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1. The Children's Room exhibition

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Vered Lahav’s installation paradoxically explores ambivalence with great clarity. The objects and images making up this exhibition may be described readily enough: a few children’s toys cast into white wax; ten photographs of white-clad women, each identically cropped at the neck and the calf, five viewed from the front and five from behind; photographs of birds’ nests viewed from above against a pristine white backdrop; and diminutive houses made of welded, rusted steel plate, placed equidistantly on the gallery floor.

But these raw descriptions, though accurate enough, fail altogether to identify the salient and unstable aspects of these artefacts. For example, these waxen trains and planes, objects of childhood reveries of exotic journeys to fabulous elsewheres mapped out on the bedroom floor - these are now grounded, going nowhere. These flights of fantasy are as petrified and fragile as the figures of Herculaneum. Behind them rise ten hieratic faceless figures viewed from a child’s perspective, impossibly pristine in their immaculate, starched white aprons. Like caryatids, they may seem to offer support, but are these benign surrogates of maternity or are they professionals, aloof and detached in an unknown and unknowable project? Or consider these nests, quintessential emblems of the instinct to build a locus and a focus for the nurturing of the next generation. They speak of warmth and stability and protection; they define the very idea of a centred insulation from the vagaries and vicissitudes of raw nature. But here, in these photographs, they resemble specimens, decontextualised and detached, like typological exhibits in a museum vitrine. Finally, look again at those little dwellings on the gallery floor, minimal ciphers for domestic space, reminiscent, perhaps, of childhood dens, Wendy houses or the tiny plastic houses in the game of Monopoly. Each is identical to the others, its doors half open, half closed. Do they constitute a community? Do they offer some solace against isolation, our condition of separation, one from another? Neither wholly open nor wholly closed, they seem paused between the familiar and the unknown, the homely and the secret, heimlich and unheimlich.

Looking at this work, ambiguity and ambivalence is everywhere apparent, as though it were deep within the nature of things to contain the idea of their opposite. And how does that perception shift or consolidate when one learns that the artist spent her formative childhood years in an isolated kibbutz, where all the toys are shared and owned by no single child; where childrearing is in the greater or lesser degree deputed and delegated; and that those nests you see each fell from a tree in a desert storm and were gathered and rescued by the artist herself? It would be foolhardy to imagine that the subtle layering of meaning in this work is thus to be explained or, worse yet, explained away. Yet the installation’s rich emotive resonance, its remarkable and paradoxical mixture of tenderness and detachment, these are surely informed by the artist’s childhood experiences and, in different ways, since we were once all children, touch us all.

By: Dr. Paul Kilsby tutor in photography, Royal College of Art, June 2003.

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