We generally tend to understand Nature as the opposite of Culture. Nature is the uncivilized part of the world: a wild, untamed, unsettled realm, free of the restrictions of human order. We, as human beings, have no control over nature and what happens in it. For us, nature is a dark, mysterious place where anything can happen.
And, yet, humans are always trying to define and delimit nature. It is no coincidence that famous fairy tales are set in the forest: There, far from civilization, culture, human morality, and social norms, an evil witch can build her gingerbread house and eat children, a wolf can converse with a little girl, and a werewolf can take refuge until a princess restores him to human form. We try to understand what happens in nature, unlock the mystery of the forces operating in it, and name nature’s constituent parts. To these ends, we harness not only literature, but also the power of science, so that we can forecast the weather and volcanic eruptions, genetically modify food, find water underground, and clone sheep.
But our gaze at nature, which is foreign to us, always occurs through human eyes. We still view the death, violence, destruction, and obliteration occurring in the natural cycle of life as negative, painful phenomena we need to keep at arm’s length. We imbue floods, earthquakes, droughts, and tsunamis with human value. To the human mind, these events are disastrous, violent, events that fill us with helplessness. Yet, in fact, they are completely neutral. Nature has not decided to declare war on us, and its effect on people is incidental to events happening in complete dissociation from us, despite our attempt to give them meaning.
This exhibition presents the work of three artists suggesting a different look at nature and offering a poetic interpretation of nature’s darker sides. In their works, natural phenomena are acknowledged for their randomness: the fact they are inevitable actually enhances them, and they assume their place in the gallery space as images of melancholic beauty, purifying pain, and a vague sense of loss.
Rotem Ritov presents a series of works whose unifying theme is the imaginary goddess Adalaad,
a goddess of memory and documentation: she knows all and retains all, keeping in her memory all the stories of the world before they enter culture and become written, explicable history. On the other hand, she lacks the human ability to provide events with an explanation or interpretation. Thus, she is nature itself: we are unable to understand her and her memories or decipher the reality of the occurrences contained in her.
The ritual space for worshipping Adalaad is designed like a sheikh’s tomb: a square structure with a rounded dome, usually made of stone, a common sight in the Middle East landscape. But Adalaad’s vault is made of sheets of earth. It is a temporary, nomadic structure, as befits a goddess whose essence – like the essence of nature itself – eludes us. This is not a stone structure standing in place like a fact on the ground, but a movable facility that can at any moment be folded up and set up elsewhere. At the same time, it gives us the sense of entering a cave or underground burrow that enfolds us in the primordial matter of nature: earth. The goddess evades our grasp even when we enter the temple: from the top of the dome, a wide-open eye looks down on us without responding to our presence. The goddess absorbs our existence as an integral part of the world and nature without attributing any particular importance to us.
Other ritualistic elements of the goddess are hung on the gallery walls: garlands of dried thorns the goddess wears on her head, and miniatures shaped like the sheikh’s tomb are arranged in neat lines – a symbol of our attempt to create order, thereby imbuing meaning to the nature of the ungraspable goddess and to nature itself.
The photographs by Hadar Mitz placed on the other side of the wall commemorate moments of fictitious death that does not cause sorry or pain, but rather confusion and wonder. One photograph depicts a wooden pier with an affixed metal ladder that descends into a lake. The lake’s murky background and the dark water are reminiscent of an ominous scene from a horror movie. At first, we think we are looking at the body of a bird that has plunged to its death on the pier. But in fact, there is no violent occurrence. The bird’s death has already happened, out of our sight, and all that remains on the pier are intentionally placed wings pointing in different directions, as if getting ready to take flight again. In the second photograph, we see a swarm of butterflies caught in a bush at the edge of a lake. The butterflies are wrapped around the branches, entangled in one another. Only the careful eye will see that these are paper butterflies Mitz has cut out and carefully arranged on the branches: these are not beautiful but helpless creatures, rather only artificial copies.
Mitz’s works do not deal directly with death, but with the illusion of human understanding of death. As people, we are captive to the belief that we are a match for nature, that we can define it, and that we can best it. Our false sense of competence is a veil concealing our fundamental, primary fear of the fact that, one day, we will cease to exist and disappear. In her photographs, Mitz exposes the illusion that we have power and points to our inability to face the ramifications of passing time and the threat of death looming over us. For a moment, we think we know what the images portray – a dead bird, butterflies trapped in a bush – but, in reality, they tease us and do not allow us to know exactly what is going on in them. We lack the capacity to define and control them.
The paper butterflies recur in Mitz’s video works. In one, the dead butterflies are cast into the lake. They float back and forth, gently moving with the current, next to the reflection of the vegetation growing next to the water. This work invites us to observe the beautiful aspect of death: the motion of the wings on the water is too aesthetic, too slow, too poetic for us to be able to think of life cut short. Even if these were real butterflies, we would probably have a hard time being sad over their death. The life of a butterfly is disturbingly short, and its death comes as no surprise. In the second video work, Mitz shows a time-reversed video of burning butterflies. The paper butterflies going up in flames come back to life; out of the fire, their wings spread out again, Phoenix-like, until they are once more whole. The process of their death is part of the process of their life: a natural, incidental lifespan, occurring in cycles, regardless of human intervention.
Avital Cnaani’s large drawings bring pieces of menacing nature into the gallery. Two of the drawings feature a sort of outline of a mountain landscape, blacker than black. In one, the peak is pointed, sharp; even if we were to reach it, it seems we would never be able to stand on it. In the other, the mountaintop appears to us as we would see it were we perched on the peak in that second before tumbling into the abyss. In both, the black mountain keeps us at bay: it is opaque, distant, without context, detached from any hint as to its natural environment. The intensity of Cnaani’s drawing seems to infuse the flat image with real volume, and the dark graphite lines, heaped one on top of the other, accrue and coalesce into a rigid, dense, terrifying texture. The small space between the two sheets of paper gives some breathing room next to the black mass and undermines the material stability of the mountain, which seems to be suspended by a thread.
In a third work, Cnaani sketches the body of a very large bird. The image is tattered and smudged, imprinted with the dynamism of the sketching. The bird’s outline is not uniform; it veers off every which way, becoming blots. The bird, like the mountain, takes up more than one sheet of paper. For a moment, it seeks to be in parts, but the fact that it is fragmented expands its already-large proportions even more, extends its habitat, infuses the motion trapped within the lines with such power that the image almost causes a breeze to flutter through the gallery. It seems that the head is facing downward: Is the bird losing control of its flight? Plunging to its death? Or has it locked its gaze on us and is diving our way? Or will it land on solid ground?
We have no way of knowing the bird’s intentions, just as we have no way of deciphering nature as a whole. We invent a narrative, try to decipher a logical order of events, and find answers. But where we look for answers, we find that, unlike ourselves, nature has no explanation. It has no idealistic purpose or destiny greater than itself. Unlike us, nature does not long for happiness.