Yael Burstein’s photographic-sculptural installation at the Inga Gallery of Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv is a kingdom of ethnographic representations in black-and-white. Entering the gallery, the visitor undergoes a sharp transition to a different place and a different time: The walls are completely blackened, the lighting is dim and exudes heat, and the photographs, collages and sculptures glisten like diamonds in the dramatic dark. Like archaeological sites; like old-fashioned museums that insist on animating the culture from which the finds on view were taken; like an anthropological fantasy about a time tunnel that transports us “genuinely” to a different place; Burstein’s exhibition – titled “Night is Generally My Time for Walking” – is shrouded in a surrealistic, sepulchral atmosphere, as though we are being ushered into the pages of a book that grew and swelled to the dimensions of a whole space. We find ourselves at a highly unconventional observation point, hurled into outdated modernist splendor that interweaves secular technology and magic.
A momentary disorientation is brought about by the walls, which are covered with wallpaper-like photographs: we have entered a vast space within a small gallery, its directions and openings different from those of the Inga Gallery. On display are photographs of ritual objects that were cut out and repasted. They have become functionless collages, a cross between fertility objects and masks, between treated readymades and a theater set. They are a third-hand documentation of themselves, their original magical force appropriated time and again, transforming them into new entities. Three iron rods lean against one of the photographs, like minimalist sculpture; another conjures up a surface spliced and cut by large, abstract iron sculpting, its expressiveness ranging between Picasso’s “The Old Guitarist” from 1903 and the sculptures of David Smith.
The photographs are taken from a 1968 book, “The National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico,” from books on archaeology and from journals of nature and early civilizations. The overall view generates a peculiar tactile feeling, brought about by photographs of stones, clay, hewn rocks and black-and-white stone sculptures, evoking the surface of the moon. Burstein has enlarged the black-and-white reproductions, in some cases far beyond their capacity to remain sharp, focused images. With these pasted on the gallery’s walls, even the air vents and electric sockets are annexed to the representation of the magnificent past.
Mix of sources
In addition to the story of the exhibits and their transformation into collage, wallpaper and sculpture, the show addresses the modes of display themselves. It is a meditation on the visual language adopted by ethnographic museums, which create atmospheric dramatizations by enlarging photographic images to wall size, to the point where they come to resemble a theatrical set.
It is a mix of sources, reassembled in a manner that confounds the modern idea of the original, of the distilled exhibit that enshrouds the truth and projects it outward, piecemeal. In this telling, the exhibits of the past are replicated and artificial reproductions, versions of the creation of knowledge about the past.
Burstein incorporates three categories of exhibiting the past: the ethnographic category, which presents popular material culture from a Western investigative perspective on the past; the category of high art or avant-garde, which makes use of “primitivism” with an emphasis on Picasso-like masks and an allusion to the notorious 1989 “Magicians of the Earth” exhibition at the Pompidou Center in Paris; and the category of interior design – the handsome home as reflected in antiquated modernist magazines.
Whereas ritual objects function as charms, the objects of modern elite art create a rational, secular, logical world that strives for a core of distilled truth, while the domestic space is presented as being protected against outside dangers. Burstein intermixes the categories and the sites, exposing the deep fetishism of the three categories, the disconnect and the weirdness. They are indeed means of regimentation and ideological orientation, but also means to dissipate fears – magical props. The double twist of the exhibition engages in a rhetoric of the exorcism of demons only in order to invite them in, Dalit Matityahu writes in the exhibition’s accompanying text.
The show’s secondary thrust involves childhood or adolescence. One large photograph shows a group of girls on a study tour of a museum, their prim school uniforms and virginal group correctness juxtaposed with the power of decorated pillars in the cavernous halls. They look like innocents who are lost in a stone forest, their naivete ludicrous. In another outsize photograph, of an open home closet, empty hangers peek out from the yawning blackness of the inside. Here, too, the meta-domestic is illustrated: the threat that overhangs and leaps out of precisely what is most familiar, its role as a known, acknowledged signifier morphing into an ominous harbinger of calamity.
Burstein’s style is reminiscent of the Czech artist Eva Kotatkova, whose work also combines iron scaffolding and black-and-white photographs, scanning and enlargements in different resolutions, to which she attaches objects and elements that function as signposts or as a meaningless sign language. There’s also more than a hint of resemblance to Nevet Yitzhak’s exhibition “Orient Express,” which featured animated exhibits from Jerusalem’s Museum for Islamic Art alongside photages and other elements that were reassembled as exposers of orientalist logic.
Picasso’s presence presides over the whole exhibition: the masks, the adoption of a non-Western aesthetic in the form of elements of primitivism, treated readymades and a Cubist splicing of body organs that juxtaposes areas of light and shadow in a way that casts the image like an accordion or a relief, the underlying instinctual approach.
Where the exhibition is insufficient, despite its beauty and its persuasive atmospherics, is in its failure to hone in on a meaningful focal point, so that ultimately its primary effect is to arouse feeling or a suggestive spirit of the past. Its crux is nostalgic and sentimental, without making any special demand of the historical exhibits. The show relies on their splendor without undergoing a meaningful metamorphosis – despite the cutting and repasting – and remains a labor of longing, a graphic performance.
Inga Gallery of Contemporary Art, 7 Bar Yochai Street, Tel Aviv; Fri.-Sat. 11-2; Tues.-Thurs. 11 A.M.- 6 P.M; until Nov. 14