Dafna Talmor : Speaking to an Empty Room
A grey-white image, hazy and without artistic charm or singularity: the sonogram of a fetus in its mother’s womb is the picture that opens today’s baby album. A scientific record of the first visual encounter between the child to be born and its parents – the immediate environment it will meet upon emerging into the world.
This is an encounter that consists of one-way observation; its complete newness arouses a flood of emotion that finds expression mainly in the stereotypical terminology of family, bonds and belonging. Each mark, each movement and feature of this figure is construed as expressing an intimacy that is in fact imposed upon the fetus who is living its gestative life in here, unaware of its exposure and of the excited responses the sight of it elicits out there.
The figure observed in this scientific/family photograph does not return our gaze. Its field of vision is obstructed by the unseen envelope of the womb, and the randomly recorded moment is taken from its routine repertoire of daily behavior in the enclosed space. Although the fetal figure is absorbed body and soul in its development pending the emergence into the world, it is plainly not expecting or preparing for the transition from here to there – the dramatic birth event that still awaits it.
Dafna Talmor’s Speaking to an Empty Room articulates in detail the emotional dialogue that develops between her figure – her own likeness, situated in a seemingly isolated, private space – and the impervious envelope that forms a distinct barrier between her and the outside world.
The figure, the definition of the space in which it is situated and the exploration of her feelings in it, are described in a series of color photographs, in a language almost entirely different from that of the scientific, technical obstetrical image. The surface of each work, the room that houses the figure, presents a façade whose every aspect is polished and elegantly designed: structure, quality of color, detail and materials, as well as the placement of the figure and its surroundings, the relationship and precise intervals between them.
But this figure too, like the documented fetus, is enclosed in an envelope that seals it off from the world. Though blocking vision and preventing free and continuous two-way passage, this envelope is not as impervious as we imagine to stimuli from out there. Thus it functions as a relay station for signals and clues that penetrate the inner space and are picked up by the figure, shaping her responses.
In Dead Sea (2000, 40x50) the envelope is the main scene of events. The opaque glass window hides the exterior from the figure gazing at it, denying her and us any information about the sights beyond. Only the fact of its being there hints at the vista that warranted installing a large window at this particular spot. The space itself is devoid of private belongings, anonymous and without personal identity. It could be a hotel room or lobby. The glass-topped table, the sign placed on it, the ashtray, the light and air-conditioning fixtures all reinforce with their white, matt reflections the sense of the missing view. The exterior remains mysterious, flat and unarticulated. Its opaqueness lets both figure and viewer produce on its surface a separate system of rules of form and content, projecting their more personal, secret feelings on to the unknown whiteness.
In contrast, the soft details in the photograph – the stuffed chair, the footstool, the cascading fabric of the clothing – form the close space in which the figure resides, and most of which touches her own surface. But these objects, too, are placed at intervals from one another, their clearly delineated boundaries preventing them from merging, and the cold atmosphere and alienated mood are brought to the fore.
Due to the controlled staging of the photograph’s components on the stylized planes of the photograph, these planes lend themselves to clear articulation of ideas and messages concerning the relationship between the figure and her environment, the figure and herself. The ideas are presented in a visual, schematic, “formulaic” language, but the very orderliness and compactness of the surfaces highlights the emotional content of the image, and the discrepancy between the analytical language of photography and the emotional nucleus of the work shakes up the viewer, who recognizes the dead-end situations and feelings of anxiety and loss implied by figure and all that surrounds her.
The gaze turned towards the blank view and avoiding the camera, the tense posture and averted face prevent us from examining the figure’s expressions. Her responses to nearby, explicit events as well as to invisible ones remain hidden. Perhaps this is a mark of a turning inward and a reserve that mask her soul-searching and her fear of the uncertainty that lurks beyond the immediate, concrete reality.
The emotional interpretation, undisclosed by facial expression, must therefore be based on the staged positions of the body, which is present in all the works, covered or uncovered. Its exposed parts are rendered in delicate, “feminine” lines and usually tend towards the lighter end of the color scale, near the gleaming whiteness of the sealing barriers. The exposed body responds to the surrounding materials, to the textures of the fabrics covering or touching it, and the use of soft lighting and non-contrast shading underscores its vulnerability – perhaps in the context of female fragility, perhaps in the sense of childlike sensitivity and innocence.
The figure of the artist is joined occasionally by other figures, who are not anonymous or arbitrary. They belong to her world of close contacts and their personal, familial and cultural identity is clear. But even where they embrace, adjoin or even merge with each other the scene is missing any manifestation of intimacy, warmth, joy or love that might be expected in view of their close physical contact.
In the photograph of the artist with her mother (Untitled, 2003, 50x70) the outlines of the two figures as separate entities dissolve and become a black mass, full of power and meaning, in the center of the photograph. Thus it is the body extremities, standing out from the mass, that carry the full, loaded weight of the bond between them: at the top – where their arms embrace and cling – rises the figure of the mother, dominating that of the daughter, just as the mother’s identifiable profile obscures that of the daughter, vaguely outlined behind it. At the base of the photograph their groomed feet are visible, but while that of the mother stands firmly in the very center of the photograph, the daughter’s feet float sideways towards the doorway on the right, as though seeking to escape through it.
In the face of this contrived intimacy, staged without expression, the search for signs of emotions or bonds that exist between the figures remains unresolved. Since there is no overt indication of joy, anger, longing or dependency, the search for signs of emotion turns to the arrangement of objects outside the figures themselves. But even their home space, while containing evidence of personal choice, elegant taste and practical day-to-day functionality, provides no answer.
The decisively drawn boundaries of the frame and the visual control imposed on its components make this an impersonal space. The comfortable but barely creased sofa, resembling a stage rather than a piece of home furnishing, is situated precisely front and center; the light switches mark the left and right boundaries, adding to the sense of pointlessness; the frames of the pictures on the wall behind are truncated and the pictures themselves remain unknown and outside the frame of the photograph. The inside presented to us consists in fact of mere walls, almost a “show house”, giving no sign of true homeliness, of a comforting, familiar, safe dwelling. Even the warm tones chosen to portray it do not soften the sense of loneliness, silence and isolation hovering over the space.
When inside is stripped of its meaning as a home, a shelter, a place for release and relaxed privacy, there follows an urge to exit, to leave, to break out. But the attempt to escape outwards does not, for the time being, bring on a journey to open spaces, to a fragrance of fields, to adventurous ambles in urban mazes or to an endless flow of sea and sky. If we are not freed from our adoring idealization of home, this journey will remain a Sisyphean, distressing inward search for the home that does not exist – a search for new, unknown addresses to fill the vacuum, making up for all that is missing.
Paradise (from the series If Only; 2003, 60x80) describes the distance between the figure and the sweet dream of a tempting exterior. Beyond the barrier, out there in the open, are promising signs of fresh vegetation embodying rejuvenation and optimism. But though here the barrier is translucent rather than solid, still the figure draws herself up to the darkness of the “wall” in the foreground and stops herself from yielding to the dreamily colorful temptation beyond, placing her head against the corner of the obstructing sofa that enfolds her in the ostensibly soft materials of home. Although her foot, at the opposite end of the photograph, touches the base of the wooden parrot placed in the photograph like a sentry at the gates of out there, in fact the distance between them remains. She does not come closer to it or touch it, unaware perhaps that she can realize the dream.
And so the homeport – in any journey both point of departure and destination – remains anonymous and alienated, offering no definitions or answers. Even the recognition of the need to detach, to abandon the warmth that has turned into estrangement, is not a trigger to take action and mark out a path to an aim. The movement from, without coming to, forces the figure into an endless series of transitions and partings.
The parting – the transition from belonging to not belonging – puts the figure over and over again on the threshold: the precise line that runs between here and there, between presence and absence.
The photograph depicting a shadow at the window (Untitled, 2001, 70x100) touches the boundaries of presence and existence. The shadow forms the outline of a figure, a dim, vague self-portrait on the windowsill, beyond the curtain. We have no way of knowing whether the figure is already out there and gazing through the partition inwards, at the past, or whether she is on her way out, and already seeing things that are invisible to us who remain behind.
Despite the blurred outlines the figure is clearly identifiable as a female one. Its posture shows no tension or hesitation – it leans rather than floats. Its weight responds to the laws of gravity – it is stably positioned, neither fading back nor sinking down. The body, hidden though it is behind layers of curtain and clothing, makes its presence known.
Placing the figure at a critical point of transition, which necessitates making choices and life decisions, introduces the future time dimension into the work. The dramatic transformation she is facing turns her from static to dynamic, from passive to active.
Unlike the unborn fetus, the figure is forever aware of being photographed, as well as of her surroundings’ reactions to her – she observes herself from inside as well as from outside, while also allowing those around her to examine her and the messages she sends out. Her thoughts, feelings, dreams and designs are projected on to the collection of items surrounding her and translated into a visual language with exact rules. We may decode it if we understand the rules of syntax governing the figure’s relationship with her surroundings as a whole. Choosing to place the figure near the borders of the photograph or the edges of the rooms that house her, emphasizing the empty space between her and her physical surroundings, obscuring spontaneous responses and facial expressions, contrived staging, careful control of color scale and shading – the sum total of all these, in this series of works, is the descriptive language used by the artist to articulate emotions, viewpoints and developmental processes. The visual dictionary she constructs makes it possible to define the complex relationship between the figure, the space and the envelope, and thus to explore questions of content and values concerning identity, belonging, intimacy, boundaries, place and time.
The moment of photography is carefully chosen and staged, not a random documentary sample drawn from the figure’s repertory of personal daily behavior. It is a moment of detachment, removed from any daily routine and ordinary activities, removed too from the continuum of interactions with the physical, social and cultural environment in which the figure functions.
The conceptual world presented by an analytical investigation of this “microscopic” moment enables us to analogize the tangible space and objects to the figure’s emotional interior. The physical inside of the house, with all its effects, thus becomes a metaphor: the turning point, the present moment of parting from what is near and familiar, in fact represents a transition in the figure’s internal development – from an early to a future phase. From safe, sheltered childhood to unknown maturity, from unripe youthfulness and an examination of personal identity, to approaching feminine adulthood.
Just like the fetus, who emerges when it is ripe though it cannot imagine what awaits it out there, so the figure now prepares for her emergence into the world, her birth, her development and maturation, and in preparation she “packs” the entirety of her world – her fears alongside her hopes.
The continuum of development interrupted by the sharp transition from inside to outside is linked to the drama of the approaching moment of birth – the emergence into the unknown space of which the figure, unlike the fetus, is aware. Her personal history, her learning and experience prevent her from sheltering in innocence as the fetus does, and she is unable to escape or avoid the necessary encounter with reality, with the real life that awaits her.
The frozen “moment before” in this series of staged photographs is thus not simply a visual record of daily life within the envelope of the womb. An analysis of the works’ components can clarify and simplify the concepts of in and out as mental states, clearly articulate various emotional responses to transitions, changes and crises, and enable the viewer to identify them – and, perhaps, identify with them.
These works make no explicit reference to events outside, and present no viewpoint – pessimistic or optimistic – about the future that awaits the figure out there beyond the barrier. But their profound, comprehensive treatment of the concept of home – “inside” – enables both figure and viewer to deal with the loss of intimacy and survive the encounter with emptiness and alienation.
Her ability to identify her existing emotional foundation, deal with it comprehensively and use it as a base for examining and illuminating questions and difficulties, gives the figure the strength and courage she will need when her time comes to bid goodbye to the enclosing envelope, cross the threshold from inside to outside,and make her dream-journeys a reality.
Janco Dada Museum Curator