The god Dionysus, who wears a mask, represents intoxication, loss of control, wildness, ecstasy and catharsis. This patron of harvesters and an art-historical symbol of release and awakening serves as a central trope in Assi Meshullam’s exhibition All of the Gifts.
Dionysus’ attributes – grapes and a mask – intervene in the sculptures on display. Meshullam uses them to create a pseudo-archaeological world based on “Dionysian action,” which is contrasted, in philosophy, with “Apollonian actions” shaped by the moderation and refinement of emotions and urges. The exhibition features hybrid creatures, statuettes, plaques and objects, alongside the Book of Fables, written by Meshullam. The book and works were created together as a single, interrelated body of works, especially for this exhibition.
The sculpted figure carrying an amphora, sheaves of wheat and ivy vines points to the resemblance between the Dionysian aspects of the exhibition and the agricultural character of the Jewish holidays Shavuot and Sukkot. Especially notable is the connection between the Dionysian processions and the procession of lulavim (palm fronds) on Sukkot, as well as the procession of new seasonal fruit held on Shavuot, which dates back to the time of the Temple in Jerusalem. Jewish and Dionysian spring processions both involved offerings of fruit and vegetables, and were led by a bull whose horns were decorated with gold and olive leaves. The Sukkot procession featured the Four Species of plants, most notable of which was the lulav. One can note its resemblance to the thyrsus, a staff intertwined with ivy vines and grape leaves with a pine cone at its tip, which was carried by the participants in the Dionysian procession.
In addition to the cult of Dionysus, the masks worn by the sculpted figures are also related to the ancient and harrowing ritual of sacrificing children to the god Moloch, which took place at a ritual site in the Phoenician colony of Carthage (modern-day Tunisia). Findings at this site include masks and inscriptions addressed to the gods to whom the children were sacrificed: “For he heard his voice and blessed him.”
The theme of disguise, which is embodied by the masks, is also related to the work process practiced by Meshullam, who creates his sculptures out of Barbie and Ken dolls, plastic scarecrows of animals and birds, and faux-stone garden sculptures. The Barbie dolls, which Meshullam has transformed into female figurines like those found in areas identified with the ancient Kingdoms of Israel and Judaea, blur the boundaries between the categories of kitsch and “low,” inferior objects, and between objects emblematic of the divine, fertility, luck and blessings. In this manner, Meshullam offers an alternative, personal form of religiosity, which draws on ancient archetypes. The heart of the matter, for him, is the counter between family and everyday routines and between ceremonial, ritual events.
The Book of Fables is written in a canonical style reminiscent of the biblical parables, the parables of Jesus in the New Testament, and even Aesop’s Fables. They revolve around people, animals and birds, and are told in a fantastic style, including: the Parable of the Spiders, the Parable of the Hole and the Parable of the Blind Child, represented in the exhibition by a sculpture whose eyes roll upwards so that its gaze seems to be directed inwards.
In contrast to biblical parables, the moral message is not obvious, and visitors are invited to gather in the gallery space and discuss the meaning of Meshullam’s fables. In 2005, Meshullam wrote Ro'achem, another book in which he drew a connection between the intellect and animal urges, followed by an exegesis. This book serves as the basis for the gatherings and discussions led by Meshullam. The exhibition title, All of the Gifts, alludes to the contents of the box entrusted to the mythological Pandora, who name literally means Pan (all) Dora (gifts). Pandora did not obey Zeus’ commandment to keep the box locked. When she opened it, she freed every sort of trouble and calamity that continue to plague the human race. All of the Gifts also alludes to the offerings made to the gods, which were perceived in the ancient world as human gifts.