What are raw materials? This question is particularly important–even if unconsciously–for artists working in the material arena. This arena is nurtured by raw materials such as minerals, organic and inorganic materials, as points of departure or dialogue partners in the creative process.
Ernst H. Gombrich asks how the world is represented by art. The question of representing reality passes like a scarlet thread through the history of art and seeks to depend on a historical, cultural, technological and political context.2 This text sees to view material or materiality in their broad context as significant players in understanding the broad context of objects in the art and design fields. Therefore, the reaction of raw materials to various actions of those working with them is highly significant to the creative process, its outcome and its interpretation. Often, the very essence of the creative act is encapsulated in the artists’ attempt to stretch the boundary of a certain material property, or to produce a new and unexpected physical manifestation of a familiar material. These outcomes would often be highly appreciated given their centrality in the current material art discourse. It seems, however, that additional layers of meaning of raw materials are no less important. In addition to the sense described above, raw materials are also charged with cultural and personal significance.3 This assumption has become enrooted in plastic art from around the mid-20th century and is still charged in personal stories and inter-cultural encounters.
Artists’ inner world may be viewed as a kind of raw material which charges the creative act with meaning. Biographical details, historical events or memories and imaginings have become, during the 20th century, highly significant, legitimate and even central to the interpretation of artists’ personal language. Consequently, in its broadest sense, the term raw material seeks to lace, together with the materials in the simplest sense of the word, a fabric of socio-historical meanings woven with personal and intimate meanings as integral to the process of interpreting the artwork.
The war has used up words; they have weakened, they have deteriorated.1
This fabric of meanings is the main key for understanding Ravit Lazer’s entire oeuvre. Lazer is an artist and designer who combines the diverse disciplines of ceramics, photography, texts and personal interpretation. Her works straddle the seam between art and design and blur the boundaries between private and public space. This is achieved by mapping thought processes trapped within destroyed mental and urban spaces, as a kind of imaginary, and at the same time hyper-realist, reality.
Lazer’s journey begins with the attempt to materially capture real-life moments in a manner reminiscent of photography and present them in three dimensions. In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag describes the history of journal photographers and photographs through the changes in their interpretations of reality through the years. She examines the relationship between the photographer, artist and interpreter with reality, through their various perspectives, by studying their reactions to what humans perpetrated in the 20th century and continue to do so in the early 21st. Sontag charts the historical process which began with the First World War and the Spanish Civil War and gained momentum during the Vietnam War, when such horrors were ‘discovered’ at their most intense through photo-journalism. Journalists continue to document the atrocities that occur all around us daily (Bosnia, Israel/Palestine, Syria, Iraq, etc.). Paradoxically perhaps, this exposure has led, according to Sontag, to indifference and repression of the horror as a kind of counter-reaction to the overwhelming exposure to it.
Lazer refuses to give in to the inertial forces that seek to find refuge in apathy and denial. Her work invites viewers to pause and reflect on events, as if playing a double game between materialization and a poignant personal experience. Over the past several years, she has been retrieving her raw materials from news reports, out of collective snuff, in the form of single frames that distill a harsh and on-going experience like memory fragments and post-traumatic flashes. Regarding the suffering of others upsets Lazer and is quickly processed, as a defensive strategy, from unbearable reality on the one hand, to undeniability on the other.
From this starting point, Lazer explores the inter-disciplinary boundaries and fault lines and vacillates between various raw materials sourced from ceramic design, photography, painting and architecture. This exploration is embodied in an oeuvre characterized by conceptual and formal coherence, which makes a poignant and precise statement about our life in the here-and-now, marking the fields of vision from which we, as a society, would rather shift our gaze. That shifted gaze is presented in the exhibition as an immaterial phenomenon, or as a mental drift, that forces Lazer herself across the limits of the game.
Ravit Lazer is primarily a ceramic artist and designer. For her, the raw ceramic material is a central medium, which submissively responds to the challenge of having its boundaries stretched. Lazer uses ceramics to build spaces embodying a totality of destruction that communicates a harsh, empty and abandoned reality, simultaneously occupied by concepts such as refuge, violence, ghosts and uncertainty.
The artist’s deceptive use of design techniques and their conversion into the field of art is fascinating and extraordinary: she skillfully builds and destroys monochromatic reality with exquisite mastery of ceramic construction methods, both traditional and contemporary. In doing so, she probes the boundary between control and loss of control as articulated in ceramic architectural constructions where uncontrolled destruction occurs as they combust. This makes for a paper-thin and powerful reality that collapses into a breathtaking and, at the same time, horrifying beauty.
The works in Ruins refer to situations of destruction and ruin in deconstructed urban spaces that often seem like archeological findings in a crumbling present. Buildings, streets and neighborhoods scarred with violence, emptied of the life that used to inhabit them not long ago. The gesture Lazer makes is one of ruined building, which simultaneously generates a contradiction in terms. The paradox of ruined building comes into being by virtue of the dexterity and material know-how required to build the right kind of destruction.
Lazer builds ceramic objects reminiscent of models of modernist housing projects with brutalist form and the texture of exposed concrete. The houses are positioned side by side, appearing like a collapsed street, an abandoned and shattered neighborhood. Strolling around the exhibition is akin to exploring an architectural model, which, unlike conventional models of a street or neighborhood boasting a sense of potential, a practical and visual vision, instead represents a violent, mute and torn-apart space.
The works on display explore the gap between the perception of home as a shelter, as an enclosed, safe and protective place, with shattered walls and rooms, broken and fossilized, thereby attesting to the ephemerality of existence, to the meaninglessness of that which is seen as permanent. Lazer offers a material interpretation for the human condition and life in a given geographical space in a regional (and global) reality, and siphons all of these into the individual/private space preoccupied by home as a socio-cultural concept.
In Civil Imagination, Ariella Azoulay examines the tension between the reality of oppressive government and the boundaries of the possible.4 As part of this move, she systematically deconstructs the dichotomy of the political and aesthetic. This dichotomy has become enrooted in the artistic taste discourse, Azoulay argues, enabling the appreciation or deprecation of artworks based on the relationship between aesthetic as opposed to political motifs. According to Azoulay, objects are never ahistorical visual/material entities, but entities deeply grounded in a cultural-political context.
For Lazer, the boundaries between private and public, political and apolitical, seem never to have been charted. Therefore, the context of the destruction she constructs deludes and engages the viewer: Where did it occur? In the East or West? Here or there? Is decontextualized destruction, loss and grief at all possible? Lazer invites the viewer to tell himself the story of the mute destruction, evoke its contexts, imagine the absentees, interpret, name and title it.
The representation of destruction in the exhibition is a call for action. As Lazer puts it, “the imprint of destruction remains also in the person who leaves/ flees/ who is no longer / who yearns to return to a place / to a home / to the remains of his life”.
The melting, breakdown and collapse shed a critical and poignant light on our ability as a society to contain unbearable amounts of horrific images ...
On Fragility: Ceramics in Action
The process of working with the material and combining it with paper fibers enables Lazer to test the boundaries of its weakness and strength. The raw material is used to create a strong and thin construction that calls for the additional, unpredictable and independent destruction when the objects are fired in the kiln.
In the first stage, to obtain the requisite material property, Lazer has realized by trial and error that she must use paper clay–a mixture of ceramic material and paper fiber that enhances the material’s durability. This conclusion was derived from her exploration of the mechanic resilience of thin material surfaces, and materials’ ability to withstand the complex and prolonged building process of constructions and non-uniform dehydration processes. Paradoxically, long and vulnerable paper fibers have toughened the material just like concrete reinforced with iron rods. This fact adds another metaphoric dimension, whereby the structural strength of Lazer’s works derives from a fundamentally soft, tender and fragile infrastructure.
Next, after having mastered the construction process, Lazer began examining how violent and unpredictable events may be fabricated. These violent events were created by firing the constructions to excessively high temperatures, which caused the material and structure to melt and collapse. As a result, some of her pieces have fallen completely apart, while others have frozen in mid-process (thanks to the object’s foundational structure). The relationship between the material’s composition, the structure of the object and its combustion temperature, make for a dialectic of control and uncontrollability, construction and deconstruction.
The construction and anticipated collapse of the exhibition objects are enabled by the imminent fragility of the ceramic material. Fragility, a structural property turned metaphoric, has a significant role to play and is implicit in the artist’s linking of a technological process and the representation of a distorted reality. Fragility signifies transience, arbitrariness and violence that in turn reflects on us as broken vessels waiting to be restored.
The melting, breakdown and collapse shed a critical and poignant light on our ability as a society to contain unbearable amounts of horrific images, and on our automatic longing for the safe harbor offered by the aesthetics of destruction and horror.5 In their presence before us, the objects in Ruins remind us to look directly at both the external and internal rift.
1. Henry James, quoted by Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Picador, 2003), 22.
2. Ernst H. Gombrich, ‘Meditations on a Hobby Horse or the Roots of Artistic Form’, in Meditations on a Hobby Horse and Other Essays on the Theory of Art (London: Phaidon, 1963), 1-11.
3.Joseph Beuys, one of the most influential artists in the 20th century, particularly on Israeli art, has established the relationship between matter as a story or between a personal story, objects and materials as having significant meaning in the artistic practice. See Stefan Donath’s interview with Barbara Gronau, Let’s Talk about Beuys (2015), at http://beuys.co.il/lets-talk-about-beuys/.
4. Ariella Azoulay Civil Imagination: A Political Ontology of Photography (New York: Verso, 2012).
Shlomit Bauman is Ceramic artist and designer. She is a senior lecturer at HIT, at the Industrial Design Department, and she is the curator of Benyamini Contemporary Ceramics Center located in Tel Aviv, Israel. As a writer, Bauman published regularly in Hebrew on different academic and non-academic platforms. She was part of editorial team on 1280, a ceramic art review in Hebrew, 2001-2008. Her articles were published also in Art and Perception. On 2016, Bauman edited the book Material as Languish – Languish as Material, published by Benyamini CCC As part of 5 years of activities celebrations.