Merav Shinn Ben-Alon travels to an overflowing city to tell the tale of the flooded body.

Multidisciplinary artist and writer Merav Shinn Ben-Alon’s new book, VENICE, designed by Dana Gez, opens with a dedication that was printed on the inside of the book cover in small letters. Despite the bold print, one’s eyes could easily wander over this dedication and miss it entirely. But I return to it after flipping from cover to cover once, and then again after the second and third read, because it seems to call out to me in a determined voice. This dedication alleviates the pain that rises upon discovering the dark tale Shinn Ben-Alon shares in this book. It also makes it somewhat easier to return to everyday life, which continues to sound its demanding and raging humdrum outside the pages of this book. “To all the women who said no,” Shinn Ben-Alon writes, adding: “And to those who didn’t.”

It seems important to linger on this dedication for a moment longer. With Shinn Ben-Alon, a writer who chooses her words with the same precise minimalism that is also characteristic of her wiry, thin, moving and provoking style of drawing, even a two-sentence-long dedication carries an immense weight. This dedication, which uses a double entendre to pay a special homage to the words that remain unsaid, serves as a kind of landmark. Readers can keep returning to this landmark throughout the journey in time and space that Shinn Ben-Alon invites them to embark on with her in this book – the third she has written to date, published in tandem with the opening of a solo exhibition at Tel Aviv’s Alfred Gallery (“It’s Hard to Forget a Name Like That,” December 2023-January 2024; curator: Leanne Wolf). 

The frame narrative of VENICE, which takes place in the late 1980s, unravels the story of a young art student who travels to Europe in order to visit the Venice Biennale – the annual mecca of every art lover, the peak of many artists’ careers, and in the case of Shinn Ben-Alon’s protagonist, a trauma and pain-riddled ghost town that she didn’t dare visit again after the events described in the book had transpired. This is the story of a young woman who got lost as she wandered on her way, and innocently ran into a man who offered her guidance while presenting himself as a successful artist and experienced teacher. Readers discover the rest of the story in brief flashes, through short and enigmatic sentences that take on multiple meanings as the plot progresses: “I realized that later”; “It’s about knowing you’ve got it”; “Something catches my eye”; “Why do I have to choose?”

A man, a woman, a time, a distance

Shinn Ben-Alon opts for a first-person singular pronoun to tell her story. This is a brave choice that sheds new light on the entirety of her prolific body of works, which includes abstract yet expressive oil paintings in shades of red and pink that she rarely exhibited. Some of these are included in the book and were showcased at the Alfred exhibition (alongside many other works created over the span of three decades), whose title derived from the opening, and closing, sentence of VENICE: “It’s hard to forget a name like that.”

Having said that, as much as it is personal, Shinn Ben-Alon’s story is also collective, and as such it cannot be silenced or revoked by any statute of limitations. The tension evoked by this story doesn’t stem from a superficial, gossip-prone eagerness to collect graphic details about yet another repressed case of sexual violence. Quite the contrary: Shinn Ben-Alon’s decision to spill her guts twists those of her readers for the simple reason that hers is the story of countless other women. This is an initiation story that stands out and avoids the twin traps of sentimentalism and cliche due to the layered, retrospective prism through which it is told. This prism could only develop thanks to the passage of time. As it unfolds, it develops in the readers the ability to see past the initial shock of an injury and to recognize the connection between the scarred tissue and the creation that grew underneath it like a new layer of skin – through the pain, despite it, alongside it. 

Shinn Ben-Alon hints at the non-severable link between wound and wonder well before the story begins. She does so via the cover of the book, which is adorned by an oblong painting in pinkish hues that is cut across by a long, bleeding scratch. The double meanings that the artist enjoys playing with are revealed to us well before we have read even a single word of her story: The wounded sheath covers up and protects the truth.

In many ways, this visual opening statement of the book elucidates the theory of French psychoanalyst Didier Anzieu, who published in 1985 (a year before the events described in VENICE took place) his book The Skin Ego. In this book, Anzieu expounded upon the meaning of the term that appears in the title. According to him, the skin is the sheath enveloping the body, in the same way that the ego acts as a sheath meant to envelop the mechanism of the self. Didier believes that the ego relies on the skin, which is built like a contact-prone surface whose boundaries are constantly drawn and redrawn. There is a direct connection, he claimed, between the wounds of the skin and those of the soul.

In his book, Anzieu also looks into how the theme of skin is handled in visual arts. In particular, he refers to a painting by 16th-century Italian painter Correggio, titled Noli me tangere (c. 1525). The painting depicts a moment in which touch is forbidden: According to the New Testament, this is what Jesus told Mary Magdalene when she recognized him after his resurrection. When he tells her not to touch him, he also means for her not to stop him – “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29)

The years in which VENICE’s plot takes place, the same years throughout which Shinn Ben-Alon cultivated her identity as a young artist, predated the #MeToo revolution. These were years in which the “Noli me tangere” that Anzieu refers to were also applicable to the public’s general approach toward any wound connected to sexual assault. It was considered best not to talk about it, not to look at it, not to touch it, and not necessarily believe those who did dare to speak up.

Noli me tangere ('touch me not'), by Antonio da Correggio, c. 1525.

Therefore, in more ways than one, the story Shinn Ben-Alon tells us is also the result of the present moment, of the timing in which she chooses to sound her voice. This is a story of ripples, created by the evocative and painful shockwave caused by the collision between a young woman and a man who takes advantage of his authority. It raises questions about the level of independence a woman who falls prey to manipulation can wish for as she acts to get away from the quashing weight of trauma and grief, to transform her pain into art.

Throughout the book, Shinn Ben-Alon emphasizes the process of emancipation, of getting out from under the spell cast by a man. This process is parallel to her protagonist finding her own artistic voice, a feat she refers to when she describes how the character of the aggressor, who is somewhat ironically dubbed “Delacroix,” asks the protagonist whether she dreams of presenting her work at the Venice Biennale one day. He then responds to his own question, taking her answer for granted: “Like all of my students.”

It appears that the book features four main characters: A man, a woman, distance and time. The distance is the space between Israel of the present day and Europe of the '80s; the innocence of a young woman and the sobriety of middle age; the starting point of a young female artist and the multiple resources of a senior male artist; the almost unbridgeable distance between the feminine mentality and the male one. As for the time, in Shinn Ben-Alon’s story it shifts erratically yet methodologically between Tel Aviv in 2017, Venice of 1986, Tel Aviv circa 2017 again and then Tel Aviv in 2023. In Shinn Ben-Alon’s world, time is a loose, unstable, constantly changing character, or as philosopher Henri Bergson put it when he coined the term “La durée”: Time isn’t merely a linear movement from the past into the future, but rather a series of continuous moments in the present that birth one another and are born sequentially through each other.

The memory embedded in the skin

Much like in her previous book, the graphic novella Five Legs (which tells the tale of the revelation of a painful family secret), here, too, Shinn Ben-Alon relies on an autobiographical experience to invite readers to join her on a multi-stop trip to a repressed and complex ex-territory. Here, too, the text and the drawings complement one another in a textual and visual dialogue that is thoughtfully borne out, more often than not revealing some details only to cover up others.

For every scrap of information she gives us, Shinn Ben Alon withholds another. She blurs the outlines of the female body: Hers as well as that of real-life Israeli performers who inspired her with their works and appear in the part the author calls “the Index of Portraits,” which features female characters that star in iconic artworks (all the women who didn’t say “No,” in other words).

Instead of the body, Shinn Ben-Alon shows us only evidence, traces of its presence in space and of the transformations that time and the scarring encounter with the other have caused it: Bare nipples drawn in erasable graphite; red lines suddenly peeking out of black lines, hinting at the flowing blood that has since dried, at injuries that have healed but have nonetheless left their mark on the exposed skin.

Shinn Ben-Alon erases the topography of the local map her protagonist used to navigate through Venice, leaving instead only well-known landmarks: Caffè Florian, the Giardini, Piazza San Marco. The geographical coordinates are replaced by keywords from the reconstructed dialogue with the character of the man/artist/mentor/predator. These snippets of conversation lead her and her readers back to the point of no return, to the sites in her soul that she had to set aside (“Where do you need to go?”; “I think I got lost”).

This erasure is not just a silent visual representation of the desire to clear away the painful memories. Shinn Ben-Alon uses it as an appropriation tactic, which is carried out well because she is an artist well-versed in the history of the mediums she creates in. In a reality in which men like “Delacroix” are still the gatekeepers of the exclusive club we know as “the art world,” and where the subversive act of erasure is historically credited mostly to canonic male artists like Robert Rauschenberg, 1 Shinn Ben-Alon chooses to write her story over the erased pages of books about the works of male masters.

Even when Shinn Ben-Alon highlights the threatening silence and the muteness caused by trauma, her drawings scream out for her: Female arms plough through the folds of a belly crisscrossed by red scars, jutting out over a pair of spread legs that reveal a gaping vagina; a woman leans her head on a sofa, her limbs limply drooping from it; on a central fold, dozens of erect nipples are pierced by thumbtacks. Philosopher Emmanuel Levinas wrote that people are exposed to each other in the same way that the skin is exposed to what hurts it. It seems that it is exactly this sort of vulnerability that Shinn Ben-Alon wishes to investigate, frame, and almost celebrate.

During the period when the plot of this book took place the world treated the picking at the scab of sexual assault negatively, to say the least. Noli me tangere, it seemed to tell women at large, turning away from their pain. The move Shinn Ben-Alon makes in her book is the stark opposite: She prods the scab with her fingers, penetrating the wounded epidermis again and again, almost tauntingly so. Author and playwright Hélène Cixous describes the very act of writing in the same way: “All literature is scarry. It celebrates the wound and repeats the lesion… Each Stigmatext is the portrait of a story attacked from all sides, that attacks itself and in the end gets away.” 2

If I am to borrow Cixous’s wording, in VENICE, Shinn Ben-Alon invites us to repeat the lesion so we can learn the lesson, perhaps in the same way that Jesus did when he called on his doubting disciple Thomas to feel the wounds of the stigmata with his own hands. This invitation is generous because of its healing potential: Reading Shinn Ben-Alon’s story and diving into her world of drawings can remind us that we, too, might still turn our wounds into wonders.


  1. I am referring to the iconic work Erased de Kooning Drawing created by Rauschenberg in 1953. In this work Rauschenberg laboriously erased a drawing made by the more veteran artist Willem de Kooning, whom he admired. Rauschenberg signed the erased drawing with his own name in an act that sought to question notions of originality and authorship in the arts.
  2. From the preface to Stigmata by Cixous. Translated from French by Eric Prenowitz; published by Routledge in 1998 (reprinted by Routledge Classics in 2005).

Joy Bernard (b. 1996) is a multidisciplinary artist, dancer, journalist, and art and dance critic who lives and works in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Her journalistic and literary writing is published in many newspapers and magazines, including the literature magazine "Granta", the newspaper "Haaretz", Portfolio magazine, The Jerusalem Post, The Art Newspaper, Flash Art, Collectors Agenda, and more. Joy frequently collaborates with other artists as a performer and dramaturge. She teaches writing, dance improvisation, and performance.