Palaces of Memory Text

Yuval Yairi: Palaces of Memory
Dror Burstein

The Cage and the Bird

“A cage went in search of a bird” wrote Kafka 1: a photographic structure went out into the world in search of motifs that would suit it. The result is the heart of this exhibition.

The world can be perceived as “at once,” as one, absolute, indivisible thing. But it can also be thought of as the sum of an infinite numbers of parts. So it is with everything, small or large: the world exists both as “one” (the absolute) and as a cumulation of an infinity of units. It is this duality that Yuval Yairi‘s photographs attempt to capture. They are almost all, at one and the same time, a collection of fractions, and a whole. They represent these two states of being – like water attempting to be vapor and ice at one and the same time.

It is customary to think that photography is “timeless,” but Yairi‘s photographs oppose this. Each photograph is also a chronicle of minute change. They are not photographs of the “decisive moment” (à la Cartier-Bresson), but many such moments. For Yairi, there is more than one decisive moment. His photography does not have its traditional role, of freezing the duration of time, because each “decisive moment” of necessity entails giving up other decisive moments that either preceded or succeeded it. A photograph is a very selective presentation of reality, but Yairi‘s decisive moment thickens and multiplies. It is wrapped around by a ring of time, and the relatively continuous present of standing in front of the subject is displayed as a mapping of moments. In this way his photographs direct a double gaze at the history of the medium: they turn backwards to the painterly, and at the same time skip forward, to the cinematic.

The “thickening of time” results from the image of the “art of memory,” from which Yairi sets out to make his recent series of photographs, following in the path of Simonides of Ceos (556-468 B.C.E), the Greek poet considered to be the father of mnemonics (the art of aiding memory). Simonides‘ method of remembering is based on the “translation” of abstract concepts into concrete objects and their imaginary placement in a space well known to the memorizer, based on the assumption that concrete images are easier to remember than abstract ideas.2 Thus, for example, a poem can be translated into a series of mnemonic images that can be installed in the home of the memorizer. The act of remembering involves a stroll through the house, and the gathering of visual “reminders” along a known path.

Paradoxically, for a text to be remembered, that is, to exist, it must be broken up and translated into other images, and then be reassembled. Yairi takes this technique of memorization to the extreme: he does not try to remember something abstract through its imaginary installation in a concrete space. His goal is more comprehensive – to remember the concrete space itself by taking it apart and re-installing it within itself. Thus, the space that was broken up into hundreds or thousands of individual photographs becomes, in its broken state, more sharply chiseled into memory, and strangely – more present, more existent, than in its natural state.

What is interesting is that the fragmentation of the places, which involves the densification of photographic time (toward the future and to the past), does not completely prevent a normal view of them as a moment in the present: you are invited always both to ignore and to observe them as if they were photographs of a single moment. But don‘t be satisfied with this view which transforms a dissonant jigsaw of moments into something harmonious. A photograph by Yairi reveals, with time, the minute off-key notes, behind the visible harmony. The transitions between both types of music are the essence of viewing these works.

The photograph Mamila is a sort of condensed ars poetic summary of Yairi‘s poetics. It is a construction site in Jerusalem where something is being dismantled or built. The construction site is composed entirely of a grid of squares. A grid both as an abstract element of composition created in the observer‘s imagination, and a grid in its literal sense – the gridiron of the builder‘s constructions. This correspondence of the actual and abstract grids is precisely the striving of Kafka‘s cage toward the bird: the spiritual structure seeking something in the world that will suit it, something it can contain appropriately.

The whole photograph is squares and intersecting lines: the yellow crates in the lower right-hand corner, the grille on the lower terrace, the darkened squares on the second “floor,” the building stones, the ladders. The movement in the photograph leads (through the ladders which guide the gaze upward) from darkness into illumination, and especially from the squares of darkness toward the upper part of the photograph. If this construction site is indeed an allegory for Yairi‘s photographic works, then his art can be explained, or sees itself as a process of drawing out dark formless materials of nothingness and casting them into a mould that endows them with form. This is given a simple expression in the photograph: think of these dark and empty squares not as mere darkness, but as deposits of formless mental matter, which is translated, through the workers‘ labor into constructed lit squares. How does this transition occur, between dark and built matter? By means of the grid. That is what holds together (in the actual construction site and in the photo) everything that goes on here and enables the “translation” of darkness into illumination.

This is not a rigid grid, of the mondrianesque kind, rather “gridwork,” independent and flexible systems of organization that are arranged into one system (“composition”) without being subordinated to one rigid scheme. One can think of Yairi‘s grid as the ideal mondrianesque grid, infused by the simple spirit of actuality.

A breath of actuality is present in the movement of the workers, violating the ideal completeness of the grid‘s frame. Therefore the worker carrying a cardboard box on his head is important in this photograph, because he is enacting the transition from the two main regions of this picture: the dark region and the light region. He passes between the dark, formless space, of the imagined depths of the construction site, to its built areas. He emerges from black, formless and colorless darkness, but the colors that he carries on his head (or perhaps “from within”) project dramatically and so beautifully toward the upper part of the photograph: the light brown and the blue of the cardboard box elevate the gaze directly towards the brown buildings and at the light blue sky above them.

This worker with his box is a kind of self-portrait of the photographer, within the picture: it is he who transports the dark and formless toward the illuminated form, through the grid of his work, his consciousness and his gaze.

The stone cross, located at the highest point in this picture is a condensed summary of everything that is going on here. It is the king of grids in the picture. In the one hand it is built, illuminated and solid – and its arms intersect. On the other hand it contains much more emptiness and absence than substance: because it is a symbol (also signifying the man crucified on it; the antenna on the left as a parodic comment on the pathos of the cross), but more than this, and beyond the Christian context, because it holds the sky in the picture and delineates the general structure commanding the entire picture and “stitching” it together. In other words, this cross is made both of “cage” and of “bird,” both of the real and the abstract, which meet in the metaphor of the grid and in its concrete realization.

In the photograph entitled Numbered House, a building designated for dismantling was marked with numbers so that it could be reconstructed later. Like the photograph of the construction site in the Mamila neighborhood, Yairi recognizes in the motif, first of all, his own way of looking at the world, his “technique.” It is exactly his method of photography: the camera dismantles in order to recompose and reconstruct an object later on. In this respect, he is like a painter who “destroys” the realism of his motif by means of sketches, and only later, in the studio, composes the landscape anew through the integration of documentation and memory. Both the painter and Yairi destroy the possibility of simple mimesis, in order to create mimesis in another sense, the kind that also involves diegesis (a term, which in this context, can be rendered as telling).

But identifying Yairi‘s style with the photographed building is not enough. What is the meaning of this identification, beyond the formal similarity, which is interesting in and of itself? What does it mean when the cage is similar to the bird? I believe that here, in facing the building and the woman, Yairi comprehends the full implications of his technique, the act his art performs. It is both an act of violence and compassion. The dismantling and reassembling in his work signify the fragility of what exists, the thin membrane that separates something in its existent state from its dismantled state, its formed from its formless state – the squares of the black abyss intimated in the underbelly of the building and the buildings themselves. Yairi‘s art is positioned precisely in the space between what exists in simple, easy, illuminated completeness, and the disassembled void. Imagine the sound of the grated song of Kafka‘s bird, or the twittering clatter of the cage‘s grating.

There is something shocking in the checked shirt, hanging upside down on the right side of this photo. To my mind, it is a sort of comment on the possibility of an irreversible coming apart. The shirt places a sort of reverse mirror, a contrary, grim prophecy to the calming numbers on the stones. Taking something to pieces, says this shirt, is truly dangerous, it is not a simple game, one of emptying, of self-annihilation. To dismantle reality is to risk finishing it off. Anyone who has dismantled a watch knows this feeling; the fear of pieces remaining on the table after it has been reassembled. For Yairi, such “pieces”, traces of destruction, always remain.

Observe the glass of tea near the old woman sitting at the house-entrance. This glass, half full and half empty is a distillation in miniature of the condition of this building and of this photograph. To the right of the old woman, I suddenly perceive what had been revealed to the eye the whole time, an empty chair, identical to hers, a grim prophecy about a possible future when everything will break apart and disappear, including herself. And she knows it. And when we understand that the chair is meant for us, the observers, we are likely to understand that these red numbers are not only written on the stones of this house, but upon every single thing in the world. Everything comes apart, everything is recomposed. Lower your eyes for a moment: why, such a red number is scrawled on your shirt. Look at the armsleeves of this shirt thrust upwards (downwards) in supplication. “For the stone will cry out from the wall” (Habakkuk 2:11): Yairi has heard the cry of these stones, and has understood that it concerns him, concerns us. The shirt cries back at the wall.

The work of dismantling and reassembling in the photograph is a projection of the photograph into the future. The cut-marks in the picture enact upon the building exactly what the instruments are about to do it. Thus, this photograph is not only “timeless” in the sense that it represents a continuous present (this present can be read on the face of the old woman, and in a small detail such as a cup of tea, that seems to have been emptied in the course of the work), but it also represents future. Yairi‘s success in including the future, within the picture which supposedly is mere documentation of what has occurred, leads me to his photographs of Agnon‘s home. If in the photograph Numbered House Yairi succeeds in calling the future into the picture, then in the photograph Agnon‘s Library he is invoking the past. There are two significant remains of its absentee tenant: the glasses and the hat. Between them a huge space opens; the head is missing, but the material representation of the contents of that mind (i.e., the books and the letters typed on the typewriter) remain in the room and act as a sort of substitute “head”. In any case, we, with our gaze and our thoughts, must fill the space, look and think, wear the glasses and put on the hat.

Again Yairi‘s technique becomes clear from within the motif. Yairi‘s photographs are constructed as they are because he understands that to make a simple photographic representation of the library would be a profound sin against its essence, a library representing a multiplicity of times, of stories, of focal points. The structure claims: each book, each page, each letter here is important. In the photograph A Simple Story it is clear. From the many pages of the book extensions shoot out, continuations, paper bookmarks, bridges of paper leading inward, from world to book. The book‘s light is here understood not as the “single” light of a sun drawn as a circle, but as in children‘s drawings, a sun blazing with many paper flames. Each such flame requires full attention, an independent photo. And what is true of Agnon‘s library is true of the façade of a house, and in fact, of everything in the world.

The photograph of Agnon‘s library is characteristic of Yairi‘s work, because it contains a charged mix of two opposing factors: multiplicity and absence. In Agnon‘s library there reside, side by side, the multiplicity of worlds whose intersection is Agnon. This multiplicity is accentuated by the absence of Agnon, the point of intersection. An ordinary photo would seemingly try to claim unity and fullness: the unity of this place as a “room” (one), and its tautological photographic fullness (“you see in the room what you see”). What Yairi‘s technique tries to intimate at is that the place is neither “one” nor “full” – but rather “many” and “empty.” What is missing from it is what gives its contents their force.

Similarly in Still Life, what is missing here is exactly what is missing from Agnon‘s library – the spirit which turns the birds from straw-filled feathers to spirit. “This spirit must be counterfeited by the spirit of man” Leonardo da Vinci wrote of the spirit of the birds.3 Oddly and touchingly, what redeems these stuffed birds is a black and white photograph of a lake, located inside their cage. It gives them, as it were, a habitat in which they can pretend to be alive even after death. Yairi‘s photograph, from the other side of the cage, attempts to do the same thing: to breathe spirit into what has been brought to earth – by turning it into art.

The seams of Yairi‘s photographic units invite us not only to observation but to observations, not only to viewing with the “eyes of flesh”, but to viewing with the “eyes of spirit” (look into the encircled eyes of the boy in Tree House), which are the only ones that can see what is not here, and to understand its centrality. And anyone who inspects Agnon‘s photographed library will find (two shelves above Plato‘s complete works) William James‘ The Variety of Religious Experience (in Hebrew translation), as a footnote within the work, to the kind of experience to which the photograph alludes.


  1. Franz Kafka, The Zürau Aphorisms, trans. Michael Hofmann, London: Harvill Secker 2006, p. 16.
  2. John Michael Greer, Ars Memorativa,
  3. Quoted in: Charles Nicholl, Leonardo da Vinci, Penguin 2005, p. 394.

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