The Presence of Absence

Every photograph of a room empty of people contains the presence of those who are absent from the room.

On May 5, this heartrending photograph by Vera Vladimirsky will be offered for sale at Sotheby's London, 34-35 New Bond Street. It was taken in an apartment in Ashdod a few months ago, as part of a joint project of the photography department of the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design and the Ashdod municipality. Originally intended to document the port area, the project included private homes as well. What beauty, delicacy and restraint, what quiet and strength can reside in one frame, depicting one corner of an unknown apartment in a port city with a large immigrant population. Will visitors to Sotheby's exhibition of works by Bezalel graduates feel the attempt by inhabitants of the apartment to protect themselves from radiation, to rest from the unbelievable invasiveness of "the light that covers the light that covers the dark which is the membrane of being," in the words of the poet Israel Eliraz? Will they, too, notice that these flowers do not need sun? That the people inside are protecting themselves from the outside with the help of images?

Every photograph of a room empty of people contains the presence of those who are absent from the room. Here, too, the thick, substantial presence of the decorating hand is clearly felt. It is the hand of the people who are not visible and who live in this home amid the whiteness, the glare, the model cleanliness and the emptiness. Are they new immigrants from the former Soviet Union? Veteran immigrants from some other place?

Vera Vladimirsky

Also present in this photograph is a dramatic, first-rate disparity between what is photographed and the way it is photographed. A disparity between the taste of the people who hung that painting near their window and the refined taste of Vladimirsky, who has photographed their work. A disparity between the colors of the flowers on the wall, which are represented by means of kitsch art made by an unknown hand, and the precision and stillness of the photograph itself. There are two different understandings here of the concept of minimalism.

Vladimirsky's photograph, then, speaks of the home's occupants' attitude toward art and respects their outlook, yet the more one looks at it, the more it becomes clear that it is not art, but alienation, that flows through the photo like a undercurrent. For what is alienation if not a closed window? In 1963, when he was 81, Edward Hopper produced his last great painting, "Sun in an Empty Room." In this painting, the sun falls through an open window onto yellow walls in a room that has been emptied of objects. It's a work suffused with emotion, deep and surpassingly beautiful, which conveys the substantiality of a whole life without the presence of even one concrete item from that life. A painting utterly of the mind, which shows an illuminated room in which there is no alienation, but harmony and quiet, acceptance and equanimity. In Vladimirsky's photograph, the room is illuminated, but the blinds are shut. The walls are smooth and lack personality. The decorations are isolated on the walls. Even if nowhere in Sotheby's is it mentioned that plastic blinds are characteristic visual features of "Israeliness," it will be readily seen that the people inside want to build their home in separation from the outside - but the blind does not allow this. Because that blind, that Israeli blind, looks the same from the outside and the inside. It has no separation. That is the essence of its ugliness.