Encoded Libraries, 1995
Galerie H.+W. Lang, Graz, Austria
Essay: Paul Kaniel
La Nature est un temple où des vivant pilliers
Laissent parfois sortir des confuses paroles;
L’hoome y passe à travers des fôrets de symboles
Qui l’obervent avec des regards familiers.
Charles Baudelaire (1861)
The pillars of Nature’s Temple are alive
And sometimes yield perplexing messages;
Forests of symbols between us and the shrine
Remark our passage with accustomed eyes.
(English: Richard Howards, Godine Publishers, Boston, 1985)
Dorit Feldman and the Cosmic Gordian Knot
The intelligent visitor of a Dorit Feldman exhibition is not unlikely to experience the same strange and strong feeling as the person wandering through Baudelaire’s mysterious forest of symbols.
The sculptures, multimedia objects, paintings and photographs, the “unintelligible” writing on cold metal, as well as the beautiful, thought-provoking books, undoubtedly seek to convey to us “perplexing messages”.
If we attempt to switch from this cosmic atmosphere to a more familiar and intimate feeling by opening and perusing a book, we are confronted by esoteric images, sometimes dominated by “matrices”, a kind of ciphered square.
Almost all civilizations, whether based on religious mysticism or on science and technology, have had their “magic squares”. Why the square? Maybe because it allows a more rational, strict and expressive arrangement of signs, while the circle and the triangle are more polyvalent symbols. Be that as it may, the square has always been a powerful, pervasive form (most temples were a space-projection of it).
Dorit Feldman uses these “magic squares”, the Chinese I Ching coded language, ancient Maya matrices or Kabbalistic arrangements in order to investigate and express by means of art, the underlying unity, the correspondences, the mutual echoing across infinite time and space of cultures and civilizations with their coded secrets.
In doing this, the artist moves (spiritually) along the borders of another imaginary square at the corners of which are marked the four basic concepts which so fascinate her, a fascination which she ultimately makes us share joyfully with her: the Word (Verb, Logos), the Number, the Form and the Sign. The Word is the secret manifestation of the Spirit, the Number (in Hebrew, each letter and word have numerical values) is a clue to this secret, and at the same time, a determining factor of the Form (each shape having its mathematical formulae). The Form is one of the artist’s tools, and it inevitably becomes a Sign. This passage has been valid for the prehistoric grotto scribblings, for the sacred and mystical works of art, and, of course, for today’s conceptual and post-modern art, of which Feldman is a part, whether she likes it or not.
However, her works do more than generate multi-significant metaphors or provide us with information useful for raising or debating aesthetic, social or metaphysical problems, more or less the avowed objective of fellow artists of her generation. Her art tries to bring us nearer to the essence of life and the cosmos (macro and micro), to make us better understand some of the “perplexing messages” (in French: “confuses paroles”) of Nature.
She accomplishes this not only through intellectual means, information and semantic metaphors, but also by sensual and aesthetic means. While investigating whether past and future are interchangeable, being only two axes of human perception, whether all civilizations stem from one single coded truth, whether a similar number of signs in coded languages – I Ching and DNA – or of forms – DNA and the Tree of Life – have a meaning, whether the form of things is immanent, i.e., necessary, given and determined not only by their function; while dealing with all these questions, Dorit Feldman never forgets that she is first and foremost, an artist whose works are visual and must appeal to the senses.
To be more explicit, let us examine some of her recurrent motifs. The telescope, for instance. It is, of course, a metaphor for a shrinking outer space. But it might also be one for the reversibility of Time. In the 1950s, two French authors, unaware of each other, published works (J.P. Sartre: “Les condamnés d’Altona” and André Schwartzbart: “Le dernier des Justes”) where they define, with astonishing similarity, their vision and dream of justice as the invention of some wonderful telescope which, beating the speed of light, will catch on some distant star the images of what really happened on Earth since the beginning of Matter and Life and History. A young woman such as Dorit Feldman is unlikely to be aware of these literary works, but by a magic “correspondence”, she used the same object for the same hope and vision. In Feldman’s telescope, the image is not at the farthest end of the tool, but in the eye of the beholder, who becomes the viewed viewer, just like Baudelaire’s person, who, while trying to decipher the symbols, is secretly watched by them. Echo and reversibility.
The form of the telescope is conic, one of Feldman’s favorite shapes. It suggests power, thrust and penetration. Whether it is the result of immanence or of function, it is also the shale of human sexual organs. Thus the telescope becomes the unifying metaphor for outer space and creation, for matter and life, for past and future.
The same analysis could be made for most of her motifs. The view of the sea and modern architecture form an obscure ancient grotto similar to the one on which the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, the scribbled aluminum (metal of the future) recalling the writing on parchment scrolls (material of the past) are juxtapositions that create the same tension and serve the same vision and aesthetic objective.
Some of Dorit Feldman’s works include photographs – which are manipulated reality – of her library, where her knowledge is stored, coded and decoded. The fact that some of her best work consists of books is not accidental. Books are the domain of privacy (only one person can look at one book at one time) and perusal (turning over the pages, the opening of a harmonica-like book adds the element of duration, attribute of Time, and rejects the illusion that a work of art can be seen in its entirety at one glance. In a book, Feldman is at her best in mixing a media, in displaying her craftsmanship in juxtaposition, in choosing the right color, both significant and sensuous. In her books, sensuality has an equal role and place to those of aesthetics and intellectualism.
A few words should be said about another recurrent and favorite theme in Feldman’s works: codes. Why knowledge is usually given in code, “perplexing messages”, is a debatable question. Since he ate of the apple of knowledge, Man’s activities consist mainly of decoding the secrets of the Universe. But decoding mysteries has also been his constant pleasure. Cubism’s success has proved that rearranging a displaced, embroiled representation of an object is a pleasure-giving aesthetic and intellectual process. The coding and decoding so dear to Feldman is very much akin to this.
Although Dorit Feldman is a “sui generis” artist, she represents the best and most durable trend of contemporary art, which could also be called “neo-conceptual”.
Nevertheless, she is quite alien to post-modern epigonism, which tries to imitate real life through the “objet trouvé” or the object which represents itself. Her approach is definitely forward-oriented, and her imaginative works are indeed a tonic.
The artist is an antithesis to the General. Confronted with the complexity of the Cosmos, of life and creation, Dorit Feldman, unlike Alexander the Great who cut the Gordian Knot, proceeds patiently and beautifully to disentangle it and decode the “forest of symbols”.
Writer, former curator at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem