Yuval Yairi: No-Man’s-Place
Imagine a white piece of fabric stretched in front of you. A bright light switches on behind it, rendering the screen a smooth and gleaming surface. Now, like in a shadow theater, a man riding a donkey emerges from behind the screen, advancing towards its center. He holds a long pole, like a flag in the hand of a flag bearer or a spear in the hand of a knight, from which hang the four letters L-A-N-D. He then hoists the letters-pole one way or another, and freezes like a black stain against the white background. This is the protagonist of Yuval Yairi’s current artistic body of work – the man holding the letters L-A-N-D, the letters of the place.
The word “land” means soil, ground or the territory of a country, but more specifically for Yairi’s intents, it should be taken to mean “a place”.1 The place is what stands at the heart of the current essay that wishes to look at the body of work rooted in a tenacious effort to define the place.
Yairi first made use of the word “land” as part of the phrase “no-man’s-land”. This was in the framework of his activity with the Muslala group – a group of artists and social activists that initiates artistic actions along the Jerusalemite “seam line”,2 particularly in Musrara neighborhood. Yairi positioned himself in no-man’s-land in the project VISIT NOMANSLAND, which the group held with the aim of performing a typographic artistic action in a topographic space fraught with meaning. In this project he photographed passersby holding the complete phrase, choosing the word “MAN” or “LAND”, or even just one single letter.
The use of writing was further expressed in the framework of NOMANSLAND Council –another collaboration with the Self Broadcasting Authority, a broadcasting group (live video feed on the Internet) placed in a caravan, which was conceived and operated by the artist Guy Briller. The project was comprised of three expedition (two in Jerusalem and one in other cities and sites), the last of which was broadcasted in real-time to a station set at the Petach Tikva Museum in the framework of the cluster of exhibitions “Art-Society-Community” (curator: Drorit Gur Arie). In this journey Briller and Yairi arrived in Jaffa, Wadi Salib in Haifa, Ramlah, the Monument to the Negev Brigade near Beersheba and many other locations. In the course of the journey Yairi occasionally took out the letters, performed actions with them or allowed passersby to have their way with them. After a short while the artist abandoned the expression “no-man’s-land” in favor of the word “land”, which holds the meanings and contexts that he seeks in a more concise and decisive manner, and dedicated new actions to this single word. In one of these actions Yairi marched with the letters L-A-N-D strung from a pole in the crowded Musrara market, and in the Jaffa Gate courtyard in another instance. The departure from the specific no-man’s-land of the “city line” to different areas brought about the first attempts at separating the photographed figures from their background and transforming them to silhouettes devoid of a place.
In late 2012 Yairi joined the Jerusalemite “Empty House” group operating in an abandoned area that had once used as a teaching agricultural farm. In the grounds located at the outskirts of Armon HaNatziv (which also falls within the bounds of the no-man’s-land created by the definition of the “green line”), the group held a three months long action entitled “Kibbutz”, during which they occupied the abandoned farm where they erected structures used for living and for cultural activity. In the course of the three months Yairi occasionally documented the members of the group while they manipulated the LAND letters, and further expanded the creation of the silhouettes.
As a shadowgraphist, Yairi may have shifted here from a photographer to performance artist, delegating his responsibilities to the protagonists of LAND, who as silhouettes act out performance pieces while using the letters as props, an aspect that will be revisited later. But first let us consider the choice of the cutout image, the silhouette prevalent in Yairi’s current practice, which holds a wide range of expressions. With his silhouettes Yairi attaches his link to the chain of Israeli artists who employed silhouettes in their artworks: Bezalel’s Meir Gur-Aryeh is the most familiar of the Israeli artist preoccupied with the painting of silhouettes. In 1925 he published the renowned series of silhouettes entitled “The Pioneers”, which featured scenes in the spirit of utopist Zionism typical of “Bezalel”, such as a shepherd, a tryst of two pioneer, workers’ meal, and similar portrayals of the pioneers’ labor and leisure life. In addition to these, Gur-Aryeh created silhouettes of the Book of Genesis, The Song of Songs, the children’s book The Duda’im in many other artworks; Nahum (Nach’ke) Rombak, the paper cutting artist from Kibbutz Kfar Menachem, created from the late 1920’s onwards many silhouettes that beautifully portrayed the life of the Kibbutz and its members, including farmers at work and rest, fruit picking and fields plowing;3 Avraham (Toschek) Amarant from Kibbutz Mizra designed a series of silhouettes depicting the journey of his immigration to Israel and the establishment of the Kibbutz, which served as a shadow theater for the Kibbutz’ children;4 Yehoshua Grossbard created silhouettes which drew on the traditional Jewish folk art of paper cutting, incorporating decorative and symbolic Jewish motifs; in the 1970’s Avraham Ofek created silhouettes in collaboration with Leviathan group, when he spread pieces of fabric on the ground as symbols of notions from Jewish metaphysics; and in 1978 Michail Grobman, also in the framework of Leviathan activities, painted the silhouette of the Angel of Death on rocks in the Judean Desert; in 2001-2004 Avraham Eilat painted sepia silhouettes in a pseudo-archeological language depicting hunting scenes and alignments of figures such as soldiers, farmers, workers, and slaves; Pinchas Cohen Gan enlisted to his oeuvre a schematic silhouette of a human figure that accompanied his visual-theoretical endeavor to define art in scientific terms; Larry Abramson incorporated many silhouettes in his artworks, from the Modernist black square of Malevich to shadows-groupings incorporating motifs such as branches, leaves, grapes, carobs, planks, human profiles, bugs, crescent moon and others into compositions that hold current political meanings on the one hand and intra-artistic meanings on the other hand; Roee Rosen adopted the use of silhouette in a series of self-portraits coated with sweets, in the fabricated “Justine Frank” paintings, the “Lavi Suit” series, “Live and Die as Eva Braun” drawings, and other artworks; Eliahou Eric Bokobza returned in many of his paintings to the silhouette as part of a stylistic-naןve art language and his ongoing love affair with the old “Bezalel”; in recent years Jonathan Ofek, son of Avraham Ofek, painted red silhouettes of bulls and deer on a golden background, as if they were byzantine icons, and inserted them in metal cutting sculptures of his making; Abi Shek, brother in law of Jonathan Ofek and son of the sculpture Moshe (Jock) Shek dedicated his graphic art to silhouettes of all kinds of animals, much like Rudolf (Rudi) Lehmann’s deep commitment to them.
Yairi’s silhouettes are archetypical, they are no-one and everyone, and therefore their actions carry the validity of an existential human need. The need to define the place found at the heart of the letters holders feeds on the lack of definition – the absence of a supreme value. They are devoid of a place in its earthly, geographical sense, and in the spiritual sense, as it was said of God that he “encompasses the world; the world does not encompass Him”.5 That is to say, a lack in the definition of the place means a lack of existential meaning. This lack haunts Yairi’s silhouettes, it imbues them with a restlessness that drives them to take action – manipulate the letters. The black protagonists constantly act in an urgent, dramatic and expressive manner in order to validate a piece of land as “a place” – to crown a certain expanse with the scepter of the letters and elevate it to the status of “a place”. Or more accurately put, in order to examine its potential to serve as “a place” before the silhouettes will continue in their relentless endeavor.
As mentioned above, their action takes place continuously in light of an ideal and an existential need to define the place. If we were to inquire about the purpose of the place, the reply would be that its purpose is its very existence, and its existence is the purpose of its seekers, those who seek to walk to it and on it. They need it in order to gain an existential transcendence through “the place”, meaning, to shift from the profane existence to the sacred existence.6 However, the seekers of the place whose longing for transcendence reaches an impasse – an absence of a place – are not actual pilgrims but rather secular pilgrims, pilgrims without a sacred place,7 whose pilgrimage is one that serves as its own raison d’etre.8 Their physical surroundings (at times even the absence of surroundings, like in the silhouettes), the sites of occurrence that are in fact the destination, are nothing but the arenas for experiences in which the secular pilgrimage will manifest itself.9
As mentioned above, the LAND actions started in a place that is in fact a no-man’s-land. A fitting point of departure considering the dichotomy inherent to the secular pilgrimage, and the futile effort of the protagonists seeking the definition of the place: the secular pilgrim is devoid of “a place”; he leaves no-man’s-land in order to define some expanse as “a place”; he is unable to define one “place” and therefore is doomed to repeat his action as a polytheist rather than an atheist act.
While Yairi’s secular pilgrim departs from no-man’s-land, the intermediate place in which he is held captive, the limbo in which he finds himself is “no-man’s-place” – a geographical place deserted by man and a religious place deserted by the sacred.10 In terms of medium, in the process of creating the silhouettes Yairi puts down his camera momentarily in favor of a more performative action. In his starting point, as part his practice with Muslala group, Yairi conducted perfromative acts. Later on, he delegated his artistic responsibilities to the silhouettes, which became the performance artists.
Although the black silhouette is a negative of sorts, it has lost its photographic values and attributes as Yairi moved further away from the medium. We can say then, that the artistic medium similarly assumes the form of a deserted land – the desertion of photography. The letters manipulators move therefore between places in the aim of declaring one of them as “the place”. Why, then, do they refrain from declaring one place or another as “the place”, or at least “their place”; why do they fail the “place test”? The different configurations in his works allude to the answer. Despite their detachment, many of Yairi’s silhouettes as well as other images in this body of work carry a local context, or alternately are assembled to create a meaningful super-structure: the silhouette of a man carrying on his back the Wall and Tower structure, referencing the photograph of Zoltan Kluger, one of the prominent national photographers in pre-state Israel during the 1930s and 1940s; a series of silhouettes in which individuals are joined to form a ship which Yairi had named “Struma”, the namesake of the immigrant ship sunk in the Black Sea by a Russian submarine in 1942; naturally the silhouette of the horseman mentioned earlier which follows in the tradition of equestrians in the history of art, from ancient sculptures such as Marcus Aurelius riding his horse (176 AD), through Donatello’s Gattamelata monument (1453) in Padua, to the Alexander Zaïd monument (1940) at Beit She’arim by sculpture David Polus, or Erez Israeli’s sarcasticinstant horseman entitled “HaShomer HaTzair” (The Youth Guard) (2006); a photograph of another rider (this one a little less heroic) holding the letters of the place while sitting on a donkey; in other images we will find a young man climbing a silo in the video “Iconic Landmark in Sixty Seconds” in order to raise the L-A-N-D letters on top of it in a heroic gesture evocative of the raising of the “ink flag” (captured by photographer Micha Perry); as well as the panoramic photograph “Lifta”.
Such compositions hint at the reason for the failure of the “place test”: locality itself is what undermines the ability of the place to successfully pass this test. Yairi’s body of work tells us between the lines that the place is too saturated, too much has happened in it, it is a mound of distant and near history whose layers have been piled up and are overflowing, it is complex and convoluted, and a lot is resting on its shoulders. If we would throw a stone at any place we would surely hit a meaningful piece of history.
Let us consider “Lifta” (2013) as a case study: the photograph is a monumental panorama depicting the ruins of Lifta as they are observed from a hill some 400 meters west of the site. Among the lanes, slopes, and houses of the ruined village let us locate the wandering figures holding the L-A-N-D letters. Lifta was an Arab village on the western outskirts of Jerusalem, abandoned as his residents fled with the eruption of the Independence War. Lifta is identified with the biblical settlement (Mei Niftoach) mentioned in the Book of Joshua as the border between the territories of the tribe of Judah and the tribe of Benjamin. Today’s Lifta is nothing but a nature reserve used for hikes, educational tours of the village (since his ruins are remarkably preserved), and at times it even serves as refuge for recluse and homeless people. Lifta is an example of a no-man’s-land that hangs between its fraught past and its future, as though devoid of a present. The historical charge that had seeped into its soil is what hinders its acceptance as “the place”. Lifta is just an example, for it would seem that no place can transcend and become “the place”.
The conflict that swells and expands with each attempt finds a release in the video work “LAND” (2013), the product of collaboration between Yairi and artist Zohar Kawaharada. In the video Kawaharada execute a performance piece in an abandoned concrete structure with the letters L-A-N-D. Over non-sequential episodes, edited together from performance encounters spread over several months, she lets herself loose and unleashed on the letters of the place and the space of the performance, as though possessed: she measures the structure and her relation to it, tries to break it and gives in to it, hangs the L-A-N-D letters on the wall, separates them from the pole or from one another and reassembles them, throws them on the floor and falls as well, hurts them and is hurt herself, smashes them forcefully against the walls, and even burns them. At the end of the video she is left only with the pole, without the L-A-N-D letters, without the place.
And perhaps what seems like surrender can also be read as redemption: the release was achieved through an internal and external struggle that can be equated with a trance or an experience – if not religious then certainly ecstatic – at the end of which the letters of the place are already gone. Is it possible that through the performance the manipulator of the letters was able to achieve the transcendence, and finally sense the place?