Thoughts about Angelika Sher’s Twilight Sleep
Angelika Sher’s new photographs read for me as a symbolic coded text.
In most of them, the object appears to be a signifier. As in a dreaming state, the photograph does not focus on the horse, or on a table set for a feast. The set of symbols follows the duality of the ritual and the quotidian, the sacred and the profane, beauty and revulsion.
Strangely, when I investigate the photographs I can’t help recalling the Flemish tradition of Vanitas paintings. The highly symbolic memento mori motif, encompassing both death and purity, is central to this genre. At the same time, there’s a sense that Sher is creating a whole different syntax – less specific, deceptive, dialectic. Birth and death are not dichotomous; they dwell together and echo each other. The photograph of the white horse exudes sublime nobility, but its surprising locus – a common stable – brings it back from holiness to mundane, from high to low.
I’m thinking of a famous quote of Caravaggio’s, who, according to the story, said to a student who had failed to draw a horse: “Don’t try to draw a horse – try for horseness.” Here too representation is contrasted with the physical object.
The Duality in Sher’s work reaches a climax in two photographs: One, a portrait of an old woman, expresses extreme artificiality, bordering on horror. The excessive make-up, the surgically sculpted face, the theatrical gesture, all come together to subvert the natural and turn the body into a death mask.
Similarly, the cat, wrinkled due to other causes (it’s a young cat; the wrinkles are no indication of age), stands out in its static pose – it being a statue. Its beauty is implied by its noble pedigree, but actually it is amazingly ugly. It lacks expression. An incarnation of a sphinx, its face is sealed. It looks like a stuffed animal.
The eastern European-looking feast table conceals a deception. The pseudo-Russian dishes are actually pseudo-Dutch, but in fact are manufactured in China. Sher folds the napkins the way she remembers from her Grandmother’s house. The precise arrangement, heralding the feast, becomes, in its sterility, funereal. Another image of a table in the series is an “after” table, post mortem. A leaf-patterned plastic tablecloth covers a traditional wood table, littered with crumbs. On the right side a white mouse feasts on leftovers from the sacrifice.
The sheep and the young goat hold a central role in this body of work. The immediate connotation is religious, of a sacrifice, but very soon the image of the one against many takes over. The sheep are in a herd, a collective. The young goat, breaking out through a sheet of fabric, appears to be in the process of being born. The grey tarpaulin tears apart and allows the emerging of the individual, the pure one.
Purification is the dominant theme also in the bath-house work. A naked man sits, wrapped up in himself, his face hidden. A ritual immersion is suggested here, an act of cleansing.
The man in Sher’s current work is a man who has lost his traditional status. He is covered up, withdrawn, perhaps mourning his own death. By contrast, the women are presented in all their power and glory, as in the image where a woman is shown as a femme fatal, almost ludicrous in her blatant appearance. Next to her is a man’s body; a body – nothing less, nothing more.
In two other images Sher presents contrasts: Older women versus young men, women singing versus men smoking. The former are animated. They are captured with their mouths open, which imply singing but also the sexuality and the ecstatic existence of these women. The latter, in clogs, which are contrasted with the dark trousers and starched white shirts of the women, seem enclosed each in his inner world. The former group is unified by the common act of singing, which has power and purpose, while the latter seems incidental, a collection of single entities linked only by functionality. As opposed to the revitalizing act of singing, the male individuals are engaged in self-annihilation, smoking themselves to death.
The two manners of treating a collective in Sher’s work evoke the image of the young goat emerging from the tent side – what kind of individual is it? Will it join the group and become one of many, or will it be singled out for sacrifice, segregated from the rest, atoning in its death for the mother collective?
In one of the important photographs in the series an octopus lies on a wooden deck; two stains next to it are traces of a wet body yanked away. The stains are a memory of the flesh, a virtual presence of the body that was there. Here too, the individual is shown in a group of identical copies of itself. Here too beauty and ugliness, temptation and revulsion meet. This relationship is also apparent in the photograph of the sphinx cat. Naked, as exposed as a fetus, the cat alternates between being a magical object and an ugly, fearsome one. Next to it is a portrait of an older woman, heavily made up, her face part glamorous and part death mask.
The symbolic content, the iconographic references, the sense of visual tradition – all coalesce into a sharp, crisp, extremely realistic photographic visibility, creating a poignant encounter between historical pictorialism and contemporary photography.
Yair Barak, July 2009