Issue 49 November-December 1999 RSS

A Game of Two Halves


Uri Tzaig

Walking barefoot on Israeli artist Uri Tzaig’s Trance Carpet (1998) is an experience that encapsulates much of what his work is about. Its bubbly silicone texture is reminiscent of the deserted plastic surface of a sci-fi B-movie planet, while its square modular units could be infinitely expanded. But this art-historical reference is immediately negated by its potential as a gadget for reflexology; although if you close your eyes while standing on it, you feel a faint sea-sickness that makes it hard to balance. The carpet module is also a board game that doesn’t offer much fixity either, forcing the participants to forget about conventional game patterns and develop new rules. The small but crucial irregularities in the surface of the carpet are due to the employment of Tzaig’s favourite geometrical model: the perfect sphere, representing a theoretical equilibrium that can never be achieved.

This seemingly neutral geometrical figure so central to Tzaig’s work has unexpected libidinal implications. This was an idea first expressed by Plato, who believed human beings were originally perfectly spherical, with four arms, four legs, double the number of sense organs, and - very importantly - a doubled sex, either double male or double female. The power and mobility of these creatures motivated Zeus to weaken them by cutting them in two. Ever since, it has been the desire of these unfortunate beings to become reunited with their missing half and regain their equilibrium. Like most myths, it suggests an ideal origin and an ideal destiny, genuinely motivated by a sense of relentless longing.

Generally, Tzaig’s work is not about finding formal solutions for theoretical concepts, but developing models and scenarios that make it possible for ideas to come into being. His take on Plato’s mythical sphere of libidinal equilibrium offers an open space for desire: a playing field with boundaries and rules that are continuously constituted anew by the participants’ movements in real time. The video Infinity (1998) shows a strange ball game among ‘teams’ recruited not of sportsmen but of dancers. The participants move a single ball around but wear identical clothes, making it impossible to divide them into sides. To add to the confusion, the playing field is surrounded by a rope that constantly changes location, while the camera switches between two different perspectives.

In 1996, Tzaig invited two leading soccer teams from the Israeli town of Lod (Lydda), which is inhabited both by Jews and Arabs, to a professionally organised public match, filmed by professional sports-cameramen. The prospect of either team ‘winning’ was complicated, if not made impossible, by the fact that two footballs were involved in the game, while two referees competed for authority and two commentators for attention. In the video work based on the match, The Universal Square (1997), and in Desert (1997) - which depicted a basketball match in Limerick that also involved two balls - Tzaig utilised subtitles that at first seem to refer directly to the mysterious sporting events taking place before they begin to ad-lib into philosophical questions. Finally, to complete the confusion, Tzaig introduced a visual virus into the edit of Desert which lead to uncontrollable picture break-up.

The strategy of arranging modular scenarios that can reoccur in another form in future pieces - similar in spirit to the work of Eran Schaerf or Liam Gillick - is characteristic of Tzaig. In Die Ohrringe der Eva Braun (The Earrings of Eva Braun, 1994), a project at Berlin’s Künstlerhaus Bethanien, the title suggests the clichéd view that every young Jewish artist who happens to be in Germany must inevitably confront the history and fate of their (grand)parent’s generation. But the only piece in the show that responded to this notion was a little box containing two pieces of gold jewellery attached to a note inscribed with the words of the title. The fetish of the documentary turned out to be a red herring in a much more complex display of goods: an apparently functionless wall construction; an improvised canvas made of sail-cloth; empty slide frames; spherical balls of crumpled up posters or newspapers; and a disco mirror ball lying on the ground. All these objects seemed to await participants in a precarious game, freeze-framed as if it might be continued any time.

Tzaig’s games - behavioural systems that take place in real time - suggest the idea that ‘games’ are not necessarily about one side conquering the other. In their book Mastering the Infinite Game (1997), economists Charles Hampden-Turner and Fons Trompenaars apply this notion to Capitalism, in which ‘losers are not so much eliminated or knocked out of the workplace, but are invited to learn from the winner’. The cynicism inherent in this is obvious: ‘Hey losers, thank the winners’. Although such theories transform the Darwinian concept of the individual as the unit of survival into a more modest ‘the unit of survival is the individual-in-the-game-being-played’, they reaffirm the theory of identity as inevitably defined by mastery and survival. Tzaig’s introduction of extreme alterations into the conventional rules of this infinite game offers the prospect of participation without buying into such ideas. This, of course, is a classically Utopian idea of art: to break, or at least disturb, the patterns of ‘divide and conquer’ according to which identity is usually defined.

Yet Tzaig doesn’t emphasise the ideal of breaking the system, rather the prospect of offering new possibilities for experience. In the trance carpet game, for example, two players seated opposite one another are supposed to move a motley collection of marbles to and fro, using a carpet module as a game board. The game only ends when one of the players no longer sees a reason to continue. Tzaig’s assistant Oded Erell described his experience of the game: ‘My inability to establish an identity through a symbol on a board (a knight or a king), but only through the act of making a move, brought me to a new level of concentration. [...] My eye feverishly surveying the silicone board quickly understood that, in contrast to ordinary games, it would find nothing here in the way of narrative development that might help it generate moves. I felt unable to occupy myself as a virtuoso, violent, or brilliant practitioner of the game; I could only be and exist.’ This raises the question of whether such an experience can really be translated into a video representation. The sense of disorientation and multiplication of perspectives certainly come across, but something can only be sensed as a faint echo: the bodily presence of the players and the implicit eroticism of the game.

A sense of this presence is visible in Tzaig’s video Tempo. 60 Minutes by Uri Tzaig (1998). Filmed with a static camera, it actually consists of only 59 one-minute-sequences that build up a constant rhythm of visual motion. Most are basic observations of patterns of movement: the circling flight of birds; speeding cyclists; strolling promenaders; two hands miming piano playing on a naked back; soldiers mechanically marching in sync; the dance-like movements of T’ai-Chi. Other sequences show Tzaig’s games being played - short scenes from his ball games or a detail of a hand hesitating to move a marble on the trance carpet - that evoke the expectation of incipient movement or the idea of an arrested gesture continuing in thought.

Many elements in Tzaig’s pieces suggest the subliminal homoeroticism present in ball games, dancing or military displays. This is most obvious in the last minute of Tempo, during which a quartet of transvestite singers perform an a cappella song. The lyrics are about playfully breaking the rules of straight society and can be read as the theme of the entire piece: that an attempt to free oneself from a suppressing system is ultimately triggered by desire. The flipside of the urge for change is implied in the apparently ‘missing’ minute of the 60 minutes of the work’s title. Before the actual film starts, blurred figures loom from the darkness in the only scene recorded with a moving camera. It is an excerpt from an amateur video of the assassination of Itzhak Rabin, and, bearing this in mind, the scene becomes a kind of entropic counter to the meditative movements that follow: the search for a Utopian equilibrium is undermined when the hope for political equilibrium is already destroyed.

There is a sharp opposition at the heart of Tzaig’s apparently meditative Tempo. His ensembles - which offer only signals, not symbols - are actually populated by that which, at first glance, they seem to block out. Innocent objects may stimulate a dark undercurrent of desire that throws you back into the uncertainties you thought you had escaped. There is no equilibrium.

Verena Kuni

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Issue 49, November-December 1999

by Verena Kuni

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