It's Hard to Pull Yourself Away From Mark Yashaev's Tantalizing Photos

Tucked away in the Tel Aviv Museum is a photographic exhibition by Mark Yashaev, winner of the 2016 Mitchell Presser Photography Award. With theatrically designed spaces and photos within photos, his work is at once incisive and seductive.

"Untitled" (Arcadi), 2016.
Mark Yashaev

On the top floor of the new wing of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, in the photography gallery, far from the hubbub of the big exhibitions, a magnificent exhibition by Mark Yashaev is currently on display. With individual photos and one series hanging on the walls, as well as one more photo mounted on a wood pedestal in the center of the gallery, Yashaev creates a miraculous and penetrative space, both thought-provoking and seductive, that’s hard to pull yourself away from.

The exhibition is comprised mainly of photographs of interior spaces: a bedroom or shelter, the artist’s studio and a museum gallery. They may be interior spaces but they are not private or intimate: These are public spaces – a museum or archaeological site, or rooms in abandoned, ownerless buildings. There are objects and machines within them, as well as human figures. But these are not living spaces; they are exhibition arenas.

The interior’s presentation thus deviates here: Yashaev does not present to us pieces of everyday life, from the very familiar part of life that is spread between work and rest, between feeding and washing the body, between caring for the house and caring for the self. The spaces he photographs are clearly artificial and carefully constructed. He doesn’t photograph something that was there beforehand so that the photo is like a window on the world – a previously formed world that is constant and stable. Instead, Yashaev designs a space, puts the way it is installed on show, and makes it a space of artistic creation. These spaces are full of action, not like life itself, but like a theater hall: The objects found in them are work tools and exhibition aids – chairs, hooks, light fixtures – and the spaces are temporary, like a stage set that is standing one moment and being taken down the next.

"Untitled" (Mosaic), 2016.
Mark Yashaev

In each of the photographed spaces another photograph has already been planted. Yashaev works in a dual fashion: First he builds a space, photographs it, prints it in large format, and then he puts the print back into the space and photographs the space again, this time with the photo in it. What the viewer sees is a space that spans multiple times and multiple layers, and contains objects and figures.

However, the photo planted in the space does not enrich or enhance it; it does not lend it another dimension of existence or activity – like a work of art that hangs in one’s home and adds interest and depth. Rather, it has the opposite effect – it subtracts a dimension and flattens it: The two-dimensionality of the printed photograph is imposed upon the entire space and opens up a void within it. It literally creates space – a hollow area, devoid of volume.

Yashaev’s spaces are composed, therefore, of sheet upon sheet: curtains, shutters, screens. The photograph “Untitled (Arkadi)” is built entirely of surfaces: On the right side is a window covered with airy latticework through which light penetrates. In the center is the enlarged printed photo, showing a wall, sealed windows and the figure of a young man who is leaning on the wall, his face turned to the side, with the light coming through the shutters refracted on his shirt. This part of the work is entirely without depth. But even outside the printed photo, the objects are totally frontal and perpendicular: An overturned mattress stands against the wall, a section of a red cardboard box atop it, with planks crossing it diagonally; on the other side, an open art book is perched on a stool.

This entire work is comprised of surface next to surface, surface on top of surface; everything in it stands erect, but at the same time is flattened and without body. These surfaces act in two ways: On the one hand, they are completely exposed and presented for viewing, but at the same time, they seem to be hiding something, covering something. They’re like wallpaper. Maybe it is covering up a stain, a crack, a hidden cave; or maybe it’s just been stuck on the white wall to prettify it, to enliven it with colors and shapes. Or maybe it looks just like the wall to which it has been attached, wallpaper atop wallpaper, without any differentiation between them. What is behind the curtain? Probably another curtain, a photograph within a photograph, which makes all that surrounds it photograph-like.

Yashaev’s works explore the possibility of photographing a world in which photography already exists. They abandon the act of “innocent” photography, which imagines itself as external to the photographed world, and place the act of photography inside that world, thus examining what happens when the printed image takes the place of the object.

"Cast Shadow," 2016.
Mark Yashaev

What happens to the space and the things in it when the photograph enters as well? This is an essential question for our times: The world in which we go about our lives is a world that is photographed from all over – from above and below, by human-held cameras and by satellite cameras – and we are surrounded by photographs. How, then, to photograph a space that has already been photographed, that is filled with photographs of itself? Yashaev’s answer: by the way the photograph – the flattened, printed, copied image – is placed in the space and projects its attributes and qualities upon it. Upon the space that he designs and photographs, and upon the gallery space in which he places the photographs. One continually echoes the other, and sometimes one is poured into the other, as when Yashaev photographs a museum space. In each case, these are interior spaces that become spaces of exposure and display, places for the formation of that which is presented to the viewer.

Therefore, these photographs express an unnatural beauty, in two senses: not the beauty of nature, the beauty that resides in what there is; and not the mundane type of beauty that is nearly taken for granted. Yashaev shows us an altered, diverted beauty. The beauty of concealment. Indeed most of the figures in his works are turning their heads away and not revealing them. And also the beauty of brazen, overly close-up exposure – in the pockmarked face of the youth that gazes at us from the work in the center of the gallery, eyes agape, with perforated paper plastered over his image, as three types of holes; and Greek beauty, in the form of the marble statues that appear in different photographs, but seem to be in the process of being installed for display in a museum, or being put away in a storeroom; and great, even larger-than-life beauty – that seen in backstage prop and wardrobe rooms, or rehearsal halls. These spaces do not carry any hint of home: They are completely detached from family life, cut off from any lineage; they convey a powerful sense of a well-designed neglect, loneliness and remoteness, spaces for masquerade and dream.

Yashaev’s photographic work is forceful and valid. It is not ironic and bemused, deliberately minimalistic or openly staking a claim to the fringe. It flirts with classic values, but does not return to them in nostalgic or anachronistic way, as if reviving an abundant world. Out of the current technological conditions, from social specificity, he creates installations of interiors devoid of interiority, hollowed erectness, of the act of photography in the image of the photograph.

Mark Yashaev: “Only from this suddenness and on”; The Lauren and Mitchell Presser Photography Award for a Young Israeli Artist, 2016. Curator: Raz Samira. Tel Aviv Museum of Art (27 Shaul Hamelech St.). Monday, Wednesday and Saturday, 10 A.M.-6 P.M.; Tuesday and Thursday, 10 A.M.-9 P.M.; Friday, 10 A.M.-2 P.M. Through May 27.  

"Self Shadow," 2016.
Mark Yashaev