We all know what light is; but it is not easy to tell what it is.
(Attributed to Samuel Johnson in James Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson)
Leora Laor, born 1952
Light Image # 28, 2003
Digital video still, 60x80 cm
Courtesy of Dvir Gallery, Tel Aviv
Light is an extremely important factor in culture and art. Throughout history, that essence without which sight is impossible has been conceived of as a central element not only in the physical sense, but also in the symbolic one: light represents the good, the divine, the sublime, truth, reason, and life itself.
Unique significance is accorded to the element of light - the first entity created by God - in Jewish sources, beginning with the Bible and continuing with the Midrash and Aggadah literature and the various branches of Jewish mysticism. According to several traditions, God created light before creating the sun and the moon on the fourth day of Creation, but ensconced it after He saw that man was not worthy of it, preserving it for the righteous at the End of Days. According to these traditions, the light of day that we see is nothing but a glimmer of that sublime light of Creation.
This exhibition, centering on the finalists of the Adi Competition for Jewish Expression in Art and Design (2003), examines the concept of light and its various representations in art and design. The works participating in the show deal, each in its own way, with light as an essence - not only as the illumination of an object or a landscape, but as an independent entity possessing symbolic, emotional, and spiritual qualities. Some of the artists use light as a "material," integrating it within their work; others represent light through painting or sculpture; and yet others do so through the medium of photography - a word that literally means "writing in light."
The works by Moshe Gershuni, Mosh Kashi, Masha Yozefpolsky, and Mordecai Ardon address light as an essence emerging out of darkness, the embodiment of the sublime, sometimes also dealing with light and darkness as commingled elements, representing a stage of existence prior to the disentanglement of these opposites. In Ido Bar-El's works light is a material that is freely and spontaneously spattered over the painting surface, somewhat like a volcanic eruption. Micha Ullman's Week, made of sand on paper, has seven layers. With each subsequent layer the sand (in Hebrew hol, which also means "profane" as opposed to "sacred") becomes less dense, clearing space for the whiteness of the paper to emerge, as if simulating the passage from the days of the week to the Sabbath - from the profane to the sacred. Zuzanna JaninA, Belu-Simion Fainaru, and Itzhak Frenkel (Frenel) explore the theme of light emanating from a synagogue, the place of prayer and communion between human beings and God. JaninA suffused a nineteenth-century building in Trnava, Slovakia (a one-time synagogue, later converted to a Jewish museum) with a smoky vapor, creating a fog-like effect. In stills from her videotaped film of the work, the building itself and the ritual artifacts displayed in it are almost submerged in a pool of light. In Fainaru's work, light emanates from a model of a synagogue devoid of any aperture except for slits in the form of Hebrew letters, which, according to the ancient Kabbalistic treatise Sefer Yetzira (The Book of Creation), were the basic elements of Creation. Itzhak Frenkel painted the Safed synagogue in the 1930s - a dark space in which light seems to emerge from the walls of the structure, illuminating the room with a majestic luster.
Other works in the exhibition hint at Jewish traditions and at Biblical accounts: in Sketch for a Garment of Light, Gali Cnaani and Ada Vardi give visual expression to the tradition according to which the leather garments that God gave Adam and Eve after their expulsion from the Garden of Eden were in fact garments of light (in Hebrew, the words for "light" and for "skin," or "leather," are near-homonyms - both words, though spelled differently, are pronounced "or"). The work expresses the tension and interconnection between the spiritual light and the corporeal skin. Einat Arif and Yossi Galanti's photographic triptych Medium features a rainbow created by the refraction of the sun's rays - a symbol of the divine promise and the covenant between man and God. Muli Ben- Sasson's sculpture Golel Or (Who Rolls Away the Light, a phrase taken from the Jewish evening prayer) represents twilight, that hour of the day when light and darkness merge: the light plays on a revolving iron Moebius strip (an Escher-like loop with half a twist in its middle, so that the division between its inner and outer sides is obliterated), creating reflections in which light and matter alternately unite and part.
|In the world of the Midrash and the Kabbalah, the candle bears symbolic significance. In the Kabbalah it represents the connection between the material and the celestial world: the lower part of the flame, where the fire is blue-red, symbolizes the realm of the material, while its upper, white part is associated with the spiritual and the divine. Ruti Nemet's photographic work, featuring a candle, citrons, and a knife, draws a connection between images from the Jewish world (citrons) and the still-life paintings of the seventeenth century - the vanitas paintings, also called memento mori (literally, "remember that you will die") - in which the candle represents the ephemeral quality of life. In Dov Abramson's Ner Mitzvah (Commandment Candle), memorial candles, each representing a different Jewish commandment, are arranged and catalogued as if they were raw materials. The mapping of the commandments and their notation in a graphic, dispassionate manner brings to mind, in the artist's view, questions about the classification and mapping of the mitzvoth - the material expression of religious life.
Zelig Segal, born 1933
Let There Be Light, 2003
Aluminum, 9x26x23 cm
Collection of the artist
Winning artwork of the Adi Competition for
Jewish Expression in Art and Design
In works from the late 1970s, Avraham Ofek used mirror reflections to create words made of light, which he projected onto walls and stones: letters, injunctions, and statements forming a kind of divine writing -writing in light. Words and light are also connected in Gary Goldstein's work - a series of postcards painted in black, on which the artist wrote, in white, verses from Genesis and from Kabbalistic treatises dealing with the concept of light. Belu-Simion Fainaru reproduced the Hebrew word tzimtzum (meaning "reduction" or "withdrawal") in narrow neon letters, thereby expropriating the word, which is related to Kabbalistic traditions, from its original context and transporting it to the domain of technological, industrial, human-made light.
In the work of the artists from the group The Light is Good (Yehuda Goldin, Philippe Scheimann, Michael Kokolevich, Adina Shpigler, and Malki Firer), light is identified with divine as well as human benevolence. The group illuminated dark places in poorer neighborhoods and sites throughout Israel, exploring the influence of light as a dynamic means of bringing people together. The works of Leora Laor, Hanna Sahar, and Dorit Yacobi express in different ways the experience of the individual facing the light - light that creates a sense of revelation, of a merging of the individual with nature, and of spiritual elevation. Eran Erlich tackles the image of the angel, which is said to be made of light, in his Angels' Blood, a figure made out of capillaries engraved on transparent Perspex. The capillaries cannot be seen without light; they come to life when the material is illuminated. A striking representation of the connection between light and life appears in Abel Pann's lithograph " . . . and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life . . . " (1923), in which the creation of man is described in the image of a strong ray of light shining on his face.
Light as an expression of the sublime in nature is represented in the works of Ann Ginsburgh Hofkin and Dalia Amotz in photography and Boris Lecker in painting. In these artists' works, the light, while acting on the landscape, is also an element existing in its own right: in Dalia Amotz's work, light becomes an almost impenetrable veil; in Ginsburgh Hofkin's landscape photograph, light engulfs the sky in a sea of white; and in Boris Lecker's work, light seems to rise from the depths of the canvas, emanating from beneath the painted landscape. This is also the context for the work of American artist Ralph Blakelock, active during the second half of the nineteenth century. In his paintings Blakelock explored light in the American wilderness at sunrise and sunset. He followed, in his own way, the path of the Luminists - a group of American artists
Ada Vardi, born 1969, Gali Cnaani, born 1968
Sketch for a Garment of Light, 2003
Cotton and copper threads, 62x40 cm each
Collection of the artists
From the Adi Competition for
Jewish Expression in Art and Design
who were interested in the manifestations of light in nature. The series of prints by American artist James Turrell describes a project he has been engaged in since 1979: inside the Roden Crater - an extinct volcano in Arizona - Turrell has been excavating spaces, tunnels, and recesses through which future visitors will be able to see the lights of celestial bodies. The openings in the crater are planned in accordance with forecasted astronomical events. The prints represent different scenes viewed from inside the volcano.
Dina Shahar's Canopy, a simulated construction meant to be set up in urban environments, also ties in with this context of looking at the night sky and its lights. The construction consists of a space closed on two sides, with a round aperture in the roof revealing a portion of the sky. Alongside the aperture, a similarly shaped screen displays clear, bright pictures of the sky and the stars, transmitted live from some "unspoiled" location in nature, such as the desert or a clearing in the woods. Visitors entering the "canopy" after dark are thus confronted with the striking contrast between the urban night sky, with its "polluted," sickly orange illumination, and nature's pure, limpid skies.
The winning work of the Adi Competition, Let There Be Light, by artist and designer Zelig Segal, explores the significance of light as an intangible inner essence. Segal's work consists of the words "let there be light" rendered in giant-sized Braille characters. The raised dots have been enlarged and transformed into columns that cast a shadow on their surroundings. The work concerns the way in which this fundamental divine imperative should be understood. Addressing the issue of language, it speaks in two languages simultaneously: a viewer whose vision is unimpaired sees the work, yet cannot understand the words written in Braille; conversely, the blind person is able to read the words, but the question arises as to how he or she understands their meaning, never having actually experienced light. Perhaps (and this might well be the point of Segal's work), this light - somewhat like the Hidden Light of Creation mentioned at the beginning - is a light in relation to which those who are sighted have no advantage over the blind: it is an inner light, which cannot be apprehended by the physical eye but only by the mind's eye.
Another interesting work concerned with blindness is a drawing ascribed to the circle of Rembrandt: Three Figures or The Healing of Tobit. The drawing apparently describes a dramatic moment narrated in the apocryphal Book of Tobias, where Tobias heals the eyes of his father Tobit, the righteous old man who has lost his sight. The use of light is ambiguous in this drawing: it is the light of day returning to Tobit's eyes, but it is also a sublime, divine light, giving the act of healing an overtone of spiritual enlightenment.
The last work in our discussion - Micha Ullman's Shadow - concerns the opposite of light. Consisting of black geometrical basalt tiles laid out on the floor, it represents the shadow of a life-size house. The house casting the shadow is absent, and in its place there is only an empty square, defined by the shadow. The house might be the collective home, of which nothing is left but a threatening shadow, or it might hint at the concept of "place" (makom in Hebrew), one of the appellations of God. Indeed, absence runs like a leitmotif in Ullman's oeuvre, and the most significant absence in his work has to do with the figure and the form of the divine. According to Ullman, "God, Jehovah, is abstract, invisible and intangible. The place remains empty . . . we see nothing when searching for God." The absence represented in Ullman's work through the image of the shadow can be interpreted as a metaphor for God - an absence made dramatically present.