Yuval Yairi's (b. 1961) body of photographs, Forevermore, focuses on the Hansen Hospital in Jerusalem, the abode of Hansen's disease patients, an illness which had erroneously been identified with biblical leprosy. Originally called Jesus Hilfe, the hospital was founded in 1887 by Protestant missionaries from Germany on a remote hillside, nowadays the Talabiya neighborhood. The massive stone building was designed by architect and researcher of Jerusalem, Conrad Schick (1822-1901). It represents late 19th-century Jerusalem architecture, combining European and Middle Eastern styles. The structure contains evidence of the social and political transformations the city has undergone in the past century. A small part of the compound now serves as an outpatient clinic for treatment of the disease, while most of it stands unused; some of the rooms remain as left by the last patients and staff to inhabit them.
Back in ancient times, leprosy was already considered a terrible affliction, tantamount to sentencing the patient to death. In the past, in order to avoid contagion, patients were isolated in leper colonies and secluded islands, to the extent that the word "leper" became synonymous with a person cast out by society. In the Middle Ages, and even earlier, the disease was regarded as punishment for sin. Patients were subject to many social rules and prohibitions intended to isolate them from society, and were treated by religious bodies such as the Church, rather than by medical ones. The disease and the leper house are associated with fear, myth and prejudice. In her poem "A Day of Tidings" which refers to the biblical story (II Kings 7), Rachel exemplifies the extreme social ostracism associated with leprosy: "A Samaria under siege – the entire land, / The famine is too hard to bear. / But I will not want news of freedom, / If it comes from the mouth of a leper."1
Yairi photographs the leper house with a digital video camera in still mode, constructing the image from hundreds (at times thousands) of frames. The pictures are taken in the course of several hours, during which the artist slowly and accurately documents every detail in the space from a single position, like the viewer's observation movement upon entering the space. He selects details, which he then combines into a final unified photographic image containing a wealth of information, one that no single still photograph can contain. Thus, in fact, Yairi overcomes the temporal and spatial limitations of conventional photography.
Yairi's technique is reminiscent of a fine, intricate mosaic. The repeated shooting, the meticulous observation, the accumulation and layering of small fragments – all these generate an image that contains a deployment of continuous time. The gathering and reassembly of the pieces enable him to oscillate between a faithful documentation of reality and its re-shaping while constructing additional strata of detail and time. The resulting effect is at once realistic and surreal or symbolic. On the one hand, the picture is broad, slow and restrained, and on the other, it is implied, and fraught with dramatic tension that stems from the mosaic assembly, an act that is at times scrupulous and imperceptible, at others, distinctly visible.
Yairi's works, mainly interiors, deconstruct the cohesive space swiftly captured by the eye and the camera. He juxtaposes one image with another, frame with frame, so that the spaces which are mostly small (a room or a section thereof) appear wide and outspread as in David Hockney's 1980s works, and especially the Grand Canyon series. Hockney creates a photo-collage comprised of a large number of individual photographs laid side by side, so that the landscape reflected in them is panoramic, wide-angled, containing several concurrent viewpoints and perspectives. Hockney thus transforms the landscape and the frozen photograph into something dynamic that conveys the experience of the monumental scope. Yairi, on the other hand, opts, from the outset, for an intimate, domestic space which he deconstructs into hundreds and thousands of images, so that the viewer loses the sense of the small space. Via deconstruction and reconstruction, both artists attempt to address the experience of the space, to photograph the unphotographable and trace the viewer's movement in the space. Discussing the documentation of the Grand Canyon experience, Hockney notes: "… it is the one place, I think, where you become very aware of how you move your head, your eyes, everything."2
At first sight Yairi's compositions appear quiet and tranquil, full of harmony and melancholy (mainly in the choice and arrangement of objects). His work technique, however, enables him to create unique, sharp perspectives where the ceiling and the floor are depicted at an acute angle downward or upward, invoking a disconcerting sense of distortion or inaccuracy. This is the case, for example, in Room 1, Blue Pajama, 2004, Three Bathtubs and a Hat, 2004, Southeast Room, 2004. Yairi models these spaces via direct allusion to Van Gogh's (1853-1890) perspectives, and especially Bedroom, 1889 – a personal, subjective painting depicting Van Gogh's room in the Yellow House at Arles. Van Gogh employs vivid colors in coarse layers, and the room's floor slants sharply and threateningly downward, conveying his stormy nature as well as his loneliness. In the case of both artists the space is depicted without human presence; the center of the room is occupied by a made bed, and next to it a plain wooden nightstand with several personal belongings, a wooden chair, a window, and a mirror. These spaces convey solitude, sorrow and alienation. Yairi's spaces are more balanced and restrained. The mirror in Van Gogh's room is empty, whereas the one in Yairi's southwestern room reflects the artist and his camera as a type of self-portrait and evidence of photography's faithfulness.
The artist's participation in the occasions which he documents is a recurring motif throughout the history of art. A prominent example is Jan van Eyck's painting The Arnolfini Marriage, 1434, depicting the couple's betrothal. The artist's signature stands out above the round mirror: "Jan van Eyck was here, 1434," as if he had signed his name as a witness to the ceremony. Two figures are reflected in the mirror: the artist himself and another witness. Ostensibly, the painting is a mere documentary recording of a real event, but in effect it contains many details whose meaning goes beyond the functional. Yairi's work also contains mundane, but symbolical objects, repeated time and again, such as an empty chair, a suitcase, a window, a bed, objects which he alters, shifts and arranges. The re-emergence of the old objects creates an intimate, familiar setting which is, at the same time, far-removed in terms of time and place. Each of the objects, with their diverse potential combinations, is accompanied by a range of interpretations and contexts from traditional genres (landscape, still life, interior). Through this stratification a link is drawn between Yairi's photography technique and the painterly tradition.
The suitcase represents primarily a sense of transition, migration, journey, transience and wandering. Its owners have just arrived or are soon to leave. It represents the traces of yearning for a home that has been left, hinting at the presence of another place, a reluctance to accept the situation as permanent, perhaps even a hope that all will end shortly.
The empty chair has a long tradition of depictions in international and Israeli painting and photography.3 Yairi's chairs are common, mundane, devoid of aura. They are functional and serve as a part of the place's landscape. Due to their age, shape and location, they assume metaphorical and symbolical contexts, radiating the emotional baggage of their absent owners. The empty chair masterfully conveys human emotional qualities of which the presence of the missing person reverberates.4 "The chair proposes a sense of traces, a kind of mould of the human figure, though it can never be used for a precise reconstruction of the body."5 This image oscillates between the report-like documentary and the lyrical-impressionist (like the photographic medium itself).
The window appearing in all of Yairi's works is the source of (natural) light in the picture, functioning as a threshold and a barrier, at once bridging and separating the exterior from the interior. Nature, the world and active life reveal themselves through the window. Yairi's gaze always moves from the close inside (the intimate room) to the far outside (nature, the great expanses); the exterior is articulated through routine views, a-heroic sights that are out of bounds. A distinction is thus created between the physical and the mental, the concrete and the illusive, the healthy and the sick, life and death.
The window frame which parallels the frame-lines of the work as a whole creates stability and a structural division in crisscross lines, as a type of grid that frames pieces of nature or interior domestic views. This division analogizes the act of representation and its elusive nature.6 The window frame represents the foreground of the picture, emphasizing flatness versus the depth of the landscape seen through the window. The grid, both the one of the structural division and the one created by connecting frame by frame into a mosaic, has a complex function in this series. "The grid extends in all directions, to infinity… the given work of art is presented as a mere fragment, a tiny piece arbitrarily cropped from an infinitely larger fabric… The grid is an introjection of the boundaries of the work onto the interior of the image; it is a mapping of the space of the frame onto inself."7
Yairi successfully combines majesty and eternity with the ephemeral and mundane, here and there, past and present, presence and absence, overt and covert, a combination that infuses his work with a sense of tension and enigma. He leaves the viewer with the liberty to listen, observe and fathom the place which is charged both historically-medically and personally, even nostalgically (via the objects and the architectural structure) – an evidence of a reality, a routine that has by now dissolved. He traces those who dwelled in the place, the rooms, attic, courtyards and cellars, and through his scrutiny of the deserted objects (books, pictures, clothes, furniture, medical appliances) he rewrites their story.
The title of the series refers to works by Shmuel Yosef Agnon, who used the leper house as the backdrop for the plots in two of his stories. The protagonist of the short story Forevermore, Adiel Amzeh, is an obsessive researcher of the history of the great city of Gumlidata that was conquered by the Goths. He goes to the leper house, having discovered that an ancient book recounting the chronicles of Gumlidata, passed down through the centuries from leper to leper, is found in the place. He forgets his intentions to publish his study, and stays in the leper house to peruse the book in depth – forevermore. The concluding chapter in the novel Shira, published after Agnon's death, describes the arrival of the story's protagonist, Manfred Herbst, at the leper colony to unite with his beloved, Shira, who contracted the disease.
By submerging himself in the place and through the intimacy of each and every detail in it, in this series Yairi succeeds in invoking human and aesthetic sentiments linked with the place, returning it to us with warmth, sensibility, modesty and accuracy.
Text: Raz Samira
The poem's translation was extracted from http://www.jafi.org.il/education/torani/nehardeah/metzora.html
Lawrence Weschler, "Interview," Looking at Landscape, Being in Landscape (CA: LA Louver, 1998), p. 28.
For an elaboration see Mordechai Omer, The Presence of the Absent: The Empty Chair in Israeli Art (Tel Aviv University: The Genia Schreiber University Art Gallery, 1991).
A visual and contextual link is created with Van Gogh's painting Van Gogh's Chair, 1888, where the chair is perceived as a self-portrait.
Omer, n. 2 above, ibid., p. 10.
Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) in his book On Painting summarizes classical perceptions maintaining that the painting is akin to a window opening onto reality.
Rosalind Krauss, "Grids, You Say," Grids, exh. cat. (New York: Pace Gallery, 1979), pp. 6-7.