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3. Légendes exhibition


‘Between one being and another, there is a gulf, a discontinuity. This gulf exists, for instance, between you, listening to me, and me, speaking to you. We are attempting to communicate, but no communication between us can abolish our fundamental difference. If you die, it is not my death. You and I are discontinuous beings. But I cannot refer to this gulf which separates us without feeling that this is not the whole truth of the matter. It is a deep gulf, and I do not see how it can be done away with. None the less, we can experience its dizziness together.’ Georges Bataille*

Talking recently to the artist Vered Lahav, she indicated her artistic and aesthetic volition with typically deceptive simplicity: ‘less and less image that can give more and more meaning.’

But what, one might ask, does she here mean by ‘meaning’? Lahav’s open fields of cross-associational meanings are distinctively more poetic than prosaic. As with any artist who aims for evocative depths through subtle ambiguities, it is often easier to say what her work isn’t ‘about’. Anyone expecting clear-cut message-mongering, issue-based propaganda, easily readable illustrations of academic theory, literal statements of confessional autobiography, pseudo-therapeutic regurgitations of cliché archetypes, self-conscious self-explication, or, indeed, attitudinal artworld posturing may well be disappointed. It is a measure of Lahav’s creative achievement that she successfully avoids so many of the indulgent pitfalls of mainstream contemporary art.

Yet, one can use the word ‘meaning’ in a more experientially resonant manner. I, for instance, might refer to a beloved person, place or memory as meaning something to me. The elucidation of this meaning would then require a verbal, literary or artistic act of creative description and evocation. I might refer to particular details of appearance. I might allude to specially distinctive inflections of voice. I would hope to build such references into a composition of sufficient suggestive force to communicate the true poignancy of this kind of meaning, to embody the sensitive depths of my own attachment. Furthermore, in order to convey the precious meaning of the beloved’s presence, I might most productively resort to an attempt at conveying my own vulnerability to the constant possibility of future loss or absence. In other words, I’d have to resort to a kind of meaningful poetry.

The art of Vered Lahav involves a poetic collage of evocative image fragments created through combinations of photography (both found and created), brief non-explicatory texts, found objects (both natural and manufactured), sculptures immaculately constructed from a variety of materials (both traditional and non-traditional), and the site-specific ambience of the, more often than not, white-cube gallery space. Over the last twenty years, her ‘less and less image that can give more and more meaning’ impetus has steadily deepened the evocative, and often highly ambivalent resonance of her installations. Her image fragments increasingly come across as traceries or oblique intimations of memory. Lahav refers to ‘the Pompeii effect’ regarding this use of memorable remains, ruins or after-images, and categorically claims that ‘creativity comes from the leftover.’ I am reminded of the statement, made by the great French fin de siècle sculptor Auguste Rodin that ‘there is nothing more beautiful than beauty in its ruin.’ There is something here that goes beyond the gothic love of picturesque graveyards and ruined follies. It is an innate feel for the traceries of time passing, an antidote to a capitalist-consumer culture that rejects anything that deviates from strict standards of clinical newness and clean-cut youth. It can give narrative personality (one might be tempted, within the context of the title of the present exhibition, to say ‘legendary personality’) to the most banal of objects. It is a quality that, in recent history, has been most celebrated in more street-wise media. The great jazz singer Billie Holiday’s voice might have been technically tragically wrecked towards the end of her career, but her performances were greeted with rapt attention because she had ‘paid her dues.’ At times Lahav’s implied memories tend towards the personal and at other times more generally towards the social or cultural. Either way, one is always left with a frisson of uncertainty as to whether the memories are fact or fiction, or, in fact, an ingenious admixture of both.

If we look back over past exhibitions, we are struck by a line of intensifying ambiguities and ambivalences. In 1996 Lahav moved from her native Israel, where she spent her formative years within the communal haven of a Kibbutz, to London, where she was confronted by the individualistic demands of a Royal College of Art MA Fine Art and Photography course. This personal displacement, the ambivalence she has felt both towards the idealistic communality of her childhood and towards the competitive stresses of the British contemporary artworld, formed a subject of cultural concern in her early installation work.

One of the main aesthetic dynamics of the installations exists in the perceptual friction created between photographs of real people and things, real things themselves (often delicately altered) and sculptural recreations of real things. Such elements are often presented in an odd-numbered series of individually isolated images (never even-numbered, which might, one suspects, imply too much equilibrium and stasis?). This series is then spatially set against another similarly repetitive series of contrasting images created in a different manner or medium. For instance, a group of diminutive metal houses, each carefully crafted and meticulously rusted, are placed on the gallery floor at the foot of a wall of photographs of empty birds’ nests collected by the artist after a desert storm. Elsewhere, a playful field of toys, each cast out of white wax and suggestive of adventurous travel (airplanes, railway carriages) spreads out over the gallery floor. In the background, across the rear wall, are arranged a set of five large photographic images of an anonymous female figure dressed in white, her head and face obscured by the photographic frame. Elsewhere again, over one hundred glass spheres, suspended from the ceiling, contain, faded photographs of unknown citizens, looking like so many levitating long lost souls.

If Lahav’s work can be defined as a form of mixed-media collage, the collage itself exists in one series of images being set in three-dimensional spatial relation to another, rather than being partially merged or overlaid as in traditional collage technique. This device in itself creates a steady air of relational vulnerability and narrative interruption or discontinuity. The resultant work in effect exists less in the individual images themselves and more in the spaces in between them that each individual viewer has to imaginatively span. There is almost an obligation here to engage in an act of poetic reverie that, of course, will take on a different inflexion according to the precise characteristics of each viewer’s past experiences.

A deceptively simple adjustment to an object can, in the hands of Lahav, introduce a typical shift towards emotional ambivalence. A pair of lady’s long white gloves, so redolent of stereotypical feminine luxury and finesse, are carefully stained with smears of macho-rust. Then the gloves are mounted on an immaculate white backdrop and photographed to give them a sensuous, perversely contradictory, even fetishistic connotation. Other elements in this, the artist’s most recent installation (A Boy In A Woman’s Body, MAC, Birmingham, 2005) include a photograph, taken from the back, of a delicately proportioned pubescent girl (there’s those platted tresses and white dress again), a series of formally simplified jack-in-a-boxes fixed with white wax fragments of facial features and a white shrine-like alcove containing what appears to be some kind of hermaphrodite fertility figure, fashioned from white cast glass. The whole installation draws you in to its intrigues, its overall absorbent air of enigmatic mystique. The exhibition title itself appears almost expressly designed to throw the viewer off course. The installation is introverted, melancholic, yet skillfully avoids whimsy or fanciful obscurantism.

An aesthetic constant is Lahav’s use of white. There are the white shirts and white dresses, the white cast glass figurines and fragments of facial features, the white toy aeroplanes and railways carriages, the white gloves, the preferred white cube of the gallery space itself. In the recent history of visual culture white is the reductive colour of the minimalist impulse. It is the colour of the white-on-white canvases of Kasimir Malevich, Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Ryman. It is the bleached out colour of Le Corbusier’s hard-edged architectural geometries. Translated into music, it is the performed silence of John Cage’s legendary piano piece Four Minutes, Thirty Three Seconds. This minimalist tendency emerged from a formal desire to reach a state of cultural tabula rasa, to reduce all excess aesthetic and redundant expressionistic extravagance down to a clean slate of concentrated essence, a new beginning. Although minimalism of course never quite achieves a creative ground zero, it nevertheless is a purist and almost classicist tendency which attempts to eradicate the messy infiltration of culturally specific, or experientially peculiar contingencies.

But Lahav’s minimalism is less formally purist. White punctuates her imagery to give it associative breathing space. It stands in for loss of innocence as well as innocence. It denies the idealistic illusion that we can ever wipe the cultural, historical and experiential slate clean. The purity of white is there to be sullied. It attempts to be closer in cultural tone to the white makeup smeared over the semi-naked bodies of Japanese Butoh dancers, or the candle-wax white of the innovative fashion designer Issey Miyake’s materially insubstantial garments, or the white-dash pauses that punctuate Emily Dickinson’s beautifully choreographed poetic fragments, or the ponderous silences in the haunting compositions of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. It also might remind us that the white canvas is historically the painter’s most feared indication of creative petrifaction, as the white sheet of paper is the poet’s full-frontal confrontation with the blank nightmare of writer’s block. As always, with Lahav, the use of white has a double-edged keenness of positive and negative, of fullness and vacuity. If you are inclined to take the allusions seriously enough (and Lahav’s art encourages you to do so), it is ultimately redolent of an impossible but perfectly imaginable return to innocence on the one hand and, on the other, of the unthinkable but certainly inescapable fact of mortal oblivion. White is the big blank that dramatically forms the backdrop for all of Lahav’s distinctively oh-so vulnerable touches of poetic detail.

To further clarify Vered Lahav’s poetic art, it might be useful to attempt to situate it within a historical and contemporary context. Talking to her, I mention the visionary poetic conundrums of Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations and Federico Garcia Lorca’s New York Poems. Yet their work is much more desperately and convolutedly surreal than hers. Lahav pertinently brings up printmaker Max Klinger’s heartbreaking tale of elusive passion, The Glove, but Klinger’s series is more overtly romantic in atmosphere. Oskar Kokoshka’s paintings are alluded to for their psychological intensity and existential integrity. Then again, Kokoshka’s lifework is more obviously autobiographical, even heroic in intention. I think of the almost spiritual air of nostalgia conjured in the voiceover passages of Wim Wender’s film Wings of Desire. Amongst living artists, such figures as Louise Bourgeois, Rebecca Horn and Zarina Bhimji might be some kind of fellow spirits. Yet, whilst it might be pleasurable to situate Lahav within such undoubtedly lofty company, the fact remains that her ‘less and less image that can give more and more meaning’ tends to look incomparably personal and all her own.

Lahav’s inclination towards paired-down subtleties of imagery is more evident in the present exhibition, Légendes, than ever before. To describe its constituent elements is to do little justice to the work’s potential mood or presence. On the wall are seven large-scale photographic images of dead birds. The birds –a magpie, house martin, blue tit, robin and three blackbirds – are common-or-garden species. Whilst they are expertly photographed against a clean white backdrop, the fact that they are far from exotic museum specimens contributes to their air of dreadful pathos. Each bird lies just as it was found by the artist, in the awkwardly undignified poses of death, often with their claws clenched as if in a last futile attempt to hold on to life. One bird’s neck appears to be broken. Another has a leg missing. These small fluttering pulses of wildlife have been suddenly arrested in flight, their aerial gracefulness reduced to a mess of feathers and utterly terrestrial flesh: just so much inanimate roadside litter.

Across the gallery floor are placed seven stands, somewhat reminiscent of lecterns, holding seven weighty books. Each tome is splayed with its pages open, in a manner suggestive of bird flight. And in that simple resemblance lies the poetic spark of connection. The artist has stated ‘Growing up in a nature reserve and living today in an urban setting makes one always sensitive to nature captured in a man-made environment. Finding a dead bird on the side of the road made me think about all the lessons that one should have learned in life, and a saying began to form in my mind: If birds could read, and books could fly.’ It is fitting that Lahav here refers to her poetic intuition as a ‘saying.’ Her work is continuously imbued with a lyrical and narrative voice. Her images are caught in mid flight, are often facing away, are on their to some other place, point to the back-of beyond, indicate an aching nostalgia or an unspecified yearning, are open to the vagaries of individual interpretation. There is an air of lamentation tempered by a characteristic treasuring of nature’s most ephemeral elements.

In order to move or convince, the song depends on the manner of singing, the story on the manner of telling. Each book is cast from bronze that has been deliberately distressed with rust. Again, with typical candour, the artist explains “I deteriorate it like life deteriorates us.’ You can be sure that the condition of the rust is spot on. Lahav goes to great pains to fashion her various images, whether two-dimensional or three-dimensional, out of precisely the appropriate visual or tactile raw materials. She loses nights of sleep over the outcome of a session of sculptural casting. In the gallery, the various elements are painstakingly stage-set, both in terms of placement and lighting. You’ve got to be there to get it. It’s a form of ritual enactment that might have come to an end and from which the protagonists have long since departed, but into which you, as the viewer, have been belatedly admitted, by right of a very special privilege.

*Georges Bataille, Eroticism (Marion Boyars, London, New York, 1990)

By: Robert Clark artist, writer and lecturer, April 2006.

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