Photography as the Projection of the Mental Archetype
In the Work of Varda Carmeli
Igal Vardi - 2017
Photography as wandering into the realms of the unconscious
The work of Varda Carmeli is characterized as an unmediated passionate desire to photograph. Photography emanates from an inner inspiration that drives her to be active without needing to justify it with finely chosen words. She prepares for the task of photographing as though setting out on an assignment and claims that each project is equipped with its own uniquely suited camera. Setting forth on a photographic mission is characterized as an outward search but in effect the search is inward into her soul for her personal identity. Devotion to the practice of the art of photography serves her as a kind of therapy, psychoanalysis via photography, a path to anamnesis, toward realms unknown from the beginning. The photography act that began as a consciously targeted process becomes characterized in effect into a kind of dream experience. Photography as memory and contemplation of reality through the camera lens is a view of the homiletic interpretation beyond the literal meaning of reality. Exposure of evasive hints in a dream gives a sense of déjà vu, I've been here, even when it does not materialize in reality. Focusing on allusions to reality are not considered to be an attitude of paranoid thoughts but rather a dream experience in which the hints are granted the benefit of an experiential interpretation even when they are not explained fully and rationally.
Let us set out together in search of Varda Carmeli's work in order to expose, to interpret and to understand her stylistic fingerprint, to expose her archetypal DNA, both formal and content-wise, representing a common denominator throughout the numerous variations of her work. In this article I will focus only on the photographic work of Varda that constitutes the mainstay of her artistic endeavor, over and above painting and other diverse weighty artistic projects. Moreover, I will lay stress on a study of the formal aspect of her work in a discussion regarding her style and only then will I turn to a psychological and metaphysical commentary that can be drawn beyond the artistic form. I will consider Varda's work not chronologically but with haphazard leaps of time from one work to another according to an artistic guideline. This approach is based on the methodology of the art researcher Heinrich Wölfflin who studied the history of art synchronously and called it "history without names". The issue in this study regarding the work of Varda Carmeli is: What is the unique plastic solution that is revealed through her work?
Periods of work and the works themselves
Varda Carmeli has had numerous exhibitions and it is of importance to recall some of them by name in order to enter the ambience of her variegated vast endeavor before focusing on certain works included in the aesthetic interpretation process. The diverse exhibitions are titled: I see Memory, Anthology of a City, India – Point of View, Exposure, Transparency in the Public Domain, Different Regions, Close to Earth Close to Heaven, Actual Barriers, Security Wall, Area C, Déjà Vu, Journey/ Memory/Burden etc.
When the eye contemplates a photograph, it goes through a process termed "visual literacy". The eye reads the information exposed in the photograph. One can classify three stages of visual literacy: the visual, the conceptual; and the narrative. Stage 1- the visual: observing the photograph as pixels, as spots, as lines, as colors, as forms and as a composition. Stage 2- the conceptual: the ability to conceptually discern the images displayed through those selfsame pixels of form and color. Stage 3- the narrative: the ability to present the narrative behind the formal images. At this stage we will present the aesthetic interpretation of the work of Varda Carmeli on the basis of the formal-formalistic visual dimension.
I See Memory
From among all the works, one of them is characterized by a red background with signposting bearing a symbolically graphic painted image of a woman holding a baby and an arrow pointing to the left. On the face of it the innocent signposting is supposed, in actual reality, to help viewers find their bearings to the destination, i.e. to afford orientation. But in view of its location in the German expanse, Varda experienced this as a loaded allusion which for her acts as a catalyst toward an imaginary recollection of holocaust experiences. From an artistic viewpoint we have before us a work that combines abstraction (the red background with pastel spots that integrate aesthetic beauty into the continuity of spots) together with a conceptual painting based on a schematic display of reality by means of a symbol (the image of the mother, the baby and the arrow). The work in its entirety is an interesting and riveting compositional solution comprising both the static state of the color red with shining pastel tones and focusing on the grayish spot with the schematic black triad of mother, baby and arrow.
In these photographs Varda Carmeli displays the image inside the large background of nature, where the image is given its unique colorful focus, while the pixel of the image's spot is concurrently assimilated into the texture of the general landscape. The image is portrayed without the presence of an exclusive identity and is rather a single item within nature, a small grain in the cosmos. Moreover, represented in these photographs are interesting plastic solutions with regard to the angles of perspective. But the main artistic challenge is characterized by the ambivalent presentation of symmetric focusing between two focal points, for instance the house against the tree. There is no release from the symmetric ambivalence between the two prominent focal points. The viewer's eye flickers between the two poles.
These photographs represent an interesting plastic solution between the front focus and the exposed background through the hole, the small window and the rift. This is a riveting combination between visual abstraction and the realism exposed through it. The image is represented as an abstract painting whereas the exposed background seen through the crack is represented realistically. We have here a collaging combination of two artistic styles – abstract and realistic – with tension created between the monochromatic abstraction against the hyper realistic allusion bursting through.
In these works the viewer experiences a visual illusion in which image and background concurrently mix and interchange. One does not know if the real object is the poster or if the poster is the real object. Through the riveting visual illusion the real image is absorbed as part of the poster and a patchwork of two different realities unfolds.
Beijing – An Image About to Change
The interesting plastic solution in these works is based on a connected photographic stills technique that enables presenting reality in diverse foci that the human eye is incapable of perceiving naturally. Varda Carmeli connects multiple points of differing angles of concrete reality and enables the viewer to view reality as a single sequence, a thing the eye cannot do on its own. Just as the cubists represented reality concurrently from diverse viewpoints, Varda realizes the same effect in the panoramic photograph of urban nature in the "tarotic" fashion, as Michel Foucault termed it.
In these works the interesting plastic solution is expressed by having the images not standing out but rather merging dimly into the darkness. Only by allusion can perception enable their identification. The focus is on the gray background against the brown darkness. The more prominent focus is around the glowing smoke. The eye darts to and fro seeking, unsuccessfully, to fixate around the image. From within the darkness the eye is compelled to turn to the glowing gray focus and as part of the visual literacy it gets lost in the search for identity. This is a dramatic tension that endows the experience with aesthetic interest.
Two plastic solutions are exposed in these works. The one is expressed in black-and-white photographs through mirrors, where you see figures walking by, anonymous figures likened to atoms and molecules moving in space. The other is expressed in the reflection of images creating a virtual reality. But both of them are concurrently absorbed into a virtual reality and the viewer is unable to pinpoint what is the real reality. Here too there is an experience of "getting lost" that also represents an existentialist situation of images in the living space.
In the work Balata Refugee Camp, Nablus 2015 the urban landscape is displayed from a high angle. From the aspect of a plastic solution we are exposed to a colorful texture simulating the drip painting of Jackson Pollock in a more static fashion. The urban congestion gathers expression in the crowded spots of innumerable buildings filling the expanse. The work also functions simultaneously from the political associative aspect of ecological density, but from the artistic aspect it imparts to the observer the equality view regarding the entire texture of the work without any focus on image and background.
The work Sebastia, Samaria 2014 displays minimal sized images inside an archaeological site. Whoever is interested in interpreting the precise iconography, and pointing out that it is a reference to Sebastia and Palestinian workers, will deflect attention to political connotations. But the photograph exposed to the innocent virgin eye sees workers inside an archaeological site. From an artistic perspective the riveting fact is that the landscape is in a delicate pastel monochromatic color whereas the images are characterized by colored spots of red, blue and gray. These colors are points of brightness that endow the photograph with a kind of halo and vitality. When the realistic painter Avigdor Arikha was asked the meaning of his work he answered that he paints in abstract thinking under the influence of Piet Mondrian. That is to say, what interested him beyond realism was the abstract composition of the work. This also holds for the creativity of Varda Carmeli , which represents abstraction beyond the naturalism displayed in this work.
From the style to the depths of the soul
The possible interpretation, one of many, that one can present here regarding the relationship between stylish formalism in the oeuvre of Varda Carmeli and psychological and metaphysical contents is as follows. The photographed images are anonymous, silent, and universal. It is not possible to create a unique personal relationship with the photographed image. The image as an individual does not represent the unique identity of the same person but is rather a pixel within the hologram of the public. As a mirror picture in the transit from the images that Varda displays in her photographs to her mental world, one can say that she is fraught with a covering of "persona" which does not permit unmediated intrusion into her private and emotional world. This covering serves to seemingly represent an objective contemplation devoid of emotional expression of the photographed reality. But this is merely the positivist stage of her work the aim of which is to reflect the facts of reality. In effect, Varda assimilates us bit by bit into a deeper emotional experience but also at the same time into one that is enigmatic and undecodable at first sight.
From photographing human images to landscape photographs one can say that landscape photographs are a seemingly realistic representation of reality. But the plastic solution in which the landscapes are displayed incurs a sense of nature that is unreal, dim, blurred and enigmatic with no distinct identity of place and with ubiquitous sky, trees and earth. Looking through the landscape the viewer undergoes a sensation of "fantastic surrealism". Beyond the anonymity and unknown locality of the landscape, beyond such a beautiful and aesthetic landscape, there is a feeling of lack of relaxation and calm, as of a pre-apocalyptic phase. Like a feeling of calm before a storm, of beauty stirring a presentiment of danger, of magma boiling under the surface of the landscape.
From photographs of man and landscape to photographs of rooms, we are exposed to dark rooms with foci of sudden light. The rooms display breathtaking aesthetics, tidiness, cleanliness and motionlessness. But these are rooms sans life of man or movement. They are somewhat reminiscent of spaces painted by de Chirico in his metaphysical style. Lurking beneath the realism is a covert metaphysical enigma of darkness, loneliness, alienation, silent anxiety and unawareness of what lies in store.
In some of her works related to the memory journey Varda Carmeli refers to minimal allusions appearing in reality. The viewer is ignorant of this as long as she does not refer to these allusions. Because from the visual aspect the allusions are assimilated in the form of a spot within a texture of colors and shapes and is given no unique prominence. The allusion acts as enigmatic forensic evidence that is viewed solely by the detective-photographer who experiences the reality by the homiletic interpretation beyond the literal meaning. These reality allusions lead Varda on a "memory journey" not necessarily to places where she had previously been. The allusion is an association of memories of her own or of a family destiny that she experienced in her youth. The reality allusions represent a kind of "crack" that undermines the symmetry of normality that represents the soul of the artist. She is not dragged by regression to display the reality in derealization but rather maintains a veil of projectional and functional normality. The allusion simply remains an allusion and functions, because it has not undergone complete decoding, as a catalyst promoting an ongoing wandering urge in the artist to find new realms of photography as a means of therapeutic wandering in an identity search.
The theory regarding photography and its relation to the work of Varda Carmeli
What is reality?
The question arising is: what is reality? This question is of the essence in our lives because it is an existential one. For we are not dealing here with a futile philosophical question, but with one that enfolds within itself the following questions: who are we, what is life, where have we come from and where are we going, what is there after death and what is there beyond reality? The conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth presented his stand regarding reality through his conceptual installation work, which displays a real chair, a photograph of a chair and a verbal definition of a chair. The philosopher Karl Popper stated in parallel that indeed there are three realities: the physical, the mental and the theoretical.
Varda Carmeli studies reality through landscape photographs, urban photographs and photographs of man. Her work portrays before us the literal meaning and the homiletic interpretation. The literal meaning represents the realistic photograph whereas the homiletic interpretation alludes to a surrealistic reality loaded with secrets and allusions.
Photography as interpretive theory of reality
Photography does not visually represent reality in a passive manner but functions rather like interpretive theory that designs our consciousness relative to external reality. One can conclude by stating that apparently photography is not the mirror of reality but that reality becomes the mirror of photography. Photography functions as interpretive theory that enables us to "touch" the facts of reality and to become exposed to phenomena. Without interpretation we are blind.
Varda Carmeli displays a theoretical view of the world through her artistic photography work. She did not formulate this methodically and therefore the above mentioned is merely an interpretation through the photographic performance. Varda's theoretical worldview is seemingly "positivist", namely portraying reality on the basis of tested clear facts that the eye can see. However, her work in effect dissolves these solid facts and turns them into enigmas, allusions, and in the long run into false reality because she is fraught with a riddle that has not been decoded. Reality undergoes transformation into a supposedly surrealist non decoded experience.
Photography as freezing the fluid reality
A question arises with regard to: what is the difference between seeing reality in an unmediated form as opposed to seeing the same reality through photography? The power of photography is evident in its ability to "freeze" reality that is in a constant state of flux. Furthermore, the power of photography is evinced in focusing the viewer's attention on reality segments which would otherwise not have been seen in a wandering gaze into space. The viewer is required by the photographer to focus his eye on an assuredly unchanging reality, burnt for eternity into the photograph. Freezing reality through photography was termed by the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, in his theory of photography, "capturing a decisive moment".
Varda Carmeli's photography is not homogeneous as regards freezing reality. Some of her works focus the viewer's eye around a central object while all of the remainder is the background. On the other hand some of her works display an equal distribution of focus over their entire pictorial texture with no distinction between image and background. Other works are characterized by displaying ambivalent symmetry between two foci of attention on objects or on lighting focus. The common denominator for all these multiple solutions is that the viewer is required to read the work in accordance with the visual focus that Varda stipulates him to look at.
Photography as historical documentary
Human history began when man started to write and document events. History also began when man painted reality on the walls of caves. History began when the camera appeared in the world and enabled the documentation of transient events objectively and factually. An English idiom states that a picture is worth a thousand words.
Varda Carmeli wanders across the world like an "anthropologist" and documents people and the environment. Beyond the creativity covert ideological and political aims that "whisper silently" also abound. She does not turn her ideology into the focus of her work. Varda's photography is the documentation of man in diverse cultural expanses and in various kinds of existential situations.
Photography as representing falsehood and truth concerning reality
Plato said that art is the shadows of truth and it therefore represents falsehood through which truth can be seen. Photography is an illusory reflection of objective reality, it is also a falsehood concerning reality (reflection) but also a kind of truth based on an interpretive theory that the photographer has adopted in conformity with his own artistic style.
Varda Carmeli imparts to us an initial sense of photography representing true reality, but the longer we bit by bit contemplate her works the more we become exposed to covert information and to experiential sensations that the truth is but an illusion. We are required to progressively contemplate her work in order to experience by degrees the hidden unknown.
The unique plastic solution in the oeuvre of Varda Carmeli
When we set about examining the photographic work of an artist we are required to ask the question: what is the plastic solution that distinguishes his work? The plastic solution displayed in the photographic work of Varda Carmeli is the middle course between the overt and the covert, between the realistic and the surrealistic, between the examined and the understood and between the unknown and the enigmatic. Everything is stated frontally, quietly and with aesthetic refinement.
Beyond the world of phenomena, hidden from view, stands a structure termed, in the language of Buddhism, "suchness". Varda Carmeli wanders around the expanses capturing, through the camera lens, people, landscapes, architecture and still nature. Her approach is multidisciplinary. Through seemingly naturalistic photography, reality is presented as a riddle, as a kind of fantastic surrealism, as a kind of detective puzzle beyond the allusions exposed by the phenomena in the world. Varda does not have pretensions to unlimited implementation of her quest, which in effect is a journey of remembrance. She leaves the viewer in anticipation with a taste for more regarding what the morrow will bring in her next work, in the context of the reality research journey on which she is focused. Viktor Frankl maintained that man searches for significance, but in fact man searches for identity and asks the three Kantian questions: What can I know? What may I hope? and What should I do? These three questions lead to the fourth question that Kant presented: What is man? Varda Carmeli is searching for her identity and for the identity of man in her environment. In the practical everyday her identity is maturely well-thought-out, but in the artistic path she allows herself to remove any façade of identified features in order to experience herself and the reality she sees through the camera lens, like an empty mirror with no interpretation and not even as a riddle. Bit by bit in the process of the creativity act, something deciphers in the work, something decipher within herself. This is a process of spiritual remembrance in the face of real or fictitious reality. Photographing reality is for Varda Carmeli a way to create a new existentiality and concurrently a way to self-understanding. In a Lacanian language, one can say that she "relishes the symptom" and is not interested in being cured in the existential condition of fluid identity in search of itself through the landscape, through man and through still nature that she photographs. For presence within the identity symptom sans identity is that which grants Varda non-stop freedom for self creation and art creation.