“ Objects are bad memories: paper falls into ashes, buildings into ruin, entire civilizations into oblivion. Humans are committed to preserving the information they create; they are committed to struggle against entropy, against oblivion.

Vilem Flusser, “The Photograph as Post-Industrial Object” (1996)

In Quest of The Lost Ark

Lihie Talmor, as Israeli artist living in Caracas, Venezuela, is exhibiting works here that span three kinds of media: works on paper (most of them based on photo-etching), sculptures and a book. On the face of it, these are quite different practices in terms of work-methods and characteristics of touch: on the one hand there is the “sensitive” work on paper in a rich, “painterly” and complex technique, and on the other hand there the heavy three quite different practices in terms of work-methods and characteristics of touch: on the one hand there is the “sensitive” work on paper in a rich, “painterly” and complex technique, and on the other hand there are the heavy three-dimensional works, generally attached to the floor or the wall – welded iron, rough and crude. Beside these, as stated, there is also a book - an album, perhaps also a sculptural object – which obliges intimate, direct and introverted serial work. A closer view will blur the differences between one medium and another and will focus rather on the profound affinities among them: the prints elucidate the sculptures and vice versa, the book is a logical development of the prints, one thing is born out of another in an act of concatenation the beginnings of which are difficult to find.

In terms of content, we may speak of four thematic groups, all of them the fruit of the past three years: a group of etching from the collective Memory series (1990-1991); a group of iron sculptures and etching the were done as a tribute to the pianist Vladimir Horowitz (Horowitz the Story-Teller: Cabier de Voyage, 1992); a group of etching based on photographs of music-boxes (Turangalila, 1993); and the book with its seven etchings (Aguaricuar: The Departure, 1993). In each of these series an entire “story” is embodied, each of them stands in its own right, but it seems to me that in the end what we have before us is one large body of work that constitutes a personal statement, a quiet one perhaps, yet very aware of itself. When I look at wound the metal, I think of sculptural structures, of architectural relics, and when I look at the arise in me. All this happens even before we enter into images. It is impossible to ignore the cohesion of style and content that holds all the extremes together.

This cohesion call for speech about the common denominator, about what is evoked by totality. On the level of form and technique, one might begin with the monochromatic palette, which limits itself to the narrow range between gray and rust; one could speak of the principle of the invasive intervention with the material, which is common to the work of iron welding and to the techniques of photo-etching, aquatint and dry point, all based on the gouging, wounding and corroding of the copper, zinc or brass plate. We may also discuss the practice of work in series, which establishes a repetitiveness and makes possible the development of one idea within tight and narrow boundaries – a technique which is quiet common in print-making, and less so in sculpture. This seriality is also one of the prominent qualities of photography, not to speak of musical structures – two major influences in Talmor’s work which I will relate to further on. However, it seems to me that the strength of the works is to be found primarily in one insistent image that recurs as a leitmotif in almost all her works: the box  - a container, an object for storing or accumulating things in – which here, as in the works of the French artist Christian Boltanski, serves as a metaphor for memory, a kind of “black box” which retains memory and remains after the disaster, waiting to be decoded.

The image of the box (container, ark) is especially prominent in the group of iron sculptures, the forms of which actually recall structures like a train, a grave, or an old camera, but it also appears in the images of the tombstones and the graves, as photographed by the artist and transferred to the paper by the photo-etching technique. This contiguity of the image of the box with the regions of death (cemeteries, archaeological ruins, Auschwitz), beside the presence of the act of photography, necessarily establishes meanings associated with the inevitable affinities among time, memory, photography and death. Roland Barthes, Vilem Flusser and many theoreticians of the twentieth century have dealt extensively with this issue. There is no doubt that man’s eternal confrontation with passing time has found its appropriate expression in the medium of photography. The very practice of photography is perceived as an embalming, as an attempt to freeze time, as a kind of death. Like black-magic practices which seek to bring back the dead by the act of preserving the body, so photography, at least according to Barthes, with its paradox of “resurrecting the moment”, bears the seal of death that is embodied in the eternizing of the object, which is like preserving a ghost, freezing the real.

In this sense we may say that documentation of monuments by means of photography makes it possible, among other things, to identify the difference between the time dimension of the photographing (“real time”) and that of the pre-technological monuments (“historic time”). Talmor’s etching (especially those that belong to the Collective Memory and the Aguaricuar series) are indeed laden with pre-technological monuments (stone slabs, tombstones, church ruins), until at times it seems that she has taken upon herself a kind of Sisyphean mission – the task of cataloguing and sorting the traces of man in the landscape, as though he were seeking to assemble anew the information that has been erased from memory, to extricate the documents from the dust, and the buildings from the rubble. In any case it is clear that the information she collects and re-processes in non-material information which is present in the work as silent testimony of temporality and destruction.

The photographs of places and objects function here as symbols in cultural memory, not as “nature” and not as one actual site or another. This shift from the actual to the notional, it seems to me, is a result of the technical act, in the course of which the photograph is transformed into a painting. There is no attempt here to imitate the photographic image as a sketch, as a basis, as point-of-departure, from which the painting is born. The painting too is not really a painting: acts of gouging, scratching, etching and erasing bring it into being on the metal plate. In this way, a tension is created here between photography as a medium that is aware of its inherent anonymity as a mechanical means that interprets reality, and the emotional “treatment”, what we call the “handwriting” or the “touch” of the artist which penetrates into the reality, wreaks changes in it, and presence its own existence there.

Most of the etchings are divided in the center as a result of being printed on two plates, one above or beside the other. On each plate a different image appears, and generally there is a shift or scale, like an enlargement of a detail out of the whole, which confuses the viewer. A fragment of a ruin next to a detail of a tombstone or a vanishing past next to the close-up of an object; blurriness contrasted with clarity; distance with contrasted with closeness; movement contrasted with a frozen state, and so on. What is created here is a kind does photomontage – new sign systems that refer to each other by way of negation. A similar principle also appears in the book: certain images recur; the one which was last becomes the first (The Domino Principle), and so on ad infinitum. This feature connects with one of the prominent characteristics of photography: the principle of non-sequentiality. Photography is considered a medium that reproduces a real world by means of a technique of non-sequentiality: fragmentation, framing, and extraction from context. We live in an age in which our experience of perception no longer obeys the category of sequentiality. In this context, we may liken Talmor’s work more to a movie film than to photography, for what is before us is an almost desperate endeavor to re-stitch the fragments and create a new sequentiality by means of the concatenation we mentioned, which demands (from the viewer) an act of spreading out (in the prints) or of opening up (in the sculptures), in the course of which we discover a story in installments. In other words, instead of the metaphor of the mirror with respect to reality, we have here a preference for the metaphor of the echo. This sensation is reinforced by the monotone rhythm created by the structures that keep recurring, each time in a new context, in unstable equilibrium, constantly changing and coming into being. 

The Collective Memory series, perhaps because of its name, perhaps because of the specific death images that appear in it (barbed wire fences, iron gates, relics, tombstones), connects immediately with the memory of the Holocaust, even though technically it has nothing at all to do with the Holocaust. Most of the etchings in the series are based on photographs taken in the main street of one of the remote villages in the providence of Tuscany in Italy. There is the trough in the center of the village, there are the alleys and the windows of the houses, there is the path that leads to the grocery, and nonetheless the images project the viewer to Auschwitz. The symbols and the motifs of the Holocaust as-it-were emerge unknowingly from the work and force the prosaic meaning into one that is fraught with disaster, touched with the curse of memory which has been imprinted in us since we are captives in the metaphorics of the Holocaust, how much we are structured to identify motifs of remembering and memorializing with our private trauma as Jews. I ask myself if these flickerings of the Holocaust have a connection with the fact that the artist lives is the Diaspora. What is certain is that there is much self-identification here with a world that is vanishing, and much honoring of the dead (several of the other etchings are based on photographs of the cemetery in Curaçao). The compression and the lack of air in these etchings only intensify the sensation that the artist is seeking to build new structures of consciousness that can contain all the associations we carry with us in collective memory, so that not a single drop may leak out from the ultimate store of memories.

The series of etchings done as a tribute to the pianist Vladimir Horowitz is likewise touched with the magic power of memory. In the center now is no longer the collective memory of history, but one man, a genius, a virtuoso. Originally the etchings were exhibited in a more extended format, like newspaper pages, which included the main image, a headline and additional images, smaller ones, accompanied by text. This time only the central images are being exhibited, on nine pages which are one – hands, windows, portraits, landscape and spades – a condensation that seeks to touch the most important thing: to convey the melody through the memory, to dive into the music, to sink into an inner world that is suffused with feeling. The most prominent image in this series of etchings – the hands (the artist’s magical hands) – is juxtaposed here with the mechanical aspect of the welded iron sculptures, which are an inseparable part of the series too. The heavy box-like iron sculptures recall instruments – mechanical objects that work on hinges – something between doors of a shelter an the bellows of an old camera. Some of them are made of iron frames inside which etchings held between two plates of Perspex have been introduced; others are made like cubes which can be drawn out each other, box within box, like a Russian doll; and some of them are spread out on the floor like matchboxes which in a game have become railway carriages or coffins. In contrast to the melancholy melody that runs through the etchings, here one hears a music that is not harmonious – sound of creaking, a steam engine braking on a railway track, a grating metallic friction.

These sculptures remind me of what Vilem Flusser has said about the paradox of the invention of instruments (apparatus). Instruments were invented by humans in order to be automatic. They have indeed succeeded in fulfilling this task and eliminating the need for human operators, but paradoxically, “Man can no longer see through the instruments or control them; they have become to complex for him, opaque black boxes.

It is not only that the instruments act in separation from human intentions; human decisions are determined on the basis of the instruments` decisions. The instruments represent simplistic imitations of human thought processes, imitations characterized y their being automatic and random – characteristics which Flusser sees as opposed to human thought itself”. According to Flusser, the camera too is a “black box”; its inside is covered and it is this opacity that provokes the photographer to create new information. The image of the box also serves Flusser in broader philosophical context that touch upon human vital space (Lebensraum). He likens the “hemisphere of human space” to a box, because it is shallow. As he puts it: “We can measure the length and breadth of the space we cross in thousands of miles, but until quite recently the height of our space only measure a few yards and its depth but a few inches. This wide and long but shallow box that is our vital space is better suited for geometry (measurement of the ground) than for topology (science of space), because it consist of two dimensions to which a third has been added. We upright worms think geometrically (…) this that box of ours stands still, and things move around within it. You might say that those things move with time, and that time blows through space like the wind trough a room with open windows”.

In the series of etchings titled Turangalila, the mechanical element is even more prominent. These are prints made after close-up photographs of music boxes. Again boxes, but this time the gaze focuses on the inner mechanism inside them – the gear wheels, metal components and other parts –, which looks like the innards of some monumental pre-electronic machine. The primary inspiration here too comes from music, this time from the work by the contemporary French composer Oliver Messiaen – a symphony, which is called “Turangalila”. The meaning of this Sanskrit word “turanga”: time that passes and streams like the sand in an hour-glass, and “lila” play, game, in the sense of the divine action upon universe, the game of the Creation, the game of the destruction and of building anew; in other words, the game of life and death. Another meaning of the word “lila” is love. The title in this case is the key to a reading of the entire series, for it contains all the meanings embodied in it: a love song, a hymn to joy, time, movement, rhythm, life and death. A contemplation of the etchings in the series reveals a perception that is almost Futuristic (in the sense of adoration of the machine), except that here the arrow of time is reserved, and instead of looking forward towards progress, there are almost nostalgic yeaning for a “machine of long ago” – those music boxes which were meant to amuse us with their melodious sound, naïve machines. This is not Flusser’s monstrous and threatening machine, but a controllable “human” machine, the inside of which is no yet sealed. In this series the musical context resonate in the from of tonal rhythms, relations between empty and full, light and shadow, hollows and protuberances, air and mass, matter and spirit. The act of creating a close-up, which involves a shift of scale, and the juxtaposition of components which in their original contexts are not to be found proximity to each other; also bring about reversals of the music boxes into symphony, monumental structures.

Monumental structures are also present in the series of etchings in the book, an album of prints titled Aguaricuar: The Departure. Here too the series sets out from an act of photographing: wandering and patient search for the right angle, at a desolate site in Venezuela. The place is called San Lorenzo de Aguaricuar, after the church, the construction of which was never completed, on land that was once an India village. “These are places that belong to this side of the world”, the artist writes me from there. A place inhabited by forsaken people, desolate like brambles, on a side road that no one ever travels”. The ruins of the abandoned church, as capture by her camera, serve here as the base for a rich painterly treatment, by means of engraving and etching, which blurs the details and intensifies the sense of desolation, the ghost-like character of the place. The gray monochrome covers the abandoned building; the way the dust covered Pompeii, and establishes the meaning of the entire series as a metaphor of lost time.

The book includes three pages that fold out (like a fan or an according), on each of which there appears one large etching and two small ones. The large images on each of the pages change, and of the two small ones, only one change each time (the Domino principal again). This creates the concatenation, one thing born from another and leaving its traces in it. In the foldout pages there are kinds of windows that are open, cuttings the make different reading of the work possible. The book also contains all the seven etching separately, without cuttings. This makes it possible to read the visual text of the book both in its complete and in its partial and decomposed form, with each etching revealing itself gradually. This principle connects once more to a photographic / cinematic thinking based on a multiplicity of possibilities of points-of-view – a quality that is embodied in the camera. In terms of values, this multiplicity of possibilities is analogous to the way the photographer contemplates his object. “He apprehends the importance implicit in the actualization of a many points and refuses to adhere to one point-of-view. In this choices, the photographer is guided by doubt with regard to how he perceives the world, and consequently the act of photographing is anti-ideological, in the sense that ideology is a preference of one point-of-view over another”.  This idea of multiple possibilities is also embodied in the symbolic meaning of the book as a kind of cultural memory, as an object that accumulates acquired information.

And if we have already touched upon the book, I think is impossible to conclude writing about Lihie Talmor’s works without touching upon Borges, one of the most influential authors of Latin America. In this context of multiple possibilities, which is grounded philosophically in the conception of time and of memory, we may refer here to The Garden of Forking Paths as an analogous model in literature. This a chaotic novel, a story in which all the possibilities were chosen simultaneously – “diverse futures, diverse time that also proliferate and fork”, where “each [outcome] is also the point of departure for other forkings”. The Garden of Forking Paths is an enormous riddle, or parable, whose theme is time; (…) The Garden of Forking Paths is an incomplete, but not false, image of the universe as Ts’ui Pên conceived it. (…) An infinite series of times, in a growing, dizzying net of divergent, convergent and parallel times. This network of times, which approached each other, forked, broke off, or were unaware of one another for centuries, embraces all possibilities of time. We do not exist in the majority of these time (…).

On a more general plane one could go on to speak about the profound influence of Borges, both on the image level and in what we call “atmosphere”. There are constant motifs that recur almost obsessively in his work, and it will suffice in this context if we mention the urban ones – the streets, yards and city squares – in order to realize how dominant his influence is in Talmor’s work. If we try to make a small inventory here, we will see that in both there are many stones, many pieces of marble which “yield to slow touch of the sensitive fingers”, many shadows (“slopes drowning in shadow”), walls, cities, palaces, desolate shrines, corridors that look like stone nets, dark and dusty hallways, receptacles, houses, backyards, cemeteries, twilights of ducks and twilights of dawn, plates and rods of iron, bits and wall and stone tools, steps, walls, doors, high rusty gates, burnt statues of gods, window bars, vine hedges, dark forking paths, narrow iron beds, winding gardens (“the pavilion of transparent solitude”), trains and platforms, gardens and villas, a labyrinth and mirrors.

In typical Borgesian spirit, which blends lyrical language with narrative language (“magical realism”), these vistas go beyond the boundaries of realistic documentation and cause us to feel something of “ the atmosphere of Latin America”, something of the mystery (ancient rituals) that suffuses the broken ruins which the magic of passing time wounds and leaves its stamp upon. What I mean is the stamp of grief imprinted upon these distant places, the tragical qualities that melancholic pleasure (“salty darkness”) etched with oppressive sensuality. “I hope [my redeemer] will take me to a place with fewer galleries and fewer doors”, Borges prays. Elsewhere, he says: “The city exists in me like a poem / which I have not managed to arrest in words”. The openings, the doors, the windows, the inside and the outside in Lihie Talmor’s sculptures and pages are like that city, which cannot be arrested in words. They are the labyrinths and they are the exit from it, they seduce one to enter them, to look inside through a tunnel or a telescope. The seeings from different angles, the conversions of scale, as well as the peepings through the various mediations (mask, tree-trunks, bars, tiers), create a fragmentation of the open space, and cut into the living flesh of the reality, through these, that “there is not a single thing upon the earth that oblivion will not erase or that memory will not alter and (…) nobody knows into what images the future will translate it”.


Tami Katz-Freiman
Works on paper iron sculptures
“In quest of the lost ark”
The Artists’ House Gallery, Jerusalem
1990 - 1993