Archive of a 'Photographer Unknown'

A captivating visit to the studio of artist and researcher Michal Heiman, who has squirreled away virtually everything concerning her life since she was a child.

Michal Heiman - interdisciplinary artist, curator, archivist, researcher, and lecturer - can and needs to work and think in different places. She accomplishes this by wandering the streets, sitting in coffee shops or staying in bed at home, where she has built the boxes that are familiar from her three major exhibitions. Heiman does not want a studio, but she needs to have one. Indeed, it's when she stays away from her workshop, which is not at home, that she really begins to create. On the other hand, when asked to find a portrait of someone whom she photographed many years ago, she'll return to the studio, where she may well find dozens of other photos that she had been looking for some time - just not the one requested.

Once she is in place and focused, things happen. A lost and unfamiliar man might knock at her door, bearing a lady's makeup bag that may have belonged to his late mother, stuffed to the brim with photos, and tell her to take it. And Heiman will indeed take it. "I think they expect me to take care of their photographs for them," she says.

Heiman's studio is in an apartment on Yehuda Halevi Street in Tel Aviv, in a building her grandfather built, in which her mother was born and where she herself grew up. The apartment has served as her studio a number of times over the years, during her many transitions between apartments and studios. It was in this building that Heiman found the books that belonged to the neighbor who died when she was a little girl, and from which she went on to create the work "Book Spines" - part of her exhibition "Attacks on Linking," at the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion in Tel Aviv this past year.

If you can make it past the entrance - which resembles the beginning of a deep canyon, enclosed on both sides by tall cliffs of Heiman's framed works, rolled-up paintings and photos, not to mention mountains of books and catalogs that threaten an avalanche - you reach the central space of this 80-square-meter apartment. Although Heiman keeps dwelling on her mixed feelings about the studio, she leads me excitedly from one corner to another, her movements recalling the gestures of a sorceress as she opens her drawers with a flourish and brings out her magic charms and spells: remnants of exhibitions that she showed at or curated, texts she wrote, photographs she took, materials she has kept relating to her mother, notes from father, and mementos of her two children, Lee and Emily.

She extricates from oblivion photos she took, which have adorned both the pages of newspapers and the album jackets of the best Israeli vocalists of the 1980s, among them Yehudit Ravitz, Si Himan and the bands Siam and Benzeen.

"That's what earned me the moniker 'Israel's rock 'n roll photographer,'" Heiman says with a nostalgic laugh, and adds that there is something intense about the world outside art. "I no longer wanted to be connected to the world of industry, and maybe I wouldn't have done it nowadays."

The most fascinating part of her studio is the one that is sealed shut, and consists of hundreds of white and brown envelopes bearing the names of places, as well as of better- and lesser-known people, such as Yael Dayan, Adam Baruch and Anish Kapoor. An archive. And as befits an archive, this one appears to be filed, catalogued and arranged alphabetically. But a brief inquiry reveals this to be a mere illusion, and as my astonishment at the confusion grows, Heiman tells me calmly that I'm not the first to be taken in by this and to believe that an archive should be orderly.

"People misunderstand the concept of an archive; they think that it implies order. But an archive is also chaos, and also using an archive not infrequently involves bringing force to bear on materials, cataloging, censorship - what gets in and what doesn't get in."

Everything can make it into her archive, Heiman says, adding that, "from the time I was born, more or less, every word, every piece of paper that passed through the classroom, mine or even my friends' - I always filed away and put in a binder. I saved things and my mother did as well, from a really young age. There are things here from age 5 or 6, it's all in these binders, so the archive and everything you see here got started back then."

'Essence of soul'

The chaos erupts when Heiman switches on the light in another part of the archive, awakening it from its sleep and waxing psychoanalytic and philosophic, while mentioning such diverse topics as the occupation, literature, culture, art and photography. She keeps her things, among other places, in boxes, envelopes, drawers or on shelves in closets.

"My archive is the least functional archive there is, and it does not serve the purpose that it is supposed to serve. You see all these boxes?" she asks. "That's the mess that happened this morning, because I was asked to find a portrait I photographed of [the late sculptor] Gideon Gechtman. I didn't find what I needed. That's really bad service."

Nevertheless, she is also glad of such excuses because they give her the opportunity to rummage through the treasures she has amassed.

"[The late painter and writer] Meir Agassi, who like me also built his own archive and museum, said in an interview once that he thinks there are people who believe that if they don't preserve history, there won't be one. I think it has more to do with refusal. I view myself as a 'photography refusenik.' I'm still developing this concept, but what I'm thinking is, people sometimes refuse to read the narrative they are offered, and creating an alternative narrative requires materials. Without materials you cannot create another narrative. I am constantly foraging in others' archives, both public and private ones."

Materials resulting from foraging in other archives are also stored in her studio, and are mentioned intuitively during my visit. "I think the element of searching is analogous to the human brain. It also has to do with my strong bond with the essence of soul and expanding the boundaries of art. And all of the ethical questions that arise from that - like what I keep and what I can let go. These are questions that came up from a young age."

Heiman admits she sometimes feels like getting rid of the lot, removing the hump on her back. Asked whether she also takes comfort in the studio, she is quick to reply: "Comfort in a studio? It's a tragedy! Everything is double-edged. It is a place that takes away freedom, but it is also my freedom. It's a place I am ambivalent about, but it is also my good fortune. It's tough to throw away. If they came and hauled everything off now, I could go 10 years without a studio," Heiman declares. In fact she did work for nine years without one, from 1991 to 2000.

"I could be without everything that is here," she says. And what would she do? What would she work with?

"I would begin anew, like I did before. The boxes came about because I didn't have a studio. I was forced to do small-scale works, and so a bed became a studio. I had a crate under the bed with all of the photos, family albums and other materials. That's where my thinking developed," Heiman says, referring to the origins of the mock psychological "test boxes" she exhibited in Australia in 1994, at Documenta X in Kassel, Germany in 1997, and in Quimper, France the following year.

But not all of her works are kept at the studio today. "Unfortunately, the other half is at my house. I have a lot of things. It's hard because I bear responsibility since I have portraits of so many people and things that I documented. But it forces me to maintain a place like this even during periods when I don't want or cannot afford to do so. I don't want a studio; I want to sit at home and write."

Heiman worries about materials that become damaged or faded over time, but at the same time, she says: "I scanned pictures at the Jewish National Fund in Jerusalem about 10 years ago. I went into their collection and pulled out all the pictures that look like the Holocaust, but were actually the Hula Valley, Beit Sh'ean Valley or some Israel Scouts construction. I wanted to linger over this resemblance. I haven't done anything with them yet. What I find fascinating is that everything grows lighter and disappears. This disappearance interests me."

From the early '90s she used to wander around Tel Aviv and decorate the city with the graffiti "Photographer unknown" - a phrase that continued to accompany her work for some time. In addition, she used to sign photos with ink stamps she had created specially for the purpose. She goes over to a big dusty box and says: "These are stamps I have from the early days. I would stamp photos with, 'Photographer unknown,' etc. Can I dump this? I can't."

To Heiman's great regret, and even though it seems she keeps everything, she has already tossed out several of her large-scale works. "I have no room. And it's the usual tragedy. There is no room." Gone, for example, is the double bunk bed with double therapist's chair for two psychoanalysts, which she built for her 2003 exhibition "Photo Rape."

Heiman will soon have to contend again with finding space for things. She has sold this apartment, and will be moving shortly to a much smaller studio on Salmeh Street. She is pleased with the abundance of good lighting at the new place, and "hopes it will be good there and that I will be able to be there for a while. This is part of the mechanism of the mobile archive," she concludes with a grin.