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How Can We Own Death?

At her new exhibition in Artspace Tel Aviv, the photographer Yehudit Schreiber presents an array of photographs that summarises her recent work. For years, she has been laying various organic and inanimate objects on the concrete floor of her studio at home, gathering them together, “cataloguing” them, and converting them from three-dimensional entities into two-dimensional one, i.e., pictures.

She takes the dead animals that populate the photos in her new exhibition and lays them down delicately, although in a systematic and inquisitive order, in boxes, drawers, and on bedding of various sizes. Plainly her attitude toward them is different. Unlike the cold, unyielding concrete floor, the bedding ‘receives’ them tenderly if not compassionately as a final resting place. The boxes serve them as tombs and the exhibit (almost) likens them to valuable jewels.

Schreiber finds these animal corpses in her short and long exploratory journeys. She is attracted to winged creatures, insects, and reptiles that live in tunnels in the soil when they die on the surface. The things that she photographs—an archaeology of tiny skeletons—are indeed dead. Schreiber, however, wishes to describe an ambivalent situation in which one may consider them at rest or asleep, perhaps eternally.

These creatures sometimes pique our curiosity when we encounter them and may even spur us to reflect about them. Usually, however, we turn away and move on. Taking their pictures, however, makes them a topic of interest per se. Schreiber’s photographs present them in intimate detail and lend these morbid images a visual dimension that allows the imagination to weave a new story around them.

When we observe a photograph of a dead life form, we think we have seen something that needs quasi-forensic investigation. Schreiber, however, repeatedly reminds us with emphasis that most of the creatures that she seeks either died right around the time she discovered them or shortly before they were handed over to her. Thus, they are not only ready-made ‘things’ but also beings that have just crossed the border between life and death as they verge on the moment of death. One may even surmise that Schreiber considers this moment a lengthy one and is not occupied by questions relating to the cause and circumstances of the death. Instead, the thing that is presented here for contemplation and reflection is the reality of death itself, as manifested in the dead creatures’ bodies and faces.

The source behind the creation of this morbid collection of departed animals begins with a personal story that became a life-story, a protracted course of work, and a quest for the infinite. Yehudit’s brother, Amnon, was a radio man on the submarine Dakar. The tragedy and mystery that surrounded the sinking of this vessel accompanied all of us from the time the vessel vanished to its discovery thirty-one years later, and it has accompanied Schreiber personally and nourished her creative work from the ground up. Each time anew, at solo and group exhibitions, she puts together arrays that introduce the contents and the visibility of what she has photographed—organic and inanimate objects viewed from a quasi-scientific perspective, or matters reminiscent of suspicious findings from an unsolved crime that generate a protracted sense of uncertainty. Her diverse bodies of work, which sometimes resemble archaeological findings, are the result of a Sisyphean photographing process that exposes the continual tension between what the eye beholds and the secrets that it cannot.

“The artist’s job,” Schreiber explains, “is to challenge our grasp and our patterns of response to the realness of things.” In her work, she confronts ‘objective’ and ‘rational’ scientific practices such as research on animals—crawling things, flying things—with ‘objective’ and ‘irrational’ influences. Thus she examines life and death in the natural and organic world as a control model for human ethos's concerning life and death and for concepts such as the tragic, the dramatic, pain, and the naturalisation of death.

Schreiber’s photographs evoke the works of other artists who concern themselves with photographic visibility and the presence of death. Examples are Andres Serrano’s series of photographs ‘The Morgue’; Marian Drew’s still-life photos of animals in nature; and Pesi Girsch’s meticulously shaped photographs of dead animals. These artists and others cover a broad spectrum that links death to symbolism and metaphor while injecting a direct dimension of realism.

In this sense, the structure of Schreiber’s exhibition reveals a new element in her works, that of fantasy. The structure, partly based on the Wunderkammer—the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century chamber of curiosities that preceded the Darwinistic evolutionary outlook on organisms and men—introduces an atypical order of things and samples along with enchantment with and keen attraction to close contemplation of the face of death.

The studio photographs may be reminiscent of an ostensibly pathological and cold aspect of things. Schreiber, however, does not manoeuvre us toward those destinations. Instead, she leaves it to the viewers to draw their personal conclusions, solve the mystery, and perhaps simplify their fears. For Schreiber, this is an evolving work of life that expands ceaselessly. For those who observe her works, she allows their personal worlds to be touched in what has already been exposed and in what remain their personal and intimate stories. Her photographs capture moments of motionlessness or of absolute placidity, whereas her memories, and those of the people who contemplate her work, erupt from Their imaginary and realistic investigations of the question of the mystery that lies beyond death and the way in which photography is its resting place.

Yehudit Schreiber

Gilad Ophir

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