Excess / absence: reflections on 13 and Growing Down by Angelika Sher
Two series from last year comprise Angelika Sher’s exhibition. The two series are not dichotomous – rather, they flow from each other. One is laden with estrangement and malaise, while the other evokes anxiety and threat. Both are painfully beautiful, bringing everyday situations to the point of excess, to an end which is both a catastrophe and a high point.
In one photograph from Growing Down, two girls sit on what appears to be a back porch. One of them is reclining, staring at the camera with a glazed look, both bewildered and hallucinating. Her skin is so fair she seems bloodless. Her posture gives in to the pull of gravity, and her long hand seems to be sucked into the space between the wooden beams, wishing to touch or to penetrate. The other girl belongs in a different reality: she sits in a childlike position, very familiar, looking absent-mindedly at the camera. Her skin is darker, earthier, alive. Two dogs sit between the girls, their backs to the camera, constituting a decorative element reminiscent of animal sculptures in European gardens.
The chromatic range of the photograph is tight, cold, barely saturated, melancholy. This photograph contains a complex set of signs and images characteristic of the works in this series.
The “present” in the pieces is also the “absent.” Childhood, with its familiar attributes, is absent, its place taken by a mature presence, devoid of childlike spontaneity; a conscious, considered visibility, achieved by careful planning and meticulous execution, made familiar by Baroque painters such as Caravaggio or Velasquez, who excelled in transporting reality into the realm of the sublime. The critical distancing and the sexual presence of the objects bring to mind a much later reference, that of Balthus’s paintings of young girls: disturbing, anxious, seductive, and enigmatic.
I continue to study the photographs and stop in front of two girls in a doorway. One, her body wide and solid, turns a conscious, playful gaze at the camera, adopting a pose borrowed from the world of consumer culture, fashion. Beside her stands a very slim girl, her body limp, wilted. Her eyes are empty. The youngsters in Sher’s work should be growing and flourishing, as expected, but instead they are presented in a state of decline. Estrangement envelops the images and invades them.
Eastern European-looking children seem, next to their native, deep-rooted Israeli friends, transplanted into Orientalist space, which in itself is detached from time or place, at once Baroque and folkloric. The subjects and the space do not belong together but at the same time are inseparable. Their need to put in roots and belong defines and separates them. Ethnic integration unavoidably creates separateness and segregation rather than unity and sameness.
The need to integrate, the anxiety of being different, and the sense of transplantation, all create a conflict between assimilation and vanishing. Sometimes it seems the children of the immigrants blend into their environment. They adapt their shape to the local template and the gap between them and those who belong is obscured. At other times their “otherness” makes them disappear, creating longing and absence from real space.
In the second series, 13, the relationship between the camera and the objects is significantly changed. The directness and openness of the children become an unbridgeable distance. A sense of loss and departure shoots out like an arrow from colorful, seductive images. The scenes create a sense of inaccessibility, and raise thoughts of an inherent, existential anxiety in the depths of the parenting experience.
One photograph shows a group of children locked inside a greenhouse in the middle of a fallow field. The greenhouse, in its botanical context, is the ideal growth environment, providing protection, perfect climate conditions, and optimal nourishment. These human “plants” are not protected – they are trapped, and cannot communicate. The protective cover becomes threatening, distancing. The subjects do not give themselves easily; they surround themselves, physically and mentally, with defense mechanisms. The camera is charged with a new role: it defines territories and marks the limits of intervention. The gaze is the ultimate mechanism of inaccessibility. Here is photography in one of its most frustrating instances – its inherent attempt to document the moment, the becoming of a thing in the past, underlines its impossibility. The significant moment is the moment of failure, where there’s nothing but the huge gap, created by the physical and mental presence of the camera, between the photographer and the object being photographed.