It's not quite clear whether Yanai Toister's new show is a photography exhibition without any photos or a photo exhibition without any photography. Now on display at Dvir Gallery in Tel Aviv, Toister's latest effort is the result of thoughts that have occupied him for several years now, about the way architecture and color integrate, and the formalism of photography.
The invitation to the show features an overhead view of a textbook, opened to a page with several graphs, placed atop a marble background. The book's title, "The Keepers of Light," inspired the name of Toister's exhibition, "Keepers of the Light." But neither the name or accompanying photo offer even a hint of what visitors will discover at the show.
On the walls of Dvir Gallery at 11 Nahum Street, 21 strips of paper of various colors hang almost from ceiling to floor, in fixed intervals. The eye jumps back and forth from color to color, and then to the empty space remaining. The paper and colors seem to map out the space and give meaning to its interior design. The different strips define the gallery's dimensions, while the changing shades function as a kind of thermometer, monitoring the changes from one area of the space to the next.
These thoughts are all possible side effects resulting from Toister's ideas. Ideas which initially emerged out of two parallel processes: the first, his endless questioning of the role of photography, the mechanism that creates it and its final product; and the second process, an affinity for architecture, which occupied Toister in some of his earlier works as well.
The idea underlying this particular exhibition touches on photography that is based on looking at a real object, but that translates into a work which, in the end, has no representation - i.e., it does not realize the theoretical role of art. Toister therefore sees great importance in the concept of translation - "translation as a means of distortion, not necessarily as a means of description," as he puts it.
In addition to "Keepers of the Light," Toister's work is part of the group exhibition "Pleated Blinds" at the Petah Tikva Museum of Art (curated by Ory Dessau ), where he presents a series that preceded the current solo exhibit but is nevertheless connected to it. Toister's "Nine Sheets," according to Dessau, explores the status of the photographic image as "a representation, a sign of presence, a sign of absence."
The work consists of nine sheets of drawing paper (which serve to measure the intensity of light in the darkroom ) that were exposed to different levels of light at varying times and pasted separately on newspaper that has also been exposed to sunlight. Both sets of papers continue to develop relative to the light they are exposed to in the exhibition space.
Dessau interprets Toister's work as deriving from "an ethical position seeking to refrain from adding images to the visual stream that floods us throughout most of the day."
Toister, however, says "Nine Sheets" is actually the result of a coincidence that took place in a darkroom at the California Institute of the Arts, where he completed his master's degree. This also marked the last time he printed something in a darkroom himself.
"I noticed during the course of working that the sheets were coming out ugly and the white wasn't white," Toister recalls. "I did all the necessary checks, left the sheets unexposed for hours. If the lighting is proper the sheets will come out white, if it isn't they usually blacken. When I went back to check on the sheets, I found that some of them had acquired a kind of gradiant that corresponded to their distance from the safety light. I realized that something magical had happened there."
The work in Petah Tikva is no less monochromatic or conceptualist than his solo exhibition, but from there Toister realized that "in understanding the qualities of the material and the way in which these qualities are first of all what builds meaning in photography - I can encompass in any form."
His new work was inspired by the 1970 piece by the artist Yaacov Agam which adorns the facade of the Dan Hotel in Tel Aviv. "It's a wonder that something like this exists within the chromatic desolation typically found here," Toister says.
At 35, Toister, who earned his undergraduate degree at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, has already gained a reputation among both the local and international art scenes. His manner of speaking is polished and calculated and peppered with foreign words and terms borrowed from other disciplines. He has presented several solo exhibitions in Israel and around the world and, among other things, also curated an exhibit shown about a year ago at Tel Aviv's Center for Contemporary Art. "The Light Show" included several works by photographers who presented items that pushed abstraction to its outer limits.
The show also featured a text written by Toister, in which he tried to offer an alternative for Israeli photography. "In the pendulum swing between appearance and absence, as a presence within and beyond a photo at the same time... the exhibition seeks to lay the groundwork for the use of the tools of abstraction in photography, not necessarily as a way of relating to the real world, but as a concretization of the pictorial possibilities concealed within the photo," he wrote.
"I don't think that my role as a photographer is to tell a story. My job, first of all, if at all, is to tell the story of the photo, of the viewing or of the perspective," he explains now. "There is a moment that really interests me and that is the moment of translation - it seems to us that a certain thing appears in the world in order to symbolize one thing, but in practice what happens is that it undermines the existence of the original item, disrupts it or even erases it. In this respect, photography is of great cultural importance."
Dessau and Toister are part of an existing trend with considerable representation around the world, though less so in Israel, and still they represent a slightly condescending approach toward surrounding events. With Dessau this is reflected in the editor's note he prepared for the studio, and for Toister it is reflected in his statement, "In the end, I let myself say what I wanted, with a personal tone, out of great exhaustion from what I see."
The critic and psychoanalyst Itamar Levy has sharply criticized minimalism and abstraction.
"All throughout modernism there was a parallel between the aesthetic values and the moral values," he said. "The parallel reached a peak and became extreme in the minimalism of the 1970s. More is less, decoration is sin, silence is the purest and truest statement. This aesthetic-moral value exhausted itself rather quickly, and not just because it led art to a dead end, but also because its moral validity was found to be questionable. Instead of getting rid of the ornamentation, minimalism became the uber-ornament, the prevailing code of good taste, the definer of social status."
How do you see your own work with regard to this claim?
"I agree with Levy's claim, if I understand it correctly," Toister says. "I agree that total minimalism can empty the original and there does need to be something to relate to - otherwise this is not a political choice, but an aesthetic mannerism. I didn't want to completely empty out, I wanted to create a piece of architecture using photography and to offer an aesthetic experience in an exhibition within the architecture of the gallery, that for six weeks translates or encompasses a different sort of architecture."
Will a process such as the one you are undergoing, minimalism and abstraction, not lead to a kind of dead end - like the one that minimalism of a certain form reached or clashed with?
"I don't know what will be. It really is a kind of dead end. I don't know what the next thing will be. It's possible that I'll create the translations I have created up until now using architecture or sculpting," he says, his approach fluctuating from pessimism to a hint of nostalgia.
He explains that this way even the title of the exhibition, like the book and the Agam work, "discuss what will no longer be. Even if the technological means that I use today, as in the book, will most likely not be around anymore, that's okay. If you translate photography on the most literal level, it is a recording of light and that is all I am presenting in this exhibition - containers of light. There are 21 strips on the walls that contain the light they have received, and no more than that."
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