pieter van bogaert
Traces that cannot be seen
Sirah Foighel Brutmann & Eitan Efrat at Argos
for <H>art, 2014
Three years ago the Brussels’ artists Sirah Foighel Brutmann and Eitan Efrat (both of them born in 1983, Tel Aviv) make a tiny film, brimming with potential: ‘Printed Matter’. Today Argos Brussels presents the first outline of their budding work: ‘Square’. All the topics from their first film are elaborated further in the three subsequent works: history, space, media, politics and the position of the spectator in all of this.
In some way or other that history is always linked to Israel, the country where they grew up. Space, those are the various places where they live, work, and observe: in Tel Aviv or in Brussels, public or private, in art or in media. The media, that is about the way things come to them and the means with which they process them. The politics are the way they deploy and make use of images. And the spectator, that starts with the person who produces the images and ends with your own person, in this very exhibition.
In ‘Printed Matter’ (2011) this initial spectator is the Israeli photographer André Brutmann. In the film his daughter, one half of this artists’ duo, browses through his negatives and contact prints with her mother, the colleague and partner of the photographer. These photos are not individual prints. That is important. For each new assignment – photos for Arafat’s newspaper, the Intifada, a fashion show or other topical events of his era – he uses a new roll of film. Then, before developing it, he finishes it off with pictures of his family. The photo series sets out in 1983, when his daughter is born. It continues until 2002, when the photographer passes away. That is also the end of an era. With the arrival of digital photography the rolls of film no longer need to be finished before they are developed. From now on each photo exists in its own right. If it is unfit it dissolves into the digital trashcan.
Historical events belonging to the public space continue into the private. Through the mother’s comments the images from the personal memory become as important as those from the collective memory. It might seem a downplay of history, but it is more of a personification through concerned observers.
‘Journal’ (2013) also takes the photos by André Brutmann as its starting point. This series shows prominent international guests in Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem, all photographed in front of a huge print of a picture of the liberation of the concentration camp Buchenwald. With each photo the history of the German camps is reincluded in Israeli current events.
The exhibition also presents two new works. ‘Zeigt’ (2014) shows four prints of promotional slides from German post-war cinemas. The slides come from Sirah’s grandmother and were used to recommend their raincoat store on the very screen where topical events and fiction films alternated. In ‘Orientation’ (2014) the historical context goes back to the Nakhba: the catastrophe, or the disappearance of the Palestinian villages and their inhabitants, that had to make way to the Israeli state in 1948.
Eitan Efrat: If this exhibition makes anything clear to us, it are these recurring jumps through time. Time and again we deal with the difference between history, as it was taught to us in schools, and the moment of our own recollection. This is clear from the start in ‘Printed Matter’, taking us back to the early eighties, the time when we were born. We lived al the events in those photos ourselves.
Sirah Foighel Brutmann: There is a similar movement in ‘Orientation’. It traces back the moment when Israel becomes a nation after WWII, through an event in the late eighties: the building of an architectural sculpture by the Israeli artist Dani Karavan. ‘Journal’ goes back to the liberation of the concentration camps, through the recollection of that event during the eighties and the nineties. That is something we did not notice until very late, when we brought together the works for this exhibition. Time and again we deal with the moment when we become active recollectors, rather than reminiscing through a collective memory.
The relevance of the history preceding the moment of your birth does become increasingly explicit in the more recent works. This goes beyond a mere act of recollection. The title of your last work, ‘Orientation’, says a great deal. It is a reference to the loss of direction on coming to close to things. But it refers just as much to the orientalising gaze of the Western spectator and the way in which those oriental elements are incorporated by an orientalising…
Efrat: ... regime.
Actually I meant to say ‘architect’ or ‘artist’, because of the way he picks up oriental shapes, such as a dome, a pyramid or a tower in his work. But you are right: it can be embedded wider into a regime. That of the State of Israel. That idea of space is a recurring theme throughout your work. The private and the public space in ‘Printed Matter’, the exhibition space in ‘Journal’, the architecture in ‘Orientation’ and the post-war German cinema in ‘Zeigt’.
Foighel Brutmann: In ‘Zeigt’ it might be somewhat harder to step into that space. What we are trying to achieve is a way of visualising that cinema as a social environment, participating in the way the post-war collective memory is shaped.
Efrat: It might be harder to grasp the spatial dimension of this work, because in other works we always make use of sound. What becomes clearer in ‘Zeigt’ is the process: the way we process the image. It deals with the space in order to work with the material.
In order to shift the accent of their work from the subject to the context - or rather: in order to subjectify the context, which is not easily shown - Foighel Brutmann and Efrat make use of various techniques. These always determine the aesthetics of the work. For ‘Journal' they stage their own fictitious exhibition at Wiels, in order to record it on video. There the space - the museum – determines the movement of the spectator and that space also governs the interpretation of the images. What is presented in this video as art, was previously part of a current event trying to make it into history. By simultaneously showing five different takes of the same movement in five subsequently positioned screens, the artists stress the way in which this movement is pre-programmed. Sirah’s background, who came to Brussels to complete her dance training at PARTS, is no stranger to this.
Foighel Brutmann: Everything has to do with the performative aspect of observing and recording. All our films and videos are made in a single movement, without any editing. There is a different logic behind each work. In ‘Printed Matter’ we take the length of a 16mm film role as a starting point. ‘Journal’ treats with the creation of a strictly managed viewing experience. In ‘Orientation’ the experience of an environment is traced. All these works revolve around the idea of the time that is called for. That is important to us: the time things take.
Your outset in this respect is often a certain degree of attraction in the images, which you also try to transcend from the start. This becomes very clear in ‘Orientation’. Here the attraction is beauty. The paradoxical movement you make in order to get beyond the beauty of the structure, is to zoom in on the matter: the concrete of the building. In a single smooth movement, close to the contours of the sculpture, the camera seeks out traces of its users.
Efrat: The challenge in ‘0rientation’ was to capture a beautiful work of art in a different way. Online there are so many pictures of the work, by amateurs and by professional photographers, but always very beautiful. We want to appropriate this sculpture. Hence the attention to the matter, rather than the sculpture. We look for human traces on the sculpture.
Due to the brightness of the sunlight during filming it was not easy to keep track on the tiny video screen of our camera. When we looked at the recordings back home, it seemed like film. We are fascinated with the materiality of that image. It makes us feel as if we manage to capture the emotion of the sculpture. That we can obtain from the sculpture what we want ourselves.
In effect the result is very similar to scratch films of an artist like Stan Brakhage. Another paradox: ‘Orientation’ is recorded entirely on video, whereas Brakhage unveils the matter of a filmstrip, almost religiously. What you both share is a similar attention to matter. The same attention to the traces.
Foighel Brutmann: All these traces are coincidental, caused by users. Dani Karavan, the artist of the sculpture, had never intended to turn it into a playing ground. But that is how it turned out in the end. That is part of how the matter of his creation is determined. Where children slide, the concrete is very smooth. Skateboards leave clear traces. The way the place is used can be read from those traces. Through them we want to look back further, to what the place once was. What are the traces that you cannot see? That goes beyond the actual sculpture.
That is why we show an overall image of the work itself alongside the video in the installation, and images of lost Palestinian houses from the surroundings. Our attempt is not to hide the sculpture, but rather to emphasize what it contains. We also showed our images to Karavan. He was very curious about what we did and felt it was rather beautiful.
Efrat: Beauty is not a negative quality. We do not take a different approach because it is beautiful. There is a sense of urgency behind the image. We treat the images in the way we feel they should be treated. As a result the presence or absence of beauty becomes rather irrelevant.
Sirah Foighel Brutmann & Eitan Efrat. ‘Square’. Tot 26 oktober bij Argos, Werfstraat 13, Brussel. Wo-zo, 11-18u. www.tilfar.com