Cyphers & Cypresses / Essay by Ilanit Konopny

The artist Yuval Yairi collects seeds of cypress trees throughout Israel, cataloging them, recording them with his camera, and eventually taking them back to his home, where they will be sprouted and become seedlings. He photographs the roots of the tall evergreens, watches them hold on to the damp, soft soil as they stand firmly fixed in place. He imagines how the tree roots fumble their way through the soil. Should they come across toxins or impermeable rocks, they will change the route of their progression through the ground.

Yairi learns about the life of the seed and the life of the tree. When a seed falls from a tree, the wind or an animal may change where it lands. However, once it sprouts, its fate is sealed; it is attached to a specific piece of land for the rest of its life and has to endure everything that may befall this site. When the seedling becomes a mature tree, its top witnesses countless sunrises and sunsets in the landscape that surrounds it. Exposed to strong winds, pouring rain, heavy snow, scorching sun – the tree will absorb the blows of the elements, struggle to remain steady and upright, to not fall down.[1]

Yairi looks inside the body of the tree, at the stump that displays the imprint of its life for all to read. The tree’s annual growth rings are inscribed in its cross section, recounting its history and the history of the soil. They can teach us about its life span, about the water content it absorbed each year, about the changes in the weather, about wildfires, and why it was eventually felled.[2]

Like a traveler-explorer, a pilgrim, or a 19th century travel book writer, Yairi traverses his homeland long and wide, looking at its cypresses. The ancient cypresses described in these travel books grew near holy sites. Their age may reach up to two thousand years. Famed for its strength and resilience, the cypress is also a symbol of death as the tree chosen to serve as the barrier between the living and the dead. Cypresses are found around and in cemeteries, and so in Israeli art the cypress also stands for mourning and grief.

In Israel, the cypress also marks the edge of the plot, since cypresses were planted as windbreakers along the borders of orchards. From the time of the British Mandate, cypresses have been growing in the Jewish National Fund forests as a symbol of land ownership. After the establishment of Israel, forests were planted along borders and by the sides of roads, providing protection and shielding military movements and civilians from artillery shelling and bombing.[3] Cypresses developed well wherever they were planted.

Cypresses hold a meaningful place in Yairi’s childhood landscape memories. He gathers information about them, uses them as sensors to decipher and understand the surroundings. Each cypress is a sample of the site in which it was planted. Yairi observes the cypress trees, photographs them, detaches them from the backdrop, and catalogs them. The cataloging method integrates the world of botany with the careful recording of the cypress’ coordinates on the map, as though it was a strategic military site. Yairi was trained as a photographer during his service in the IDF intelligence corps as an aerial scout. He learned how to fit a lens, load a film, shoot a frame or a bullet in thirty seconds. At first, he used his camera for non-artistic purposes, and for the most part, the photographed subject itself became the target. He was trained to gather information with photography.

Today, Yairi uses the techniques he acquired during his military service to turn a critical and sober eye at the history and reality in his country. He has grown accustomed to sharing memories and testaments with the trees. Just as man has different types of memory – sensory memory, short- or long-term memory, immunological memory, as well as personal or collective memory – so does the cypress. Many of the mechanisms at play in human memory are also involved in the memory of plants and trees. Their memories are procedural memories, contingent on the ability to feel external stimuli, they remember how to do things. Humans and plants have the equivalent ability to sense and have awareness of the physical world.[4]

Yairi builds a measuring device, a tool that one can supposedly attach to a tripod and take to the field, to the desert. He imagines that with its help, he could mark, measure, and chart the world. He takes on the identity of the surveyor over the identity of the artist. This semi-fictitious identity, which he has been using in his artistic practice for several years now, allows him to look at the local land, walk on it, experience and photograph it from the distance of his own memories. He weaves a cover story of sorts, formulates a coded language, a cypher with which he might be able to understand deeds, thoughts, and unanswered questions.

The people of Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt invented methods for measuring spaces using the human body or trees as scale. One of the ancient measuring tools was a weight attached to a rope, utilizing gravity to create a straight and accurate vertical line that could be used to measure depth or height. Yairi notices that the outline of the plummet forms a cone, evocative of the silhouette of a cypress tree or a bullet. But unlike the plummet, the tip of the cypress points upwards. Yairi learned that even if he turned a cypress upside down, the tree will always grow with its head towards the sky. He photographs cypresses, knowing that they have become a symbol, an object attributed to the place, and creates a local atlas – as he did previously with a collection of bullets he found on Israeli soil.

On the desk in Yairi’s studio lies the measuring device he has built, engraved with curved graduations, like the rings of a tree stump. As though devising a topographical map, he places objects, tools, stones or plants on it, sometimes grinding and adding cypress powder or pigments created from desert stones. The horizon stretches through an open window, supposedly distinguishing between fantasy and reality.

Each of Yairi’s works seemingly starts from direct photography, capturing a moment of truth or reality – the promise held in the photographic medium. Yairi composes the fragments of time on a vast grid that extends across the virtual space of the computer. In cartography, the grid is the intersection of parallel lines, coordinates, and locations; in urban philosophy, the grid expresses the rational control over the space, an eternal space for ensuring history and memory;[5] in art, the grid helps to establish the composition and to arrange the components of the artwork. Against all of these, Yairi composes a grid of not knowing, one whose assembly or deciphering process is endless and subject to constant change. The grid maps the image, divides it into cells, dominates the space, and traps its content behind bars. Yairi formulates a relationship of dual observation between the grid and the photograph.

The image invites us to step into the realm of the photograph, while the grid blocks our gaze at the depth of the work, generating a multiplicity of perspectives. Yairi uses the pixel, the smallest digital photography unit, and examines it as he examines the seedling. In one defined grid he plants thousands of photographs, taken on several visits to one of Israel’s desert landscapes. Sometimes the landscape includes the surveyor captured at work. The hours of the day, changing weather, and different seasons affect the quality of light and the type of information recorded in the photo. The place never stays the same, a passing herd of goats or a footprint leaves their mark on it. Yairi conflates different times and perspectives and multiplies events to form one, unrealistic image, which he will later plant as the view seen through the window. Using the same technique, he creates a second grid of the interior, the window sill, and the objects on the surveyor or artist’s desk, which looks like a map and may possibly offer an explanation or translate the outside world. The images are combined into an artwork generated by excess observation, the outcome of meticulous and even treatment of each and every pixel or element in the world. Each photography unit in the grid is a zoom-in on a being in the universe, each pixel is the cosmos in miniature.

Ilanit Konopny

[1] Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees, translated by Niv Savariego, Ramat HaSharon: Asia, 2018, pp. 49-53, 85-90 (Hebrew).

[2] Nili Liphshitz and Gideon Biger, Trees of Eretz Israel: Characteristics, History and Uses, Jerusalem: Ariel, 1998, pp, 212-214 (Hebrew).

[3] Ibid., pp. 14-32.

[4] Daniel Chamovitz, What a Plant Knows, translated by Emanuel Lotem, Tel Aviv: Matar, 2014 (Hebrew).

[5] “Grid,” The Encyclopedia of Ideas (retrieved 5.10.19).

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