Measure for Measure
Curators: Drorit Gur Arie & Hila Cohen-Schneiderman
In her seminal essay “Sculpture in the Expanded Field” (1978), Rosalind Krauss discusses the expansion of the category of sculpture “to include just about anything.” Nevertheless, Krauss goes on to argue, the medium has its own particularities, its conceptual and historical foundation which may be given to interpretation, yet is not open to change, and is inseparable from the logic of the monument.1 A similar expanded-expanding process may be traced with regard to the field of photography today, eliciting the question: What singles photography out vis-à-vis its expansion into other mediums, as artists/photographers employ the rudiments of the photographic language or the principles setting it in motion, but the outcome of these endeavors is not necessarily a photograph.2 The questions preoccupying today’s photographers pertain not only to the object of photography, or to the camera or print format, but to the very conditions spawning photography: the technological-chemical conditions, e.g. light, time, perspective, and substance, as well as the political and economic conditions which subordinate photographers to certain geographical and conceptual territories. The ostensibly-spatial question: “From where do we look,” now becomes a fundamental medial question manifested in diverse material forms.
In her essay “Photography,” Ariella Azoulay relates to the need to shift our attention from the technological discussion which characterized the philosophy of photography over the years, toward the ontological, maintaining that “in the contemporary era, when the means of photography are in the reach of so many, photography always constitutes a potential event, even in cases where the camera is invisible or when it is not present at all. […] In some cases, it is not even necessary for the camera to be present in order for it to influence people and to organize the relations between them.”3 While Azoulay lingers on the way in which the camera disciplines our lives even when it is not physically present, one might explore the options introduced when the photograph itself, the outcome of the photographic event, is absent; when the result of the encounter between photographer, subject, camera, and spectator is not a photograph, but rather a representation which, although flattened, still seeks to present itself all around. Photography’s tendency to expand beyond the photograph calls upon us to examine how its basic concepts function within this expanded field.
“Measure for Measure” is, thus, an exhibition of contemporary photographers, although it features mainly sculptural objects, and only scarce photographs. It positions itself between the aforesaid intra-photographic reflections and a contemplation of “action photography” as a continuation of “action painting” introduced by Jackson Pollock in the 1950s, where a line may be drawn between values typical of the post-Minimalist trend which thrived in 1970s art, mainly in New York, and those values which are at the heart of the contemporary works. The post-Minimalists (among them Michael Gitlin whose solo exhibition is presented at the Museum alongside this show) sought to reinstate the artist’s signature and exposed the work of art’s production. They used plain, inexpensive materials, in contradistinction to the ethos of cold and impersonal industrial production, characteristic of the Minimalist trend which preceded it. Moreover, the question of the human scale and the creation of works which operate primarily on and with the body, became one of the formative questions of Minimalism and post-Minimalism. The issue of human scale, “measure for measure,” is also at the core of the current exhibition which features young artists who revisit phenomenological questions, readopting formal and material reduction, while considering the interrelations between object-space-spectator; only that now, the plywood and wood are replaced by paper, a light beam, or black tar.
“Measure for measure” is a punishing principle in the biblical retribution doctrine, also known as “an eye for an eye.” Whereas the medium of photography tends to dwarf its subjects to the format of the photographic print, thus leading to loss of human scale in its physical sense, the artists participating in this exhibition employ sculptural elements to reinstate photography with human scale in the physical and political sense. In other words, contemplation on the body’s measures rather than short-sightedness, typifies the expanding process preoccupying the artists/photographers in this show, who seek not only the regime of the gaze, but a total experience; not only that which is captured passively by the eye, but also the creation of a generative act. The expansion of the photographic scale back to human scale also embeds political significance, when it is used to grant presence to that which was objectified or appropriated. The various gestures proposed here are a part of a different, evolving ontological discourse regarding photography, where the sculptural-photographic act is akin to exploring the meaning of photography, and at the same time—a vote of confidence in the very attempt to act for its expansion.
In the video piece Paleosol 80 South Amir Yatziv and Jonathan Doweck trace the surface of Har Karkom, a place identified by archaeologist Emmanuel Anati as the biblical Mount Sinai having detected rock paintings of the Tablets of the Covenant and other ritual finds on site. The area, which in recent years was appropriated by the IDF as a firing zone, is populated with various training facilities reminiscent of monumental and minimalist sculptures. The video fuses the two powerful myths together, the biblical and the military, by combining images which follow the environs of Har Karkom, as it is today, taken with a thermal camera which documents temperature in a chromatic range, and Anati’s diary entries heard in voice-over. This fusion results in a certain confusion regarding the identity of the visible landscape, so that the concrete wall used as a target may be taken for a ritual object, a futuristic object, or even a minimalist sculpture. In-between these options, the artists document the appearance of Bedouin metal thieves who gather rocket shells and saw transmission stations in the hope of selling the iron to the highest bidder, but by so doing, and by their very presence, prick those grand narratives themselves.
Assaf Shaham addresses the slide projector and the situation in which the slide cartridge is empty, the image is absent, and it projects the light of the bulb alone, thereby also alluding to photography’s conditions of creation. In Double Crossing (2014) he uses two Kodak Carousel slide projectors for which he created a 3D simulation converted to slides. One presents images of the empty slide in its maximum size, pivoting on its axis like the cyclic movement of the projector’s slide cartridge, while the other presents the empty slide in its minimum size, pivoting vertically on its axis. The movement of the images follows the endless loop of the cartridge’s movement, which is tantamount to the temporal dimension in photography. Light, which moves around itself, acquires sculptural qualities, exposing itself to the viewers throughout its 360 degrees. Unlike state-of-the-art projectors which emphasize the cinematic syntax and create an illusion of continuity, the slide projector perpetuates the unique, one-off photograph. It is a means of projection which may be dubbed nostalgic, concealing the pain of memory, without necessarily reveling in it, as is often claimed; the moment of Death which the image produces while trying to preserve life.4 It is a dedicated device for screening still photographs, hence the fundamental need in it is still relevant today, yet the question arises, with what kind of images does one charge the device now? The simulative-motive manipulation created by Shaham via the image of the empty transparency results in a type of Stop Motion, thereby also exposing the cross-generating act, which appears as a revelation in slide no. 40, only to abruptly deconstruct in slide 41, and so on. The use of a slide projector lowers the bright cross shining into the distance from the cathedral’s rooftop to eye level and human measure, so that the icon becomes concrete once again as the wooden cross on which many were crucified.
Sculptor and video artist Buky Schwartz (1932-2009), a collection of video works from whose estate is screened at the SPOT, forms an important layer in “Measure for Measure.” Like Gitlin, Schwartz too belonged to the group of Israeli artists who lived in 1970s New York, and created art in the spirit of post-Minimalism. Schwartz explored the nature of the sculptural body and its reception (as whole or broken) by the viewer. He was one of the first artists to engage in video sculptures/installations which he dubbed “video constructions,” when he scattered a cluster of forms in the exhibition space, which, from a given point of view—that of the camera—fused to form a single unit, viewed as such by the viewers, but only through a screen. In an interview before his exhibition at Eastern Washington University, Schwartz disclosed: “Though there is a lot of illusion in my work, I don’t see myself as an artist that is dealing with illusions. I see myself as an artist that is dealing with a reality, the reality of the illusion, not the illusion of the reality, because the viewer that gets into my pieces doesn’t see an illusion anymore, I mean he sees it on the screen, but he walks into the reality and he makes the connection between the video space in the room and between the screen, and all of a sudden the whole thing becomes reality. Though the laws of illusion are working in my pieces and that’s because of the camera.” Schwartz’s works, by their very essence, cannot, in fact, exist without the viewer, without the spectator’s point of view. The various sculptural experiments he conducted through his camera, experiments which may be termed “action photography,” offer the missing link between the post-Minimalist process with regard to sculpture and the one taken by photographers today, who center their work on the human, and not only the technological act; on human presence and not only the gaze. These contemporary photographers/sculptors may refer to the formalist aesthetic and allude to abstraction, but at the same time they relate to a concrete, mundane and secular pool of images, and from there pave their way to the sublime, which is sensed in the body, yet dwells far beyond anything that may be obtained by the gaze.
Yosef-Joseph Dadoune’s Black Ground may be likened to an abstract tapestry. An opaque black cube of tar, formed by smears of the heavy, resilient-firm substance on canvas, hangs on the tips of several nails in the wall. The work takes its inspiration from an earlier black cube constructed by Dadoune, his own personal version of the camera obscura. Tar was one of the first materials used by scientists to fix the photographic image. In 1826 scientist Joseph Nicéphore Niépce coated a pewter plate on which the earliest known photographic print was created with a thin film of petroleum tar. For Dadoune, the tar, in addition to being a trace associated with the primal process of photography, also represents the abjectness of the street, filth, life in the desert, the asphalt roads burning in the sun, the glowing black dazzle generated by the blinding sunlight, the very light which is also a basic condition of photography. Dadoune presents us with the stratified, uniform-looking surface of tar generated by the movement of work with the palette knife; the light falling on it reveals the features of the surface which is not trodden like a road, but rather surrenders the tar’s blatant materiality and the artist’s struggle with the material.
At the outset of his photographic career, Mark Yashaev documented the daily life of his family, a family of immigrants in Israel, in intimate color-saturated portraits. In recent years he has felt a certain discontent with classical photography, and began taking an interest in sculptural elements and photography’s ability to intervene in the space, wound it, or restructure its boundaries to create a mirage. In Omri (2014) he portrays the man in charge of constructing and mounting the exhibition, sitting in a side niche on the margin of the space, smoothing a fold in his color-stained trousers. Yashaev printed the photograph and mounted it on the wall in the very space in which it was taken, thereby creating a type of tunnel which expands its boundaries, visible yet unreachable. The decision to photograph Omri in classical portrait format against the backdrop of a deconstructed museum structure spawns a cross between the educated intra-artistic process and the worker usually featured backstage, who is now at the focal point of the photograph. Photography, the artist reminds us, originates in a sense of magic and suspected illusion. As in Buky Schwartz’s “Video Constructions,” however, illusion in Yashaev’s work is epitomized from one point of view only, that of the camera.
In his early works, Matan Mittwoch performs a sculptural act on objects ascribed to disciplines of visual processing. He documents the object in photography, so that at a distance the real material acquires a digital, immaterial quality as if it were computer generated; but a closer look reveals the secret of the material. In A1 (2013) Mittwoch works with a green surface for paper cutting, on which he places two photographs of the same surface, taken from different angles, creating the illusion that the surface itself has become three-dimensional, and that a black gate, as an opening to eternity, is gaped in its heart. This is not a “broken infinity” (as the title of one of Michael Gitlin’s works, which describes an incessant cyclical movement trapped within itself (although broken), but rather a gate to anything outside our field of vision. Paradoxically, the void in A1 is created by an act of supplementation, as opposed to the virtual Photoshop software, which proposes addition via void, and on which Mittwoch’s new piece Laterna Magica is centered. Software for manipulating or generating digital images, Photoshop may serve as a tool for the creation of computerized sculpture, as in this instance, in which the artist duplicated the Photoshop window itself over and over again with the software to create an illusion of a devouring depth akin to a time tunnel. In the exhibition space, Mittwoch orchestrates a tension between the large, awkward screened object – the dark room enlarger, and the digital sculptural image projected on a transparent screen. Rather than a confrontation of two technologies, this is a fusion of two disciplines that generated the same act at different times.
Using photographs extracted from the London-based Palestine Exploration Fund (PEF) archive, Michal BarOr delves into the nature of the place in which we live. She revisits images taken by Protestant British explorers who came to this region as foreigners, hoping to transform the story of the holy scriptures into a real, site-specific history. Despite their outsider stand, their studies have had a considerable impact on the way in which we perceive Israel/Palestine. One of BarOr’s featured works combines a photograph from the Tel Gezer excavations headed by Irish archaeologist R.A. Stewart Macalister, whose excavation method wrought great havoc in the site. Every documented stratum was damaged by the gaping of a deep hole in the ground. The photograph presents a Palestinian boy lowered into the hole to measure its depth, holding a yardstick. With this photographic-sculptural act BarOr calls to mind the dual etymology of “ruler”: the power holder, the archaeologist, the master subordinates the Palestinian boy to the measuring device, rendering him a functional means, depriving him of his humanity, and using him as an instrument. BarOr, in response, enlarges the archival photograph into a long strip in keeping with the dimensions of the ruler depicted in it, until it reaches the ceiling, from where it hangs. By this act of stretching, the artist ostensibly reinstates the photographed boy with his real, human dimensions, allowing the viewers too to gauge their height and the museum space itself, while the ruler, which virtually touches the ceiling, droops loosely like an impotent failed-faulty tool.
*Courtesy of the artist and Sommer Contemporary Art, Tel Aviv
Naama Arad refers to the photographic image from the point of view of a sculptor. She employs the photographic referent as a self-reflection of one has who has, in fact, waived it. The work Tsirim is a carpet made of A3 paper sheets fastened together with adhesive tape. The carpet is rolled like a photograph. A rolling-pin is suspended above it, coated with dough-like substance, ostensibly covering the instrument that flattened it. Arad “flattened” the Orientalist image of the Persian carpet when she rendered it monochromatic by means of photography and Xeroxing, and produced the rigid modernist grid via acts of construction in paper and tape rather than cement and bricks. Thus hanging-hovering between heaven and earth, the rolling-pin also resembles a mason’s plumb, another decisive measuring tool. The black and white coloration characteristic of Arad’s body of work generates an ostensibly dichotomous world, but in effect, the elusive quality in her work far exceeds the defined and disciplined, and the contrasting colors are deceiving. Thus, for instance, she introduces gender shifts in both the carpet and the rolling-pin, or better still-lingers on the gender blurring inherent in them a-priori: the rolling-pin is now suspended in a vertical-phallic manner, the thread holding it in the air hangs down, penetrating the carpet pages, unraveling it, as it were. The latter, in turn, is partly rolled to create a penetrable cylindrical tunnel. The hovering rolling-pin, the instrument of flattening, becomes a device of self-defense, awaiting the viewers who wish to use it.
Yael Efrati’s Two to Four traces the changing shadow of a standard window grill between 2 and 4 PM, known as the siesta hours. The featured grill is made of the angle of its cast shadow at two different hours of the day. The work functions like a double exposure shot. It contains and references the duration and passage of time. The sundial, used since the 4th century BCE, is considered a deceptive time-measuring instrument being affected by the movement of the moon, so that the movement and thickness of the shadow are non-uniform, neither during the day, nor during the year. In this respect, Efrati’s grill is a type of sculptural drawing of fixed time, reinforcing its relativity and changeability. Efrati defines her works as documentary sculpture. Her sculptural treatment originates in a photographic perception, and her objects follow, address, and respond to reality. In the current piece, the paper, reminiscent of a kitchen cloth placed on the window grill, dripping, reinforces the narrative in the work, shifting it from an intra-artistic discourse toward the concrete everyday.