Photography / Self-portrait of a Documentary Power

When Limbus Gallery opened, its curators were filling a hole in an art world that ignored photography. Today, the overall situation is vastly improved, but Limbus itself now exists only between the pages of this 'exhibition without walls'

Limbus: Makom Tzilum (Limbus: A Photographic Place ) Curators: Dafna Ichilov, Yehudit Guetta and Galia Gur Zeev. Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House (Hebrew ), 343 pages, NIS 148

"Limbus: A Photographic Place" attempts to sum up and carry on with the unique approach of the Limbus Photography Gallery, which operated in a bomb shelter in Tel Aviv, at 159-161 Ben Yehuda Street, between 1992 and 2005. The heart of the book is an "exhibition without walls" that brings together more than 300 contemporary photographs (rather than a retrospective of works that appeared in the gallery ) by a variety of photographers, making this hefty tome into a document of testimony simultaneously on signs of the past and the haunting beat of the present. The book also contains a comprehensive article by Tali Tamir, "The Rise Out of Limbo: On the Photography Days at the Limbus Gallery," which meticulously tracks the exhibits that were mounted there.

A manifesto written sometime back then by five of Limbus's founders (Dafna Ichilov, Galia Gur Zeev, Eyal Ben-Dov, Yael Bieber and Yehudit Guetta ) stated that: "Art galleries in Israel hardly ever present photography. The number of photographic galleries is zero. There is no significant exhibition of Israeli photography in museums. There is hardly any expression or possibility of exposure of the corpus of photographers early in their careers. There is a great lack of writing and criticism on photography." The period between 1992 and 2010 brought about a deep and significant change in the status of Israeli photography - from a medium that struggled to obtain worthy artistic legitimacy to one endowed with a flood tide of works and a critical recognition of even press photography as a fertile channel of plastic art.

The book opens with seven resonant photographs: "The Last Peace Demonstration," by Barry Friedlander, which captures a collection of mournful faces of Israeli leftists; "The Holy Fire Ritual" by Pavel Wolberg; heart-rending facial expressions and people collapsing at a funeral photographed by Alex Levac; a staged shot called "Ruth and Naomi," from Adi Nes's "Bible Series"; and a group of policemen photographed by Tamir Sher.

The shiny black cover design, with a perfect circle cut into its center, suggests a colorful wreath within a small flowerpot. When you open the book, the figure of public-relations celebrity Rani Rahav appears in a black-striped suit holding the plant. In David Tartakover's design of Micha Kirshner's photo, it seems as though Rahav is laying a plastic wreath on Limbus's symbolic grave: the world of public relations, the loss of the prospect of peace, the holy faith, endless funerals, the poor gathering up leftovers, policemen in dark glasses - this has been our life recently.

Before our eyes, the bequeathal of the collective Israeli identity is manifest in photos of the masses: soldiers in the army, crowds rollicking at a water park, skiing on the Hermon, lower-class housing projects, organized group tours - the whole repertoire of "Israeli togetherness." The curators write, of the masses of photos they received as a result of their published manifesto, that they are coated by a veneer of consistency, in terms of both style and content: "The periphery commands most of the attention ... new immigrants, the residents of poor neighborhoods, foreign workers, clubhouse youth." And they stress the gap between those who are exposed to the photographic gaze and those who can avoid it. They were not sent photographs of the "youthful by design, the successful who crave recognition as such, who control their media visibility by hiding behind the fences they've built for themselves. Those who do not want the public eye directed at them (the masters of power, control, capital ) are protected, secured from everything and inaccessible."

The three editors rightly draw attention to "the class politics of photography" and do not claim only ethical motives on the part of photographers attempting to spotlight the "margins." Yet at the same time it appears that the "Israeli self-portrait" forged out of this collection of photographs captures something deep and authentic in the self-image of Israel and of Israelis, who almost always regard themselves as a collection of "others" who are never "strong" or "homogeneous."

"Man is only the mold of the landscape of his homeland," wrote Shaul Tchernichovsky, but the mold of the homeland's landscape is likewise only the man who designs it. The forms of the human landscape are what dictate, build, trample, and create the outline of Israeli topography. "A scarred and wounded landscape, a landscape marked by the footprints of trauma, a landscape of abandonment," write the curators of these photographs interspersed in the catalog. Destruction, violence, devastation and searing humiliation are the range of emotions stirred by the sight of both the human and geographical landscape.

'Crying game'

Something arousing pity also emerges from most of the portraits - of children, young people and the elderly - and even the "joyous" revelry in nightclubs has a pitiful cast to it. It seems documentation dominates in contemporary photography and stresses Israel as "a documentary power" (in film, as well ) - a place that constantly produces events greater than its inhabitants' ability to digest and contain them. We must photograph ourselves in order to "objectively" see what we are experiencing; how our place, our homes, our country looks; who it is that's living there, next door to us.

The great majority of the photos are taken outside, and emphasize the tyrannical domination of the Israeli public space, which invades and overwhelms its private, inner counterpart.The "crying game" that Israel plays with its citizens is also the type of relationship that led to the closing of Limbus. "Thirteen years of life underground, between cement walls, and of exhausting struggle for economic survival took their toll," write the three curators, after Ben-Dov and Bieber had dropped out.

At the end of 13 years of volunteer work in that bomb shelter, Limbus was closed, leaving behind the same need in the public arena for experimental, non-commercial, young photography projects that are open to error.

Despite the brave decision to collect between hard covers an exhibit devoted to the present and not reflect the past, I felt the absence of works that were once exhibited, of important shows that had been mounted at Limbus. And there were no few of these - and not only photography exhibits: "The Flying Donkey of the Messiah," the joint exhibit of Meir Gal and Gadi Gofbarg; the bold drawings of Noam Holdengraber; Yoram Kupermintz's "I Love You" installation; Tali Amitai-Tabib's photographs; and the "You Don't Seem Hungry to Me" exhibit by Michal Shamir and Orly Wolkowski Dvir, to mention just a few.

Except for its last photograph, the important and critical work "Tapestries of Chiefs of Staff," created by Ichilov, Gueta and Gur Zeev for the "You Are An Iconic Cannon of Masculinity" exhibit mounted in Limbus in 1997, the book unfortunately lacks documentation of the gallery's other joint projects, the "Space-Room" and "Atlantis" installations, which were unique experiments in Israeli art as a collective creation.


Ketzia Alon is a writer and art curator.