about objects as signs that we give meaning to, or how we use objects to create meaning, to construct our world. In the film, she is navigating through this domestic space, and she finds objects that obviously relate to family members. For example, she finds a man’s shoes on the floor next to the table. She traces them and then copies it in her notepad. We ask ourselves, “Whose shoes are these? What are they doing there? Is it good that they are there? Is it bad? I mean, how would she calculate it? What does it mean to her? And where is this man? If it’s a man at all.” It’s like a crime scene. She finds cigarette ash on the floor, and we make the same thinking process. She finds this tennis racket and ball, which she falls over. This is a surprise for her, but it could also be that it’s not surprising, because she might have arranged the whole thing, so maybe she’s creating her own surprises, imagining the whole thing, building up this family.
When I saw this film, it occurred to me that I was not supposed to think of the woman as a character but as a put-on, as a person explicitly playing dress-up, an impostor who’s consciously assuming the role of matriarch in this particular make-believe household.
I really like this idea of pretending. I’m interested in mental constructions, or arbitrary conventions. After the opening scene, she’s turning on the radio, and there is a sentence in German that means, “she’s a very miserable housewife, but a very good actress.”
It’s a sentence I found in recordings of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya, actors reading their letters, it takes out the authenticity of being a “hausfrau.” All this is make-believe, she’s an actress in a set, the house has artificiality in it—in authentic houses people also design and display things.
It brings me to the link between housewife and artist, the way artists, or production designers, officially design spaces. They have to prepare the set for a shot, and they know every object, where it was before. They have to consider the continuity; they have pictures and documentations of every object, and how it was seen through the camera, and after months, when they go for extra shooting, they have to reconstruct the same space. So, I’m pointing to housewives, how they design the house, how it’s their kingdom that they control.
In addition to Weill and Lenya, you have archival radio in the film, locating what’s going on at a specific point in history—World War II Germany. What was your thinking in referencing a specific historical moment rather than leaving the time and place ambiguous?
I wanted to describe a situation of isolation—a cultural, economical, emotional, psychological situation detached from the outside world. This time and place, this connotation of the war and Holocaust, emphasize it very well. But the more I was thinking about it, I realized how deep it is in relation to my family history, my grandmother’s house in Slovakia. I wanted to see the house, had expectations to go and see the space. I couldn’t get in, but it stimulated my imagination to imagine life in this house, and the situation for the Jewish people in this area.
They survived till almost the very end of the war, in this situation of isolation. A certain autonomy was kept. My grandmother left to Israel before the war. One sister also went. But the rest of her sisters, brothers, aunts, parents, grandmothers, and cousins were all sent to Auschwitz. There are notations at Yad Vashem, names and dates of deaths. So, the film also relates to trying to keep away the outside world by executing rituals and calculations, and obsessively trying to maintain a certain order.
There’s a kugel that figures prominently in this film, and the woman attends to it with the precision befitting a brain surgeon. I wasn’t expecting to see a kugel, especially being cut using a protractor.
I was thinking about the Jewish economic system in terms of saving and being efficient, so I was thinking of Eastern European cuisine, simple and made of cheap things, potato or noodle kugel. It’s not fancy. The kugel becomes an economic pie chart. The economic pie chart encapsulates both food and money as the basic measures of living. Here it becomes a kugel cake, which is funny, and that pie chart is the most abstract equation that expresses the situation in the house. She was translating the whole house into this kugel calculation and the recipe expresses the division of resources in the home—the ash, the shoes, the spaces, the coins—all her conclusions are translated into the kugel. It’s the overall matrix of the house.
Her meticulousness echoes that of the Nazis.
More maybe the German-Jewish connection, the deep bonding that was between Jews and German culture in general. But it also relates to Jewish daily life of thinking about every action, blessing it, and being aware of every action and object and what it means. Things that are part of this spiritual system but actually come down to simple materials, you know—if your shirt is made out of silk together with cotton, it’s shaatnez, so you can’t wear it. Also, there is this thinking about the fact that there is no Jewish art, the Jewish people are only spiritual, we’re the nation of the book, of the word, and we disregard objects and the materialistic world. And all of a sudden it comes down to all those very simple things—these very small details.
At the same time, the question of dispossession that the film alludes to also has contemporary implications in Israel.
I was thinking about the Jewish situation in general, and it reflects Israel. But thinking that you are hunted, you are under threat and you have to be alert, to always keep certain distance, to be a Jew and to have your own things, your own habits—kosher—which are different, in order to keep this separation, it’s also what the film is about. It’s taking this extreme situation to show this Jewish existential situation, but it also reflects the way Israel as a state is behaving.
Since you mentioned your grandmother’s history, I wonder has your family background been a part of all your work?
It’s always hard to define how much we absorb or appropriate personal things. Every child in Israel studies about the Holocaust and Jewish history, but not everybody takes it so personally. Not everybody’s interested in it.
I think a lot about immigration. My mother was born in Venezuela to a mother who was a native Venezuelan woman who grew up in a coffee plantation. [My grandmother] met my grandfather, a Jewish Russian immigrant, at the beginning of the twentieth century. He became Zionist. Their children were already in Jewish schools, but they decided to bring the kids to Israel, and go back, so they left the kids in boarding schools in Israel. It was very hard, I think, traumatic for my mother. I absorbed those things that she was telling me about, these difficult experiences that she had coming to Israel. She didn’t know the language, and so, in a way, I always felt that I also belonged to other places and that I have to make the other places, the other cultures alive in me.