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Mapping the Sublime

The sense of loftiness inundating anyone exposed to Dorit Feldman’s works in the exhibition “Landwords” is not readily deciphered; with no apparent reason, for the primeval landscape visions unfolding on large-scale painterly surfaces, their majestically overflowing coloration, and their explicit beauty can only elicit an immediate thrill, enhancing the presence of primordial glory and the splendor of nature forcing itself on the beholder. One who is reluctant to yield to this aesthetic attack must actively defend oneself against it, activate conceptual categories to deconstruct it by contemplation. It is, however, easier to give in to it. The beauty of Feldman’s works is captivating at first, “naïve” and unfiltered sight, yet the artist herself undermines the ostensibly unblemished naïveté of that first sight. A closer look reveals that these spectacular landscape compositions are interspersed with signs and words, map fragments and basic outlines of ancient structures, as well as verses of poetry; these are interwoven in natural scenery in a manner which preserves a visual harmony, yet “interferes” with the works’ sensorial perception due to the fusion of various artistic media and the unconventional combination of different levels of representation of the work’s dominant object—primeval nature.

The lines of text inserted in the works’ visual abundance are extracted from poems by Varda Genossar. In fact, it is a joint project of both artists, an interdisciplinary artistic interaction. While such a “correspondence” is not new, it is not a simple matter either. Indeed, many artists no longer adhere to the distinction between artistic mediums, as prescribed in Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s 1766 classical treatise “Laocoön,” addressing the essential differences between the visual arts and literature; many strove for a multimedia integration of disciplines, and even yearned to realize a Gesamtkunstwerk (total artwork). But the longed for combination does not necessarily guarantee homogeneity; it may in fact expose a hierarchy in the status of the constituents of the different media comprising the whole. The phrase “Prima la musica e poi le parole” (First the music, and then the words), as the title of Antonio Salieri’s opera, was formulated in the period when Lessing made his argument. A similar statement may also be made regarding the relationship between the visual (painterly) effect and the word when they are combined. But while the principle of separation between mediums was undermined throughout the 19th century and collapsed entirely with the rise and flourishing of the moving picture in the 20th century, the issue of hierarchy remained intact, if only with regard to the measure of sensory suggestiveness and the precedence of the “catchy” medium. This is not necessarily the case when the word, accompanying visual perception, is spoken, or rather—heard. When written, however, it necessarily subordinates itself to the sensory dominance of the visible.

As for the combination between Genossar’s verses and Feldman’s visual work, the matter is decided in a clear formal manner: the words, no matter how much room they are allotted, emerge clandestinely; careful attention is needed to identify them and take the time to read them. Once done, however, the importance of reading the text embedded within the painterly act is elucidated: the words may well attest to deviation from what the first sight sensorily forces upon the viewer. In Feldman’s The Stillness In-Between, for instance, on a page in an open book placed at the foot of a monumental, awe-inspiring cliff, one may read the following:

Neither body nor earth / But the surface in between / Neither landscape nor soul / But the stillness in between

If we are not concerned with the visuality of the landscape or the materiality of the earth, and not even with the spiritual world of the soul, but rather with a hidden realm of indefinite contact (“the surface in between”) and a wordless silence (“the stillness in between”), then this decisive statement stands in stark contrast to what the senses perceive and to which they even yield: the wild materiality of the solid rocky vision, with all its orifices, holes, and windings, whose dramatic quality is further enhanced by the lower photographic perspective and the chiaroscuro effects interwoven with the formal dynamics of the towering cliff. But this is precisely the point: the visible conceals a secret, the discernible attests to something latent. Ostensibly, one is concerned with what indeed overfills Feldman’s and Genossar’s works—a metaphysical element which functions as a conceptual matrix for their artistic practice, as manifested in the body of work featured in the current exhibition. One who wishes to surrender to this element in their work, must equip oneself with rather heavy baggage of knowledge in the fields of Jewish mysticism, and even then, he may purport to decipher only a few of the symbols inserted in the works and incorporated in their texture. This is not necessarily vital, however. The “artist’s intention” may, in this case, lead to a fuss over the philosophy setting their artistic practice in motion (a philosophy which must, nevertheless, remain external to it), at the cost of the interaction with the works themselves; or more accurately—with the inner logic underlying the organization of materials and the activation of the expressive means inherent to visual art and poetry, and their combination in this specific instance.

Instead, one may propose a different dimension of secret as basis for reading what these works convey, whether directly or indirectly. The poem “Poetic Geologist” may serve as a point of departure for clarification of the matter.

On this earth you desired / To be a geologist of redemption, / To guard secrets / On white lime, / To save us from our own beliefs, / From our evil, scarred hands / You tried so valiantly to touch our heart, / But your voice vanished / Into the deep abyss / Of oblivion

Interestingly, the lines from this poem, quoted in one of Feldman’s works, undergo an explicit metamorphosis:

On that earth you were / a geologist of redemption, / Guarding secrets / On white lime, / In the deep abyss / Of oblivion

It is unclear why “this earth” was replaced by “that earth”—for it is the same earth, the same land. Whether the “you” whom the poem addresses refers to a specific figure, to the reader of the poem, or the Creator Himself, one thing stands out: nature (the natural scenery, which is the landscape of that land), symbolized through its juxtaposition with the geologist’s profession, emerges here as concealing secrets and as a source of redemption. In the poem, it turns out, the redeeming geologist is betrayed (and with him the redemption): “our evil, scarred hands” (“pervasive evildoing,” in the original Hebrew) have sinned against the “secrets” guarded “on white lime,” and the geologist’s voice, that tried “so valiantly to touch our heart” “vanished into the deep abyss of oblivion.” One may ascribe the “betrayal” to what is essentially a human necessity—namely, man’s human existence—but which is, at the same time, a repressive element at the very core of that human existence: the relationship between nature (as an entity dissociated from man and, at any event, untouched by him) and civilization-culture-history (which are the very essence of man’s being on earth). Human civilization is impossible without man’s mastery of external nature; man’s survival is dependent on the processing and domestication of nature to provide human needs. This insight was addressed as early as the biblical story of the Fall. In passing, however, Man, as part of nature (and someone in whom layers of nature continue to exist even as a social creature), was forced to master his inner nature and to subordinate himself to the commandments, rules, directives, and prohibitions of culture, which necessarily entails man’s mastery over others by means of governing power structures, economic division of labor, and socialization apparatuses vital to the existence of society. The processing of nature as a necessity thus also involves the loss of nature as a civilizatory fate. The more civilization advances, and the higher its pile of ruins grows onto the sky, as noted by Walter Benjamin, the more the memory of man’s suffering in previous generations is erased, a suffering buried under the civilizatory ruins in which the products of nature processed and lost are imbedded, the one concealing its secrets in the deep abyss of (historical) oblivion.

This dialectical relationship between nature and culture is quintessentially articulated by one of Feldman’s artistic vehicles: she integrates prints of geographic maps with photographs of spectacular landscapes, while insisting on such meticulous graphic proficiency and aesthetic precision that the act of integration appears “self evident”—nature and its mapping become one. This act of photographic montage has different facets: on the one hand, it may artistically account for the aforesaid civilizatory dimension of mastery over nature by drawing away from it: subordinating nature to its ordering categories via signification, cataloguing, naming, graphical-scientific formalization, etc. On the other hand, its representation becomes sevenfold abstract: if photography functions as its naturalistic mimetic representation, the map emerges as an abstraction of that naturalism, a representation of representation, so to speak. This is relevant not only for perusal of our perception of nature and its landscapes, among others by means of conventional images which generate and shape our perceptual needs. In her poem “Journeys of a Letter,” Genossar alludes to this matter:

We dreamed: / Names of places / Trees, rivers, / Underground passages, / Names of fossils, / Names of rare glittering / Sea mollusks

Names of minerals, / Of wide caves / In the valley of collapsing mountains / Of the sinking museum of nature.

Genossar begins her poem with the words “We dreamed.” Indeed, the derivatives of representation are also relevant to inquiry into the functioning of our cultural memory. We project our wishes and desires onto the object of memory. The visions of the past serve as a projection surface for our cultural passions—an ancient map as an indication of archaic sublime, a rudimentary outline of the Temple as a symbol of yearning for a “past” and as a code of “belonging.” In this sense, primordial landscapes touch upon the atavistic elements of cultural memory, and concurrently—upon the ideology of that memory and its national-political status. After all, the landscapes in Feldman’s works are imbued with a violent, political controversy, soaked in blood and hatred. The question arises: What are we to make of the fact that in her work Lifeline, Feldman is seen standing in the Dead Sea, with the biblical landscape as a backdrop, a print of an old map of the Dead Sea in the air engulfing her, and a graphic echo of that map on her left arm, as if she were tattooed with the signs of the geography pulsating in her veins, constituting her identity. Who can tell? A hesitant answer to this tough question may be found in Genossar’s poem, “The Living Dead Sea”:

Secrets pulsate / Beneath shimmering crystal columns, / Fish don’t yearn for this place, / Only on mountaintops / White bones still glowing / From the ancient sea / Lick silence.

Layers of light on heaviness of light / Sunset now reigns / Near the dark pits of your fears, / Lying in wait, alert / like an ancient beast

Underneath, tectonic plates / still drift away / from the Syrian-African rift, / And we are eager to see / Who will strike this sea of death, / Pave a way to those who are / Lovethirsty

Prof. Moshe Zuckermann


Landwords, 2012

Dorit Feldman/

Varda Genossar

the Artists’ Residence Gallery, Herzliya,Israel

Essay:  Moshe Zuckermann

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