Spirits of the Everyday                                                                                                            

Nili Goren

 

To Hebrew Version

 

 

Bird's Milk is the name of an east-European candy. Anna Yam, who was born in the USSR and lived there until she was twelve, remembers it as a sweet, comforting delicacy, a rarity in her childhood's circumstances and environment. The couplet composing its name, chosen by Yam for the title of her exhibition, is surprising and attractive yet simultaneously daunting and disturbing. A suspicious curiosity. An online search of the term offers links mostly to food and recipe sites which, along with glucose- and cholesterol-laden descriptions and culinary minutiae regarding the accurate mix of whipped egg whites, sugar, vanilla, milk and occasionally chocolate, also refer to the name's origin, a common term in Russian to describe something inexistent or unattainable. Such expressions serve in popular use in many languages to describe everlasting devotion or a promise to achieve the unachievable for a love object ("I'll give you the stars and the moon"). An essay published in February 2013 in the online magazine The Moscow News dealt with the changes that Bird's Milk underwent over three decades in one of Moscow's well-known restaurants, noting that the name refers to a Slavic legend about an unattainable gift that uses the phrase "as rare as hen's teeth." Yam's choice of such a dual phrase sits well with the exhibition's selection of photographs. At first glance they refuse to be linked with a coherent continuum, yet attest to a carefully considered editing that elucidates a meaning, as if a random collection of words whose composition within set syntactical structures has created fluent sentences with a formed narrative whose parts, once read, are no longer a random collection of words but details in a story. The story's text is secondary, hence its uniqueness.

 

Oxymora 

Yam's photographs have been moving, over recent years, through winding courses between methodical coincidence and random methodicalness. Yam photographs during condensed periods, in locations related to her personal and familial biography which she often returns to, and on journeys to foreign places far from home. She chooses "bad photography days," problematic light and bad visibility, locations in which, even when linked with her personal biography, she and the sightseers are detached. Strangers appear in the photographs like occasional visitors, watching local culture, listening to its canonical representation, strangers to the place and the photography, strangers to the photographer, to the viewer, to themselves. The stories that accompany the photographs are not the stories of the places and the people and the events, not the story of the physical or mental journey, nor of the photography and editing methods or the interesting combination of meticulous, planned and timed photography and unpredictable environment whose conditions disrupt control of the outcome. The journey tales are the central text. The secondary text is obtained from the collation of the photographed details, as if created from documenting the pauses between the words and dealing with gaps, with interim zones and temporary spaces, with the satisfaction of delay and the magic of missing. It seems that Yam sets out to photograph the nearby frame in the second after. Into this decisive timing she convenes technical disruptions and interruptions of visibility, extracting from this collection of obstacles an accurate, controlled image that is simultaneously hideous and attractive, repulsive and seductive; an image whose disruptiveness raises the refined but does not stir yearning for it. In order to sensitively capture the second after one must, of course, wisely lie in waiting for it; in order to award it the status of a decisive second one needs deep understanding of a magnificent tradition of decisive moments in photography. The effective use of technical faults as tools requires high technical expertise and many hours of trials, errors and reflection. The distilling of impressive, unique aesthetics from an ensemble of disruptions, interruptions and late timings attests to a unique ability to persuade  mildly, to announce incidentally.  Yam's aesthetics is replete with paradoxes and contradictions. She is characteristically oxymoronic, thus demanding an interpretive language laden with contradictory comparisons, chiastic parallels and perfect compatibilities of contrasts.

 

The photographs in the present exhibition were taken in the past two years in various locations in Italy, France, the USA, Russia and Israel. Most of them were photographed in partial darkness or dim lighting, at times with additional artificial lighting which is often not professional, inadequate in covering the photographed area, or operated disruptively.  The various search spaces have been transposed onto an imaginary kaleidoscope like particles of blurred images—sculptures, crystals, people, places, near and distant, frozen or in motion, floodlit or in darkness—which have been broken and returned between its spiral mirrors and are reflected from it like a polished, harmonious space that consolidates the various paths into one journey.  The simile of a kaleidoscope, which unlike photography lets the images elapse without fixing them in matter, seems to reflect well the contradiction at the center of Yam's aesthetics, i.e. the constant tension between elusive images and heavy corporeality, as if the intangible images, which slip away at the blink of the eye, have paused and were captured in a thick texture that moves slowly, weighing heavily on the eyelids' movement.

 

Samson's Riddle

A pair of barriers glares in the darkness against the background of two statues of men sunk in arched niches of rectangular stone structures. The structures delineate a wide path that is swallowed up beside a stone fence, with pale statues flickering above, withdrawing and disappearing into the dark background (Untitled, 2012). The information attained from this photograph is accumulated from faded pieces of partial images, raising a tourist memory of a stadium in Rome, surrounded by dozens of well-built athletes carved in white marble. An online refreshing of this vague memory—through hundreds of information pages and tourist websites—as well as a virtual wandering in video, at a 360-degree movement, in daylight and in color through the immense sports complex of Foro Italico (Foro Mussolini), lead to a photograph of an entrance decorated with two statues in arched niches. Between them, in a perfectly symmetrical structure, passes the short path, ascending diagonally   under the stone fences and connecting the open Stadio dei Marmi with the impressive building bearing the Olympic emblem on its two identical façades. Now the statues on the fence clearly rise with glaring whiteness and link the sports stadium's green elliptical lawn, surrounded with a red running track and marble athlete statues with the impressive fascist architecture decorating the Mussolini-era Academy of Physical Education (today the seat of the Italian National Olympic Committee) with red façades.

 

The most prominent element in Yam's photograph is the pair of glaringly white barriers and their dazzling reaction to the flashlight which is so much more powerful than the light reflected from the white statues on the pale fence and from the rest of the magnificent structure. The diagonal photography angle places the camera at a different distance from the two statues at the entrance, and the resultant perspective distorts the proportions and lighting. One row of statues is wholly hidden from the lens, and there is no trace of the fascist Academy, entirely swallowed by the darkness. By using this allegedly random angle, a quasi-amateur technique, disguised as a rushing tourist, important details are lost from the photograph and the perfect symmetry of the architectural alignment is cancelled. With these tools, in black and white, at the end of the day, the Foro Italico seems to be no more than a pair of shining barriers delineating an open pit, from which electricity cables or water pipes extend, due to some maintenance work at a historical site.

 

At the same site, a few marble statues away, Yam photographed the statue of a muscular man looking down with eyes that lack texture but are of grave expression, complemented by pointed ears and a tightly closed mouth. His head turns sideways decisively above a thick neck, and his gaze is slightly lowered over a muscular shoulder and a taut, solid torso. A marble rope is coiled around his neck, dangling under his arm towards his back. The photograph is cut around his loins, partially covered with a sculptured piece of clothing. From the low angle of photography the statue is raised and rises against a background of grey skies, high above the roofs of the structure nearby. The flashlight, aimed from below and from far enough to prevent blinding flares, accentuates the dirt and the ravages of time that have stained the marble, and somewhat softens the rigidity. The refinement of masculinity is further brought about through low contrast, the silence of grey skies and a gentle cut that brings together the photograph's base with the enigmatic triangular clothing. Even  after a prolonged gaze at the marble man, whose great beauty and intriguing figure make it difficult to turn away, the stone eyes are vacant yet neither spout fire nor freeze. Now it seems that a surge of testosterone, which at first glance threatened to erupt and burst the polished marble, has been halted. Except for the rope hanging down from the neck towards the back, there are no characteristics to indicate his athletic field. The photograph has no title, no place name, and the photography angle, which elevates the statue, enables it and the gaze (the photographer's as well as that of the viewer closely observing the statue) to be detached of context. However, the crude corporeality may draw the gaze down, with gravity, towards muscular stone legs that are absent from the photograph, attached onto a pedestal that is fixed to the ground. Years upon years now pass against the diagonal stony gaze, raising in their wanderings past symbols from magnificent, popular cultures. They sail from the mythical Sphinx to Felini's Satyricon, Danziger's Nimrod and Leonard Nimoy as Star Trek's Captain Spock, sinking down the marble to the soil of Mussolini's stadium, to 1930s Rome, to its fascist architecture and monumental sculpture. This is where the lower part of the picture is hidden, the information missing from its title and the image that completes the sturdy body of what turns out to be a colossal hunter. His palm, further down from the sturdy arm at the top of the photograph, is holding the tail of a lion cub whose soft body is twisted by a muscular leg and its head subdued and weighed down onto the marble pedestal. The journey between culture heroes, gladiators and hunters is now joined by Samson. The Hercules of Jewish mythology also wrestled with a lion, rent it with his bare hands and may have taken honey from its carcass—lion honey, the parallel Hebrew term for bird's milk, horse feathers or hen's teeth.

 

The Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness: Science and Sorcery in Photography

Just like the sharp light reflected from the two barriers in the Italian stadium, so the outlines of a small heart- or clover-shaped pool, surrounded by deckchairs and white garden furniture, are clearly charted in a night photograph devoid of people (Untitled, 2013). This is how, in another photograph, the sparkling outlines of jewelry display cabinets are depicted (Untitled, 2012). Lighting rails made of tiny light fixtures, stretched out like chains along the cabinets' metal profiles. The crowded lights are reflected, doubled and returned between the glass panels of the various cabinets, beaming brightly like the jewelry they illuminate. The light glows against the black photographic paper like gold on black velvet in a jewelry box. The use of high contrast as a visual effect is one of Yam's typical characteristics. Its sharp, concise wording was expressed in the series of light sticks presented in her exhibition "Habitat" (Braverman Gallery, Tel Aviv, 2012) and at first glance seemed like a coded fluorescent writing or geometrical photograms on high-contrast photographic paper. In fact, these were photographs of a show performed by Yam's family members, holding light-reflecting sticks and moving to create radiant compositions in dark rooms. Light sculpture, movement writing, home-made magic lantern in a Haifa flat transposed from a domestic performative context to a formal abstraction in the laboratory's dark rooms and photography's camera obscuras. Yam continues to photograph her family and goes on to research the magic of photography in darkness and in blazing light; she seems to be drawn, following the dance of shadows, into a metaphorical discussion about the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness. For example, the photograph of a woman leaning in a dark room whose door is only partially closed, with glowing lines of light on her bent back (Untitled, 2014). Penetrating the room from the narrow crack between the door and the doorpost, it is not light but darkness: as if the camera was tracing, within total obscurity, a mysterious light source emerging from behind the door and discovered a woman with light on her back. The photography angle is very high and delegates the radiant back to the lower part of the photograph, near the floor, opposite a tall wardrobe with a pale light arch above, whose origin in the room or the photograph is unclear. The occurrence of this odd set in an entirely everyday environment enhances the bizarre ambiguity. A Formica top outshines the bohemian fantasy of séances held in the musty cellars of Victorian estates and evokes satanic cults, spiritual rites, a bourgeoisie freak show, from the bizarre and the distorted. 

 

Photography has been linked with death since its invention. The prevalent interpretive approach tends to distinguish clearly between the pagan context, originating in the prehistoric concept that considers the depiction of a figure to be the removal of its soul, and the philosophical aspect of visual culture discourse which sees metaphorical death as a natural part of photography. One could dispute this reading, especially in view of the abundance of references common to both aspects and the popular tendency to convene to this discussion the shades from the depths of Plato's cave and lie in waiting, by each photograph, for the return of Roland Barthes' dead. The return of these dead refers to the medium's nature to freeze, preserve and commemorate the image in memory. It does not refer to transfiguration of the soul, to resurrection, and in this sense does not express a spiritual concept nor deals with mysticism. However, outside of the canon, and not coincidentally, spiritual photography came about around the time of the invention of photography. The idea of possible communication with the spirits of the dead became prevalent in western culture during the second half of the 19th century. Not far from the witch hunts of late medieval times and early renaissance, in view of the tendency of supernatural schools to turn to scientific explanations as a defense from the doubts of rationality, photography came to be used as a sturdy tool. Its uniqueness—as a metaphor, a visual image whose form originates in empiric science based on optics and chemistry and whose content is anchored in nature as if it were a reflection of reality—has imbued it with both a corporeal quality and a spiritual affinity.

 

Charles Baudelaire claimed that matching any metaphor, simile and adjective with given circumstances is mathematical and precise, since they are all drawn from the universal reservoir of analogy. In his poem "Correspondances," a wonderful embodiment of synesthesia in writing, which many consider to be the harbinger of symbolist poetry, Baudelaire typically expressed this poetical-mystical concept: "Nature is a temple whose living pillars / Sometimes give forth a babel of words, / Man wends his way through forests of symbols / Which look at him with their familiar glances." Walter Benjamin regarded the poem as an experience with ritualistic elements to establish itself in crisis-proof form. These "correspondences" are, according to Benjamin, synesthetic data of remembrance, "not historical data, but data of prehistory." Baudelaire was influenced by Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772; Swedish scientist, theologian and mystic, whose theory about the link between corporeal life and the souls of the dead and heavenly lives was widely popular during the 19th century), especially by his ideas about the universal analogy between all existing things, including the invisible, and the secret affinity between nature and spirit. In their introduction to a fascinating essay by Rosalind Krauss about Nadar, included in Illuminations: Women Writing on Photography from the 1850s to the Present, the editors note that "the alchemical nature of the photographic process and its quasi-magical tracing of the visual world, place it at a junction of the scientific and the supra-rational. In discussing the metonymical quality of photography, Krauss claims that the representational trait of the photographic trace developed from the "marriage of science and spiritualism" in the 19th century, which she links, among others, with Emanuel Swedenborg's "representative" writing.  

 

The major historians of spiritual photography, as well as contemporary scholars and curators of the subject, emphasize the duality inherent to the medium of photography, its paradoxical nature which links it closely to science and witchcraft alike. There have been many exhibitions in recent years dealing with spiritual photography, from the 19th century to contemporary art (photography, video and digital art), and much scholarship has been and still is dedicated to the subject. It touches upon, among others, several common or parallel traits that link spiritual photography and contemporary works that deal directly or indirectly with spirits. "The contemporary art world is—metaphorically speaking—haunted," claimed Alison Ferris, curator of the exhibition "The Disembodied Spirit," shown in several USA museums throughout 2003–2004.  The two historians Ferris considers to be the forerunners of research on the subject are Tom Gunning  and Rosalind Krauss, who, she says, was among the first to suggest the importance to contemporary critics of an investigation of spirit photography. Ferris suggests that artists' recourse to dealing with ghosts is often a "byproduct of technological advances," such as photography and the telegraph in the 19th century and computers in the late 20th century. "Like ghosts themselves, these dematerializing technological innovations produced both anxiety and optimism in their times, while simultaneously altering, quite dramatically, received notions of representation and vision […] Today, in a manner that recalls spiritualism, cybernetics and virtual reality offer the fantasy of an ecstatically fragmented subjectivity, one that promises liberation […] from the material body and its constraints."

 

Fayum–Moscow–Tel Aviv: A Chronicle of a Deep-Buried Vertigo

As she wanders through mazes of contradictions and contrasts, logically navigating one course by the coordinates of another, Yam often comes across the ghosts of photography. The startling register of such encounters in a photograph is rather analogous to the unexpected phenomena produced in Yam's photographs, a result of the supervised chaos of the photography conditions. Thus, when she convenes the ghosts to her photography space, she does not strive to capture their appearance in a photograph—as attempted by ghost hunters and photographers attempting to prove their ability to communicate with spirits—but rather seeks their disappearance, and not a smudged movement, a hidden reflection, a faded portrait or various forms of ectoplasm. These—traces of presence rather than of absence—she does seek, not on this journey bur rather (paradoxically, quite expectedly) during her prosaic wanderings through the earthly, concrete spaces of tourist sites, capital cities, museums and clumsy textures of a splendid past that is indisputable. There, at medium height rather than between breathtaking summits, in everyday landscapes that glide into the highway roadsides, is where encounters of the first kind occur. An unexpected movement routinely penetrates the photograph's crude texture: a random halo or a sudden gush of breeze, leaving a pale trace, a blurred sign—a seal of revelation (Untitled, 2012). In contrast, when it comes to the disappearance of the spirits she convenes, a testimony to absence rather than presence, Yam in fact tries to capture them materially. Wandering through cemeteries—necropoleis of the modern world which buries its doubts about the physical or spiritual reincarnation of the souls deep in the ground together with their corpses—Yam has photographed portraits of the dead whose photographed faces are etched on their gravestone (Untitled, 2013–2014). Photographs of photographs by unknown photographers, etched by laser or similar technologies on the gravestone ("Technology nowadays allows the etching and printing of almost any photograph, but it is customary to respect the cemetery and the sense of modesty, and etch only the face, not the whole body," explains the Hebrew website of the gravestone factory Man and Stone at www.adamvaeven.co.il). 

 

In a collection of abstract photographs in the exhibition, Yam enlarged photographs of stunning crystals taken by her physicist grandmother or rather, taken by an electronic microscope operated by her grandmother in her research (Untitled, 2013). These crystals, which measure some 10 microns and whose crystallizing was photographed with an electron beam at 100,000 Volt, occupied Yam's grandmother on her scientific journeys through molecular discoveries and now occupy Yam on her photographic journeys and her research of the concealed and the revealed, chaos and order, the occult and science. The information obtained through advanced technologies of photographing hidden worlds under the microscope's lens in the laboratory or through the telescopic lens aimed at galaxies in outer space has yielded scientific revolutions, breakthroughs in understanding the structures of the atom, the cell and the universe, as well as radical changes in worldviews. Using advanced optics and sophisticated photography methods, spiritualist scholars seek to collect solid information about life in parallel universes and to communicate with the spirits of the dead. 

 

Yam presents the photographs of the graves in a crowded row of anonymous portraits raising a discussion of familiar theories of appropriation, quotation and ready-made, of the death of the author and other deaths in Barthes' writings and of death in general, burial rites in antiquity and today, of the Biblical command against making "any graven image or any likeness" and Halachic aspects of the question. "I started working on the grave series as I wandered through cemeteries in Moscow. The cemetery suddenly seemed like a photography exhibition of portraits. I was faced with pairs of eyes from every direction. As opposed to Jewish graves, which mostly have no images, in Christian cemeteries images rule. Not just images, but photographed images, tattooed onto the gravestones, looking at me with grainy granite eyes. Will my gaze release them from death, or will they forever remain the emissaries of the gorgon Medusa? The thing that astonished me most in this encounter with the graves was the gaze of the dead person watching from the stone, a gaze photographed during his lifetime, not knowing it would be used in his death. The question of identity remains present in death, too. How does one choose a passport photograph for the world beyond? During the work I became acquainted with the Fayum mummy portraits. Little paintings that were placed alongside the dead in graves in Egypt, direct, frontal portraits of the dead. These are pictures that are meant to identify, like a passport photograph, the dead on their journey alongside Anubis."  

 

The style of the graves series is fairly foreign to Yam's artistic language. Yet, the questions it raises, the associations it evokes in Yam with the Fayum portraits, the interesting tale of these portraits of the dead and John Berger's poetic essay on the subject, all link it closely with the ghosts she passed along her winding journeys of searches. Berger claims that the relevance of the Fayum portraits to us stems, among others, from the experiences of immigration, uprooting and separations typical of the 20th century, an era fraught with memories of such separations, which arouse the sudden yearnings for what is no more.  "And so they gaze on us," Berger concludes his essay, "the Fayum portraits, like the missing of our own century."  His words allow us to link Yam's works with the Egyptian mummies, not only against the background of the living faces of the dead, but also through the concept of missing that is relevant to Yam's aesthetics, the yearning for something that is gone—evoked by the name Bird's Milk—despite the significant difference between yearning for what does not exist and yearning for what no longer does.