Project   99

Lilach Bar Ami


curator: Rachel Sukman
Opening:  20.11.2008 at 8 p.m.

20.11.2008 30.12.2008




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Between Almond Blossom and Cherry Blossom
Rachel Sukman

The color pink covered the walls in Lilach Bar-Ami's studio in the year 2003 when she attended the Advanced Studies Program in Fine Art at the Kalisher School of Art. It was a feminist protest in high-gloss paints which were bold not only in ter

ms of the color intensity, but also in the disturbingly strong odor which took over the workshops, stairwells and corridors. This may have been the last scream uttered in the language of modernist painting. Color was thrust directly from the receptacle which contained viscose pink liquid. The traces of drippings that had dried were seen on the canvases attached to the walls, becoming an abstract surface of pink with blood-red veins. Despite the pleasure which accompanied the act of painting so dear to her (in those days), Bar-Ami did not settle for a statement expressing the visible sights in a single language. The pink color splashes were, for her, a correspondence on two levels—theoretical and practical—mainly with the men in the American Abstract Expressionist group (i.e. Jackson Pollock).

Bar-Ami's obsessive approach was manifested not only in the painting of abstract, expressive surfaces, but in every object which carried an artistic message. The totality of the pink room invoked antithetical feelings of power and refinement. It offered viewers a dual experience: pink claustrophobia, on the one hand, and an invitation to stay and experience the nuances comprising the pink statement, on the other. It was clear to Bar-Ami that the pink walls must be continued via obsessive, meticulous work associated with her gender. For that purpose she used plain silvery-gray sewing pins which  were inserted into small pads self-made from pink dust cloths bought in  Tel Aviv's Carmel Market at a bargain price. Every pincushion was decorated with "vaginal" pink-red embroidery, and some were even marked with an oval line reminiscent of a vagina. They were spread on the floor to form an orderly installation, arranged as a grid of objects which form a right angle. It was on that occasion of the pink scream that the texture fusing Bar-Ami's modes of representation with a local Tel Aviv female identity began to crystallize.

Upon graduating from the "Fifth Year" Program for Young Artists, she no longer had a studio in which to work with toxic-smelling paints, and Bar-Ami decided to give up painting. It soon turned out that this meant giving up the abstract and the conceptual as well. "When I returned home, to a standard apartment in a 4-storey central Tel Aviv building, it was clear to me that despite all my love for the Abstract Expressionism of the New York School, such painting had no room in my private space, so I decided to connect to the place in which I live and work."

This new condition brought with it new, equally fascinating ideas and work modes. The identification and definition of her means of creation changed on two levels: on the contextual level, the transition from abstract to figurative marked the entry of a narrative associated with her personal story; on the technical level, the change was manifested in replacing the plastic materials with flat computer-processed images. The ink and color stains, like the sewing and embroidery, gave way to digital images. This was the moment when Bar-Ami returned to her literary world; she turned to stories and books, which gave rise to the figurative images so dear to her, and to the feminist reflections, since the course of her life has become an inherent part of her work. During that time she was occupied by thoughts about the everyday difficulties of life in the shadow of bureaucracy and the Israeli establishment, and about the discriminatory treatment of women's work. Suddenly, the wolf emerged as a signifier of the male world, with which the woman is forced to deal. With a computer program she began a mechanical process in three colors revolving on the theme of the wolf and the woman; the computer enabled such acts as reproduction, addition, subtraction, eras ure, flattening, and change of angle, which generated new forms and images, conjuring up past memories from her childhood on the kibbutz and eliciting the need to tell her story.

Quite arbitrarily she became exposed during that time to Clarissa Pinkola Estés's book Women Who Run with the Wolves, from which she drew the legitimacy for her next solo exhibition, "Fool Moon," held at Office in Tel Aviv Gallery in 2004. The book argues that wolves, more than any other animal, share several characteristics with women. "They are deeply intuitive, intensely concerned with their young, their mate, and their pack. They are experienced in adapting to constantly changing circumstances; they are fiercely stalwart and very brave." The predominant colors in that exhibition were red, black, and white. Red symbolizes femininity, but also power, blood, strength, and violence; the black and white define and reinforce the red. The restrained coloration of these works stood in stark contrast to the female qualities as well as to Bar-Ami's personal obsession with ownership of clothes and her tendency to collect items of clothing, shoes, and purses in different colors.

After discovering the computer's potential as a work tool which could replace the brush and paint splashes, she became addicted to the Internet and its surfing possibilities. The link to sources of information and Google's entry led to breaching of borders, introducing accessibility and immediacy of dialogue with artists from all over the world. The acquaintance with their "story" connected Bar-Ami to her "story." For the first time in her life she realized that she had a story. Theretofore she thought that her life was but a sequence of boring, rough, belligerent routine.

Israeli-Japanese Landscape
Bar-Ami was born in the Western Galilee in the month of Shevat (the fifth month in the Jewish calendar, generally coinciding with January-February), the month in which the almond trees blossom in pink. She feels a direct personal affinity with Japan, where the cherry blossoms herald the advent of spring. The snow-clad Mount Hermon connects and interchanges with the likewise snowy Mount Fuji. The highest mountain in Japan and a site of pilgrimage for the Japanese, Fuji has been represented in ink drawings by many Japanese artists. Sakura is a promised land, and the Israelis too have a Promised Land of their own. Thus a cross between local and distant landscapes is gradually constructed. The cherry or orchard blossoms are but a temporary cover or a state of short-lived euphoria, or perhaps, a mirage that might change any minute with the threatening local reality. The artistic act, however, had already been performed, and the work acquires a life of its own.


Why Japan?
By thinking about things you could understand them.
-- James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
According to Bar-Ami, long before she ever started working on the series to which she gave the Japanese title "Sakura," she was fascinated by the idea of crossing typical Israeli landscapes with Japanese or East-Asian scenery. It was an attempt to create a hybrid between a calculated, foreign, sublime beauty and the familiar, local, Israeli ruggedness. "I had an almost innate yearning for the unknown, for the secrets of the Far East," she says. "In retrospect, I can say that under the external guise which pulled me to the East lie similar qualities shared by the Middle East and Eastern Asia. Japan for me is the ultimate manifestation; the most powerful, whole, real expression of those landscapes which I tried to create in my works, a cross between the beautiful and the threatening, the luring and the repugnant, the sublime and the inferior, male and female, central and marginal." The escapism to the far-removed landscapes of Japan was congruent with a prevalent trend in Israeli art. A similar Japanese influence was discernible, for instance, in Yehudit Sasportas's installation at the 2007 Venice Biennale. For Bar-Ami, it is simply an appealing magical world. She feels identification with Japanese aesthetics, and the figure of the Japanese woman was an object of admiration for her, so much so that she created a self-portrait of herself as a young Japanese woman (page.4). In some of her works one can clearly identify the figure of the geisha, a role she dreamt of filling.

This duality of living here and longing for there was to become an integral part of Bar-Ami's life and art; to some extent, it determined her iconographic choices between 2006 and 2008, while creating the works for the exhibition "Sakura" (cherry blossom), rendering it a visual statement. Bar-Ami's choice of Japan, which she favors as a refuge, is not random. It is to Japan that she wants to return, even though she has never been there. She feels a yearning for tranquil, enchanting, far-away landscapes, and in many of her works one encounters the cherry blossom.

Once she realized that the association between the almond blossom and the cherry blossom was not only legitimate, but a part of her connection to the global village, the boundaries dissolved. Henceforth she ceased taking the symbols with which she was raised for granted, setting out to explore them and introduce them into her works as milestones. Thus, from one work to the next, the images and symbols multiplied, as she conjured them up in a spiritual act, both calculated and intuitive.

The life of Lilach the girl, who grew up frightened on the dark nights in Kibbutz Hanita on Israel's northern border across from Lebanon, has changed unrecognizably. The desire to recall all the details that make up the web of her life, and the wish to carefully interweave them with distant, yet corresponding sights from Japan, enable Bar-Ami, like many artists in the global village, to be unique in her local milieu, while appropriating landscapes, figures, and pink blossoms.

Despite the visual overload created on their surface, observation of her works is akin to a journey through a dense forest with secret paths. Bar-Ami offers anyone willing to enter into the unknown a fascinating experience, enabling him to choose different tasks of deciphering: historical, emotional, political, personal, and aesthetic.

Bar-Ami has gradually returned to her childhood landscapes. "Here," she says, "begins the contrast embodied in the pastoral quality of the green expanses and the ostensible sense of security provided by the kibbutz. The image in my mind's eye is of children playing on the lawn, and all of a sudden this contract between the marvelous silence and the fact that the kibbutz is in constant danger and a state of war vis-á-vis the Lebanese border." She regards the Israeli landscape as a horizon where cypress trees, helicopters, soldiers, tanks, war, noise, and border are visible. Reflecting upon the values on which she was brought up, such as the admiration of the heroes of the Israeli dream—from Danziger's Nimrod, which signifies the powerful, heroic, masculine, yet sublime, Israeli art, through the sculpture of the roaring lion, symbolizing the mythological figure of Trumpeldor, the hero who sacrificed his life for the homeland, to Moshe Dayan, with the black eyepatch, symbolizing the figure of the commander who lost his eye in the battle over Kibbutz Hanita. The introduction of Dayan's figure into her work is just one example of the way in which the story of Bar-Ami's life has become an inherent part of her oeuvre. As a kibbutz child and an artist, she is well aware of the power of national symbols; on the surface of her works she brings together secular and traditionalist Israeli rituals practiced on the Jewish holidays, which have become popular symbols in the State of Israel. One of these is the obsessive treatment of uniform, not necessarily routine school uniform, but rather ones worn on festive occasions involving song and dance. The girls featured in many of her works dance on the national and traditional holidays, recite poems and worship Israeli heroism. They are uniformly dressed. Bar-Ami radicalizes these figures, making them appear as reproductions through both their dimensions and their hair style—usually a pair of braids, at times a single one. "The girls in my works are made after my own, adult figure. They dance the hora around the roaring lion. The hora is part of the local-pioneering folklore which was, obviously, a way to overcome the fear as well as to rejoice and unite despite the war," she says. The girls sometimes dance in white vests, but on Independence Day and the Memorial Day ceremonies they wear white blouses, blue skirts, and black patent-leather shoes; this was how everyone stood at attention for a long minute in memory of the heroes who fell while protecting the homeland. At the time, she accepted her participation in these ceremonies without question; today she realizes that it was but one of many ways to unite the people and generate an affinity and a commitment to the land, to a life of equality and communion; and perhaps a way to lie, as well.

Into all these penetrate the fears of the night and darkness, and the danger of attacks on the northern border settlements. The unending war theme is represented by the skyline—the sky is the real border, and the air force protects the sky with the helicopters which Bar-Ami cuts as well as with armed soldier and tanks and cypress trees. The threatening reality, the history of the British mandate in the country in the figure of British soldiers, the cherry blossom in Japan, and fields of anemones—kalaniyot in Hebrew, alluding to the nickname given to the British soldiers in Palestine during the mandatory period, and to Shoshana Damari's well-known song lamenting Israel's fallen soldiers, and the protected red anemone flowers which beautify the homeland's scenery—all these are found together in the private creative space of the artist, who also crosses indifferent ostriches with Japanese angelic-satanic heads. As illogical as this link may seem, it is surprisingly harmonious and engaging in terms of coloration and composition alike.

Japan is present throughout the series of works created in the past two years, until the nurses-in-white enter the picture, at which time the game of fancy seems to end, and we return to reality, to the mundane truth. This is the last work in the series, and Bar-Ami gave it the title Eventually I Got a Shot. To the broad spectrum of existing figures she adds the nurse. This was the end of the Second Lebanon War, and things had ostensibly come full circle.

All the works were created by means of forms, which represent a type of repetition, a duplication of the story and its transformation into a symbol of a shared experience cut out by means of unique, industrious, obsessive manual labor. Most of the images were flattened, replicated, and processed digitally. Despite the visual overload of symbols and images in her stratified works, the narrative is easily comprehended and may be deconstructed into subjects which link to one another with calculated naïveté.

Bar-Ami's modes of representation are somewhat tangential to those of renowned African-American artist, Kara Walker, whose works depict personal experiences associated with the harsh history of her people in America. The paper cutouts ostensibly enable cutting and deconstruction of the Israeli myth, as well as a later reconstruction of the story. The work is done in layers which call to mind, inter alia, an archaeological excavation; a search for the truth while attempting to return to the kibbutz forests in order to find additional signs attesting to her real identity.

In her unique way, Bar-Ami manages to touch upon diverse and fascinating themes, such as cultural and historical symbols, both Israeli and universal. A quintessential local artist, Bar-Ami's works clearly draw on Israeli symbols and local cultural heroes. At the same time, she is well-versed in the international art lingo. The result is an intriguing, highly-original work.