UNDER ERASURE / Prof. Daphna Erdinast-Vulcan

UNDER ERASURE / Prof. Daphna Erdinast-Vulcan

 

Under Erasure
 
Here he is:
During the month of December, the city of Haifa traditionally holds the annual Arts Festival, celebrating the Holidays of the Jewish, Christian, and Moslem residents. The festival is held in the Arab neighborhood of Wadi Nisnas, and artists are invited to place their artworks on rooftops, house walls and along the narrow winding alleys of the market.
Shortly before the 2008 Festival, Shahar Sivan was invited to contribute a work of art to be painted on the wall of a little shop, a kiosk, which used to belong to the Daklush family.
 "It was complicated", he says. "I did not want to be an invader. I didn't want it to be conceptual art. I was looking for the real person. So I made a portrait by chiseling it in the wall, like a film negative. I worked with a chisel, a hammer, and paint. And also with a disk-saw, used for cutting through concrete and iron, which is a heavy and dangerous tool. So I had to work very carefully and gently. One has to be gentle when working with dangerous things".
The Daklush family had left the country a long time ago. Shahar wanted to make a portrait of Abu-Nicola, Yusuf Daklush, who used to sell Absinthe to the grownups and chewing-gum to the children at his little kiosk. For weeks Shahar kept trying to find a photo of Daklush. He went to see the old lawyer who rummaged in his old crates and pulled out some deeds from 1944, but no photo. Joubran's mother-in-law told him about the suit and the tie which Daklush used to wear. Yusuf from Bambino's, the butcher's shop, remembered that Daklush was always neat and had fair skin and a little bald patch. Abed Houri said something about the trimmed little moustache and the green eyes. And this is how the portrait was chiseled in the wall, out of people's memories.
 
Two heavy-set men in their forties walked past on their way to the market, as Shahar was standing on the ladder and chiseling at the wall. They looked at the portrait and one of them said: he was a little heavier. He used to give us sweets. Afterwards someone found an old photo, and it looked like the portrait, only younger. Shahar has aged Daklush by thirty or forty years.
 
What remains under the erasure, the disintegration of the figure, looks to me like those medieval parchment scrolls: people used to rub off the writing on the scroll, so that the new text could be inscribed on the same parchment. This is how the palimpsest was made, a multi-layered text, where which which was erased remained present, assimilated into the top layer, its materiality reaffirmed. What remained was the in-between, the space where things really happen, which is so elusive and ungraspable. Perhaps this is what Merleau-Ponty had in mind when he tried to find a new language to make art speak. But Shahar is very careful with words, and he is right: we have to be gentle when working with dangerous things. 
 
We leaf through the book of Hirshberg's works—a maestro of figurative painting, whose precision of lines, down to the hair roots, the veins, the very pores of the skin—makes Shahar envious. There is, indeed, something enviable about the kind of confident knowledge which looks at us from the paintings, mocking our stammering. But I still ask why, and Shahar tries to explain, and then says, but I can't do it. It's not right for me. And I think about the kind of strength which an artist needs in order not to be seduced by his own virtuoso performance. Sometimes, in front of the model, Shahar works with carbon copy, scratching the lines without looking at what gets drawn underneath. When the carbon copy is lifted off, the figure emerges, scrawled, doodled, disintegrating into the space of the page. Sometimes I mess up, Shahar says, when I can't restrain myself and the figure comes out too pat. And then he shows me a portrait of Assya, his model, scratched and scribbled, and says: here she is. This is how I'd like to be able to draw.
 
Shahar works with models in the studio. You can't get more traditional than that. But the work abdicates the privileged sovereignty of the artist, the masterful gaze of the painting subject; it does not aspire to total knowing. And perhaps, because of the strong sense of the physical motion between the painter and that which is being painted, it seems that the figure scratched in the wood makes itself free; invades the concrete physical territory of whoever is facing it, artist or observer; refuses to turn into an image, saying 'no' to the gaze which desires to contain it. But it grants its incompleteness like a gift.
 
There is nothing naïve about these works. Nothing at all. It is self-aware art, struggling with its ancestors. One could speak of an opaque self-portrait by Lucien Freud; of the raw figures of Bacon; of the physicality of Giacometti and the surfaces of Ori Reisman. One can look at the naked man and woman splashed in industrial paint on the yellow metal surface and feel the challenging punch at Klimt. Cezanne is here, too, in a kind of persistent interrogation, insisting on the thick embodiment of the spirit. One can almost hear, when looking at the work, the heavy breathing of the struggle and feel the weight and the urgency of the need to reformulate the questions, to go one step farther.
 
And then I think of Jacob, who had struggled with the angel throughout that night, and in the morning he had a name.
 
Daphna Erdinast-Vulcan
 
Prof. Daphna Erdinast-Vulcan is Editor-in-Chief of the Haifa University Press, teaches literature in the English Department, and writes of the things which are in-between.  
 
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