Angelika Sher | Fifth Column
Curator: Yair Barak
Two central works in Fifth Column highlight the gap between sound and image. Apparently these two photographs have nothing in common. In one, an old stairwell, its walls covered in thick oil paint, seems to be deeply planted in eastern European tradition. Its illumination flows from a large light box; we hear echoes of doors slamming, feet pattering up and down the stairs, human voices calling. What’s heard is not seen and what’s seen is not heard, and yet – they are wonderfully synchronized. The artist’s choice is not random. This had been the stairwell in her childhood home in Lithuania, which she climbed through every day, its sounds and smells molding her identity.
In the other work, Messages from Mars, and old record player is displayed next to an old television set. The record generates a series of regular, mechanical chirps. On the screen, images are slowly being woven, their pace tired and their technology old-fashioned. They float, one after the other, like some automated consciousness, turning into a generic archive with distinct Soviet aromas: a mythological newscaster, a legendary movie star, Grandfather Frost (a secular Santa Claus), a military parade. Actually, we realize, the record is broadcasting signals which turn sound into image. This aging system has seen better days when, in the 1970s, NASA sent mementos of life on Earth to Space. This series of sounds and images was meant to introduce a summary of our world to an unknown recipient, who never got the message.
Up till now, the riddle is solvable. The other works in the show re-introduce Sher’s recognizable subjects, which exist within the familial/cultural representation, to a new dimension which creates an unusual, surprising encounter between what might be called documentary and reality-based, and a mystic, defiantly surreal world. In an attempt to categorize it I am obliged to adopt the term “magical realism,” a terms with its pervasive connotations to literature, film, and art, starting from the Weimar Republic in early 20th century, through Latin literature (García Márquez), and on to American film (David Lynch). Its influence here seems to be great.
These magical images subvert the perception of time, same as in science-fiction movies, which present a futuristic, hyper-technological reality, drawing their aesthetic inspiration from pre-historic images. Poetically you might say that Sher is creating a present-less time record, rooted in the future and facing the past.
In conversation with Sher she mentions the key influence of Vladimir Sorokin on her thinking and on her artistic perception. Sorokin is one of the sharpest, most subversive writers on contemporary Russian literature, and much of his writing contains strong critical messages in the guise of science-fiction novels.
The dune is, without a doubt, the most noticeable image in the show. This image is much associated with the perception of place – the Middle East – and with its representation in 19th century photography. In many photographs taken in the colonialist tradition, 19th century Palestine was a land of dunes, an exotic desert, distinctly oriental. Surprisingly, in the minds of many Europeans Israel looks like that even today.
Sher creates Euro-desert hybrids in her photographs. In the one called “Grandma’s Curtain,” a young girl is wrapped in a curtain. It’s generic; an old person’s curtain, or is it ethnic? You can find such curtains in a kibbutz, in an old-age home, or at the flea market. The girl rises Venus-like from the sands, a transplant in a foreign landscape.
A model of a Moscow icon, a colorful basilica, has emigrated from the Red Square in order to float above a dusty, sandy carpet. Six elegant men’s hats – associated with an orthodox Jew, a gentleman, a cowboy – hover in precise formation, as in a graduation ceremony, flying away from the camera and into the blue sky, a moment before they would crash into the sun-burned sand. Shades of Magritte, the French surrealist, but a sense of magic is evoked here too. Alien invasion also comes to mind, enhanced by the image of a flying saucer plunged into the soft sand, surrounded by a crowd of people. It is uncertain whether they are gathering around it or walking away. Is this crowd the fifth column in the show’s title? A fifth column is a subversive force working inside the mainstream as an undercover agent, potentially harmful. It’s hard to ignore Sher’s interest in questions of immigration and foreignness versus the phobic societal imagination, perceiving immigrants as a threat.
In another work, the same girl stands under a fancy crystal chandelier, a necessary trousseau item in the culture in which the artist has grown up. Two of its polished stones are placed right in front of the girl’s eyes, transformed into cold, spellbinding drops of blood. This composition, which is repeated in another portrait of the young girl, this time with medals decorating the front of her black shirt, points to a generation gap and an identity conflict, and fashions Sher’s complex and broken syntax whose raw materials are alienation and rootlessness.