One of Israel's Most Political Photographers Turns Lens on His Two Homelands

Pavel Wolberg's new exhibition is a homage to the artist’s mother, lending the show a touching, heartfelt dimension.

Kiev, 2014.
Pavel Wolberg

In his new exhibition at the Negev Museum of Art in Be’er Sheva, Pavel Wolberg appears to abandon photographs of the galloping, gargantuan grotesques of Israel’s divided tribes in favor of a quieter tone: introverted, contemplative, comparative. Now, under the title of “Rodina Mat / Motherland,” he is turning his gaze on two moments of birth. One focuses on trips he made to various places in the former Soviet Union, where he was born and from where he immigrated to Israel at age seven. The second gaze homes in on Be’er Sheva, where the family first lived in Israel.

Each of the exhibition’s three sections mixes color and black-and-white photographs in a medium format. The first section, a kind of prologue, consists of panoramic shots that were exhibited in Wolberg’s previous show. There are settlers from Havat Maon, clubbers, and two marvelous shots of Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip taken a year apart. The second and main section of the show contains comparative photographs of Tbilisi, Kiev, St. Petersburg and Be’er Sheva. Snow, desert. Wolberg shoots the locations as one who is returning to his childhood vistas in St. Petersburg and to the sites of Be’er Sheva, which he photographed for his first exhibition, in the mid-1990s. Now he views them with the dual gaze of the boy and of the adult who remembers the boy. These are places whose grammar is based on resemblances as well as contradistinctions. The most salient contrast is between “Moskovsky Train Station” and “Be’er Sheva,” two 2015 photographs in each of which a small figure is seen walking through a vast landscape, one snow-covered, the other sand-strewn.

The comparative element recurs in other shots, “Wadi al-Na’am” (2015) and “Yamal Peninsula, Siberia” (2010), in both of which vegetation crops up amid the layers of snow or of sand and rocks, creating depth of field and relieving them of their flatness by according them perspective. The photograph from which the exhibition takes its name is situated at the center of the museum space. Wolberg returns to the site to which he was taken in childhood for school ceremonies, “Rodina Mat (motherland),” to document this sculptural monument, which is located at the memorial and burial site for the victims of the siege of Leningrad in the Second World War, and symbolizes the victory of the Soviet Union.

Rich internalization

Juxtaposed to the exterior shots, vast landscapes and abandoned or neglected urban locales are images of family and friends at home. These are images of rich internalization, whose sources lie both in canonical photographs such as those of Rene Burri (many of the photographs in the exhibition recall works of the Swiss photographer) and in the history of painting. They make extensive use of double framing by means of mirrors but also by means of the technique of a photograph within a photograph, frame within a frame, windows and other reflectors. In “Skype Conversation” (2014), for example, a woman is seen sitting opposite a computer screen in a room, as though conversing with a picture. “Natalia and Nina, Be’er Sheva,” from 2013, portrays Wolberg’s mother and daughter perusing an album of family pictures. Prints are scattered on the table next to them. The girl has picked up one of them and is showing it to the smiling grandmother, as they share the family information. We see the back of the print, an empty white rectangle.

'Natalia and Nina, Be’er Sheva,' 2013.
Pavel Wolberg

The landscapes of the deserts of snow and sand, white and yellow, are frames of barrenness strewn with regime signposts, though in some cases the regime is present by its absence in the form of neglect and shabbiness. The family, in contrast, always in its home, is the hub of life, the innards of existence, the fount of riches. The intergenerational connection is represented vertically, in opposition to the arid, despair-making horizontal plains of nothingness, where all one can do is scurry about like an industrious ant.

The third part of the exhibition, situated in a small interior room, consists of photographs from the family album as a domestic installation, including floral wallpaper and a 3-D printing of a porcelain statuette of Pushkin perched on a stack of encyclopedia volumes. There is also a copy of a mythic character from Soviet popular history – the figure of a revolutionary child who saves the city from the “Whites” – that became a widespread toy. In the center is a large photograph taken by Wolberg’s mother from a window in her home, a landscape of tenements and a streetlamp.

Wall shelves hold photographs inserted diagonally into frames. None of them fits; each is simply stuck into a frame without consideration for size. Pavel as a boy dressed up as a soldier. A man in a brimmed hat, a woman wearing a kerchief. Children playing on grass. Women laughing on a sofa. A group of adolescent friends. Planted among these images are a few photographs of a different type, such as the documentation of a birth – a team of physicians wearing surgical masks hold a filthy, screaming newborn above a mass of flesh, namely the mother. Thus does life begin.

The current show does not have the finesse, the aggressiveness, the complexity of political photography, nor does it display Wolberg’s black humor; its virtues are those of gentleness, poetry and simplicity. It includes spectacular, perfect frames in which the emphasis is on form and the aesthetic, less on the narrative drama that characterized his previous work. This time Wolberg frees himself completely from the stigma of “photojournalist” that had clung to him and is revealed in the full glory and quality of a classic photographer.

We come to the new exhibition with the memory of Wolberg’s previous photographs, in which he showed the Israeli reality as a sharp-toothed bacchanalia, a wild costume carnival and a Gulag-style universe of violence. This renders the images of his own family in moments of intimacy captivating and credible: We know that this “family truth” is in danger, shaky, hanging by a thread because of the political. If until now Wolberg was one of the most political of Israeli photographers, and perhaps among the country’s artists overall, it’s now clear that he is the great artist of alienage. In contrast to many others, he does not return to his childhood haunts in order “to find himself” or “to understand” or some other cliché, but to demonstrate the basic alienation that is imprinted in them. His work thus obeys the tradition of humanistic photography but with a minor deviation, which in some cases is due to excessive, too complete obedience that creates an ironic, reflexive distance. Each frame embodies a consciousness of the world and the human condition, and the landscape too becomes material spilled onto the paper or an ancient foundation on whose stage the human show flits about like a flea circus.

In this show, it is precisely familial banality that sharpens Wolberg’s distinctive gaze. He allows us to see where his heart lies, his center. By means of the line that he stretches between his mother, who survived the siege of Leningrad, and his daughter, who visits her grandmother in Be’er Sheva, Wolberg imparts meaning to the two landscapes of alienage and seediness that he shows us. There is no ideology here, no lofty values; only consoling private loves might be able to explain this visual snow-sand oxymoron. In large measure, the exhibition is a homage to the artist’s mother, lending the show a touching, heartfelt dimension. How many artists are capable of making that deep and necessary gesture? Too few.