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2. A boy in a woman's body exhibition

AWAKENING

Vered Lahav’s restrained and beautiful installations of photographs and objects set up and disturb binary distinctions. The title of this current exhibition immediately confuses classifications— ‘A boy in a woman’s body’— and keys into a whole set of questions, integral to her work, about the relationship between the physical, natural body and the social and cultural formations implicit in gender roles.

The figure of the body, central to this show, is present in subtle ways. Lahav introduces the body iconically through a photograph of a young girl, and through a series of cast ‘primitive’ figurines, symbolically compounding signs of male and female sexuality. But the body is also cued indexically, through traces and casts of the human form— photographs of plain white gloves whose fingers bear traces of rust, wax casts of parts of the human face.

The show is in two parts and each part sets up a dialectical relationship between photography and objects. ‘Part One’ presents us with a large-scale photograph of a young girl, her hair in childlike pigtails and wearing a white petticoat. She has her back to camera and is posed with her head bowed, looking down at her own maturing body— caught at a point, one assumes, of her own physical and sexual awakening. That she is kneeling is important, giving the whole picture a certain religious, devotional aspect. The sacred is an integral element of Lahav’s work and fits in with a whole series of binary oppositions her work sets in play and unsettles: clean/dirty, pure/impure, spiritual/physical.

For all the modesty and restraint inherent in the way this picture is taken, it is not without a certain eroticism. The onset of adulthood and loss of childhood innocence symbolically implied through the photograph is paralleled by the cluster of connotations set up by the curious sculptural forms the photograph is set in relationship to: a series of wooden ‘jack in the boxes’, out of which spring wax casts of parts of the face, signs of the senses: eyes, ear, nose. Continuing the binary collisions, the wooden boxes can be seen as ‘ex voto’ devotional boxes. The physical change the girl is experiencing as she becomes a woman, as she enters adulthood, is echoed in what the body parts signal, a sensory realm, to do with smell, sight and sound. The virginal innocence, purity and saintliness associated with the photograph are counter-posed by the allusions made to the physical in this work. While the little toys suggest some explosive sensory awakening, the very medium of wax already entails some phenomenological loss. There is something contradictory about the inertia and fixity of the wax casts of body parts—so clearly paralleling the photograph’s function as an embalming index— and the mobility and energy signalled by the springs. The inertia of photography is extended through the process of casting. And sensory loss also seems to fit with the dominant Minimalist aesthetic of these installations. Responding to and extending the gallery’s aesthetic, the white cube very much provides the cue for the forms of Lahav’s work.

In ‘Part Two’, three glass phallic/fertility figurines are set in niches and each are lit from below. Such illumination gives them an aura; their crude renditions of a doubly sexualized bodily form, both fully breasted and phallic, their blunt low fetish ‘primitive’ allusions, are offset by their ritualised display. Such hybrid figurines are set in relationship to the series of photographs of plain long white gloves, redolent of the elegance and social restraint of another, older social and cultural order. With fingertips stained by rust, a symbol of feminine elegance and sensuality bears the traces of a manual labour associated with the handling of metal tools or machinery. In an earlier work, Lahav playfully re-configured a pair of greasy leather gloves associated with manual labour, by photographing them in such a way as to resemble angel’s wings, transcending their low physical functionality. Here, rust functions as an aberrant sign, colliding codes of class and gender. Reversals are set in play through a deliberate misuse of these gloves; signs of the privileged leisure classes are mired by rust associated with the labour of the working classes.

The precision and meticulous nature of the photographic documentation of these items of formal wear, accords with the fetishistic potential of the gloves themselves. The photograph is a fetishistic medium. The glove itself is a fetish. Of course the staining of the fingertips of these gloves makes them rather fantasmatic specimens. Part of the process here is a re-routing of the associations and the links made between things, a creative and imaginative transformation of objects. The politeness and restraint of Lahav’s work is only superficial. Fissures and disruptions counter this initial appearance. They drag it back to the specificities of the body and the bodily.

As I said at the outset, this show evokes the body through the trace, the imprint, the cast: the white petticoat which functions as a symbolic shell of a body, a body undergoing changes which will mean it will have to cast off the clothing it wears, the gloves which evoke an absent wearer and their rust marks evoking physical contact and labour, the translucent wax casts which freeze parts of the human face. The forms of earlier installations centred upon the idea of the container or shell, the beautiful photographs of empty nests, the rusty hollow forms of the sculptures of little houses, little shelters, both strongly iconic of a dwelling place, of home, but also speaking of an absence, an integral void and lack. For her installation In Vivo-In Vitro, glass spheres each containing photographic images of various groups of people, were suspended in the gallery, their configuration forming the double helix of DNA, a subtle reminder of the unique genetic configuration of each individual in distinction from the social group, the crowd. It’s hard not to see in this a response to the artist’s own upbringing within the collectivity of a Kibbutz. The allusion to our genetic coding in relation to all these photos of various groups of individuals points to the conflicts— individual v social order, agency v structure—at the heart of any collectivity, no matter how egalitarian or utopian its ideals.

While there might well be a uniform aesthetic— an aesthetic that is to do with the qualities of the materials, the translucence of wax and glass, the whiteness of the petticoat and the gloves in the photographs— Vered Lahav’s work at core functions in clear resistance to any uniform or collective model. Structures and binaries exist in her work only to make us question structures and binaries. Categories break down, do not hold. Meaning is never fixed. Form all the time is edged by formlessness.

By: Dr. Mark Durden, April 2005

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