Israeli Photographer Fails to Find Focus in New Exhibit

In 'Photo Op,' an exhibition by Ohad Matalon at the Tel Aviv Museum, the crucial dimension of introducing the viewer into the intimate world of the agonizing artist is missing.

Ohad Matalon’s exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art (on view until January 17, 2015) is “an ongoing process that evolves, changes and develops in the viewers’ presence, with works being created and accumulated, revealing the processes between the act of photography and printing, framing and installing the exhibited objects,” the curator, Nili Goren, writes on the museum’s website. “The work space and exhibition space are assimilated into each other, with their conventional hierarchy cancelled. The exhibition’s dynamic character raises a constant discourse that refuses concrete definitions of theme, editing, presentation and interpretation.”

Matalon has brought into the museum space a commercial unit for printing photographs and a framing workshop that includes a large table and various carpentry tools. The exhibition began with empty walls, and in the course of its run, the printed, framed works that are produced are hung on the wall, leaned against the wall or laid on the floor.

In my first visit to the exhibition, the instruments weren’t working, the machines were silent, someone was sitting at a computer screen and narrow strips of wood were piled on the floor in a corner. No significant activity was observed in a second visit, either. The same person was still sitting in front of the computer screen, next to him a second person was on the phone with someone, and a wooden frame was affixed to a table with a vice. A few more works had accumulated, of the same type as their predecessors.

These works are not easily describable: black-and-white photographs of all manner of abstract nothings, possibly pieces of paper, or sprays, stains, black Perspex, maybe flickers of light on a scanner, photographic paper burned during a scan, folded pieces of photographic paper placed on a scanner that was placed in a darkroom. The visual results derive from a combination of the scanner’s light and chemicals. The exhibition, an experiment on view to the audience, is about the way an exhibition is created, notably the technical aspects. (Are the specific photographs produced in relation to the passage of time? To the viewers’ reactions? No. Do they coalesce in real time or were they prepared in advance and are only printed now? Not known.) We are in fact denied knowledge of the artist’s plan, so we are unable to estimate how well he is meeting the schedule in terms of production and quality.

The crucial problem is that the exhibition is simply not interesting. Each of the negative answers to the questions posed above empties it of drama; what we get in practice is dry and lifeless, not providing an experience that matches the imagination-stirring description in the accompanying textual rhetoric. To succeed in a project of exteriorizing the creative process in the museum space itself and conveying it to the viewer, one also needs – apart from tools and equipment, a workshop look and working platforms – the interconnected attributes of sincerity and modesty.

Showing off

What deprives the exhibition of sincerity? The answer has to do with the fact that mounting an exhibition involves more than rulers and computers. Besides additional technical elements that are lacking here (budget, for example, cost proposals), the entire nontechnical dimension is absent as well: artistic judgment, hesitations, caprices, enthusiasm, doubts, disqualifying the subpar, consultations and all the rest of it. Placing the machines at the start and the finished product at the end skips over all the interesting middle stages. The crucial dimension of introducing the viewer into the intimate world of the agonizing artist is missing. Also lacking, as a result, is the acknowledgment that the creation of art sometimes involves failure, that sometimes the artist leaves a work on the shelf for a month or a year or a decade to contemplate it, that luck and chance are magic elements in the process, that a work does not always enter the world like a quick epidural birth of a healthy infant. Instead of modesty, we get showing off. Of what? Of values like meticulousness, proficiency, exactitude, neutralization of a human touch. Those qualities are acclaimed, totally supplanting the inner process of the artistic statement. What we get is not a lifting of the veil of secrecy about the process, but the opposite: subjugation of the production stages to the self-sanctified aestheticization of art. It’s not only the result that is sterile and diamond-cold, but also the rites of preparation, conducted silently by invested priests.

Matalon ostensibly uses critical tools against exhibition institutions and against museum logic. In reality, he is reviving the sterile, elitist, exteriorized aesthetic that exists completely within the logic and milieu of high art without ever intermingling with the “lower,” everyday possibilities of photography that are within everyone’s reach.

Photography, we learn from the exhibition, is not what we thought – the cats, the hikes, the sights, the food that we snap in an instant and send to everyone in seconds. Instead, it’s something alchemical, difficult to define, produced in privileged laboratory conditions, something that requires expert spokespersons to mediate between it and us, a prestige object. To be considered art, it need not maintain relations with us, only with the institution of the museum.

The element of blindness or elitism that underlies the exhibition resides in the intra-medium preoccupation that denies the existence of any form of outside, precisely when it makes use of hyperactive samples from that imagined outside. The exhibition treats photography without reference to the transmission technologies entailed in it and without their ideology, thus reverting to a form of authorial modernism or autonomous medium. After all, in contrast to other types of media, little mystery now hovers over the process of the creation of photography – no camera obscura, no darkroom, no neighborhood photo shop, no contact sheets with instructions about what needs doing. Everyone has a camera in his phone and retouch options at home: we know how frames are produced and transmitted.

In addition to the text by Goren, the curator, the exhibition is also accompanied by texts of the poet Pioter Shmugliakov (Petia Ptah). The artist’s hyperactivity does not escape him. Does the image that’s created justify the whole panoply of activities, he asks, and replies, “The answer is negative.” He describes the surplus of productivity as against the material result but ascribes it to the “spendthrift economy” at the center of which is the “accursed share” that the French philosopher Georges Bataille wrote about: the surplus light of the sun, the seed spilled in vain. A nagging feeling insinuates itself – that this is a salon figure pretending to be an experimenter, that it’s arrogance disguised as exuberance, pretension masquerading as theorizing, the outmoded cloaked as contemporary.