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  In The Garden Of The Imagination

Sitting here, in my garden, on a warm still summer evening, stars brightly puncturing the night sky, I can hear the tawny owls calling to each other in the giant beech tree on the hill. The night air is heavy with the scent of jasmine. Every now and then, out of nowhere, there is a flurry, a sudden breeze that goes as quickly as it comes, the branches swaying with the lightest rustle before settling into stillness again. I am reminded of the opening sequence of Andrei Tarkovsky's film Mirror: we see, from behind, a girl sitting on a rickety wooden fence looking out over a vast field, watching an unexpected visitor as he makes his way back to the path from which he departed. Suddenly a surge of energy sweeps over the field, the buckwheat yields and bows to the wind in a waxing wave, before waning as suddenly as it appeared. Vered Lahav's three video triptychs in this exhibition share the haunting beauty of these magical moving moments. Those waves, those susurrations, so unnerving, so evanescent, what might they portend? Once upon a time, imagining their Arcady, poets spoke of these passing breezes: they called them zephyrs. Look now at Lahav's perfectly crafted vitrines with their soft bed of pure white feathers. All of a sudden they too erupt with momentary unannounced activity, caught in a fleeting updraught. Then they too slowly settle back into their temporary calm, bestilled, the zephyr spent. As in Joseph Wright of Derby's famous Experiment On A Bird In The Air Pump, these glass domes speak of both life and death. Et in Arcadia Ego.

In this garden of the imagination, these transformations feel entirely possible, even probable. Here we can encounter an oasis of one hundred white poppies placed very precisely onto dry desert sand to form a compelling circle whose arcane purpose we cannot name yet which feels familiar, even inevitable. Lahav calls this piece Taxidermy. As so often in her work, we are invited to contemplate contradictions and contrasts as she plays with polarities. These waxen poppies, as in all taxidermy, paradoxically preserve the very image of a vital fecundity in their desiccated husks. Their heads are like pepper pots. Which child has not marvelled at the infinite multitude of minute seeds a poppy head holds, the promise of a whole garden waiting for the right day to arrive, like those miraculous overnight flowerings in the desert when rain finally falls? Does this white disk speak of life or of death or both?

In this garden of the imagination, the stars in the sky can coalesce, solidify into bronze and fall to the earth where they rest like jacks thrown by a child. Are these not the same stars that enter through the window in one of the tiny drawings on white linen handkerchiefs in the series Lahav calls Scrimshaw? I think of sailors, whalers, a long, long way from home, passing the oceans of time by fashioning their drawings onto dry white bone. We can imagine them thinking of their homes, those faraway rooms, with their tables, their chairs, their windows, scratching what they know and miss. Lahav's little drawings share that domestic intimacy, tiny treasured memories of simple familiar things. Sometimes one senses in her work that she, too, is a long way from home.

In Lahav's imagination, even tawdry ceramic sculptures of owls, each rescued from their erstwhile unloved lives in bric-a-brac shops, are transformed into wide-eyed silent sentinels framed against a pitch-black void. They are like temporary visitors to this imaginary night garden. They look on in their impenetrable solitude; we sense they might leave at any moment of their choosing on their white silent wings, briefly but barely disturbing the night air.

In Lahav's installation, it is for each visitor to make their own connections, to weave their own tales of this place and these things. One hundred years ago, the Metaphysical painter Giorgio di Chirico wrote one of the incunabula of the Uncanny, a perfect evocation of what I believe to be the great strength of Lahav's rich and generous art. He wrote it after experiencing a moment of sharp epiphany when visiting the house and gardens at Versailles: 'Perhaps the most amazing sensation bequeathed to us by prehistoric man is that of presentiment. It will always continue. Original man must have wandered through a world full of uncanny signs. He must have trembled with every step.' He added: 'Profound statements must be drawn by the artist from the most secret recesses of his being: there no murmuring torrent, no birdsong, no rustle of leaves can distract him.'

Or, we might wonder, as we wander through this exhibition, are these not precisely the distractions that lead us to moments of presentiment, insight and inspiration?

Paul Kilsby, 2013 Oxfordshire

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

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