Dewdrops of Light:
On Ayala Serfaty’s Light Objects
In the opening scene of the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky’s film, The Sacrifice (1986), we see an aging father and his young son in an arid landscape. As the father plants a tall, dried up tree stem in the earth, he tells his young son a legend about an old Orthodox monk who planted a dead tree on a mountain and instructed a novice to water it every day till it wakened to life. Every morning the novice would fill a bucket, ascend the mountain and water the tree, returning in the evening after dark. For three years he did this, until one day he climbed the mountain and found the tree in full blossom. In the next scene, the Postman, who appears in the film as a kind of messenger and medium figure, passes near the father and the son and talks to them about Nietzsche’s “eternal return”. His discourse about the cycles of life, about the cyclic movements of growth and decay, and about action patterns that restore to the world things that once existed – but always in new and different forms – resonates with the opening scene and the legend about the directing of mental energies to the stilled tree so that it might return to life. This is yet another reference, in yet another scene, to that legend, which is not only about the idea of attending to a tree that has withered, but also about the active caring for it as though it were a live organism, as a means of infusing the breath of life into the dead body (or of reactivating the life energies that are always latent in it – or, that we perhaps wish to think of as always existing in it). The opening sequence’s reflections on the act of bringing a dead organism back to life may to a certain extent be perceived as a metaphor or as a motto for Tarkovsky’s film, or even for the cinematic medium itself: an assemblage-mechanism that is explored with regard to its possibility of existing as an organism that unrolls slowly. And the miraculous aspect of the tree’s “eternal return” from the regions of death to the realms of life – may this not, Tarkovsky seems to be asking, be seen as a metaphor for the generic character of cinema as a hosted event that begins and unfolds in the darkness, within which pictures of light are unveiled?
Tarkovsky’s tree image and its resonances are not foreign to the modernist discourse. For the French poet Charles Baudelaire, the sharp opposition between images of vital, organic nature and images of a nature that has been stilled and objectified into a totally artificial and synthetic item lay at the core of the modernist project. Modernist sculpture, even in its earliest phases, would evoke the encounter with one another of the still body with the memory of the organic vitality and the movements of a “natural” world by presenting sculptures alluding to materials, creatures and elements that are organic, even if they are petrified in a rigid sculptural body and cut by stylized contours that frequently accord them the character of a designed item. Sculptures by artists such as Constantin Brancusi, Henry Moore, Jean Arp, or Barbara Hepworth have been grouped together under the title “Truth to Nature”, despite – or perhaps because of – the fact that they present the sculptural object as equivalent to an image of a movement in nature that has been stilled; that is to say, they present it as a “still (life)” image. This is also the practice of those who reformulate the meaning of the traditional art-historical image as an image of nature that has become still, as an image of life that has been stilled, which thus (and in contrast to the contextual-modernist, i.e., “postmodernist”, industrial, mechanized object) also alludes to its being part of the cycle of what is absent from its presence: life, movement, change, flow, or, in brief, “nature”. Artists alluded to the constant movement and metamorphoses between one life form and another, which take place in the course of incessant organic activity, also by means of biomorphic forms meant to set the viewer’s memory and imagination adrift among allusions to macroscopic, microscopic, zoological, botanical bodies, lower life forms and developed organisms. This was a world view that on the one hand looked towards an animistic, fantastic, “natural”, organic sphere that metamorphoses itself and its creatures among the various manifestations, bodies, forms and cycles of life; and on the other hand chose to produce stilled-life, petrified and rigid material objects of which the contour lines that identify their forms, the definitions given them, the references made to them, the thoughts directed at them and the linguistic sign imprinted in them are perceived as means of action that are capable (as an act of magic, almost) to restore (one day, in the future, on some utopian horizon) the still(ed) thing to the realm of life.
Paradoxically, it seems that it is precisely this still, almost-“object” appearance given to a large portion of those sculptural items of the “Truth to Nature” orientation that has served to make perceptible the wish for the miracle of the “eternal return” of nature (and perhaps also the hypothetical possibility of its actually happening) – for the extent of death and frozenness that has hold of the body is paralleled by the extent of the critical reversal that may occur in it in the transition from the still categories to the category of “life”. It is worth noting, if only in brief, that at this early stage of modernism, the dialectics between observation of nature’s cycles and a frozen, mechanistic world view was presented in a different way in Impressionist painting, which on the one hand chose (in most cases) to act in daylight and in touch with the cycle of the hours, and on the other hand attempted to apprehend its world view from within the “dark chamber”, the “camera obscura”, and according to the camera lens’s “cutting” and “freezing” of the reality. Interestingly, in this context, the idea that Impressionism saw the world to some extent through the “dark chamber” of photography casts additional light on Rosalind Krauss’s claim that some Impressionist paintings (especially those of Edouard Manet) look as though they were painted by someone who has just emerged from a dark cave. The emergence into the light and into observation of the sights of the real world after and from within the darkness of the cave is like being born into the world – and also like a realization of yet another version of the “eternal return”, in which death, stillness, darkness and nothingness are a first condition for the re-revelation of life, of a dynamic reality, and of things that change frequently in incessant cycles of life and death, darkness and light, disappearance and reappearance.
The material tissue that serves as the surface of Ayala Serfaty’s light objects is a combination of clear polymer web and glass veins, and looks at times like an outer peel or shell, or a fine membrane that enwraps them. Serfaty early on called this a soma, a term that in ancient Greek means the physical body, with all its biological and vital dimensions. Later, she extended the application of this term to refer to the total body of light objects that she has made from this material tissue over the years. The juxtaposition of the organic image inherent in the name soma with the artificial material tissue of the “skin” of the light objects makes it possible to think anew about this modernist dialectic between stillness and life. To this dialectic is added the affinity between light and darkness, because since 1992 Serfaty has been designing various light objects in the shape of organic entities which are meant to be used to illuminate dark spaces with artificial light, and to make it possible, in a way that is not natural, to see the world (and one could also say: to make it possible a seeing-anew of the world that is already familiar from having seen it the “natural” daylight). The intricate detail that is characteristic of the surfaces of these light objects, for example the networking of the surfaces of the early works with fibers resembling a system of tubes on the body of a sea-creature, or those of the later works as a network of interlacing veins on the surfaces of leaves, only emphasizes the quasi-naturalistic aspect of the works. But when these “naturalistic” signs are offered in the designed shape and the highly artificial form of light objects, what they emphasize is the fact that they belong absolutely to the world of “artificial nature”.
Again and again Ayala Serfaty includes signs in her light objects to indicate that they belong to the category of “design” of artificial objects, which is frequently identified with the “stylization” of the environment with lines, structures, forms and compositions that “soothe” (or also anchor) the eye because they augment this environment’s accessibility to already familiar patterns of seeing and to conventions of visual communication. The “stillness” that accompanies the designed work stems from the work’s becoming part of the project of translating the world into an order of “objects”, that is to say, of things that are artificial, frozen, with sharp contours and hard planes, that are separated from all the other motions and movements of the real world – just as any system of textual signs is separated from what is not formulated by means of its own textures.
The “stillness” and the “death” that are present in that textual dimension of the act of design are to a certain extent even thematized in the images of the creatures of the marine biosphere that constitute the central narrative of the earliest phase in Ayala Serfaty’s works. That same undersea zone was already described by Gaston Bachelard as the life domain of the death images of the cultural epics in major works with a romantic bent mainly in the 19th and the 20th centuries. In Serfaty’s case these are the images of algae, medusas and other, imaginary, sea creatures that populated her works in great quantity in the years 1992-1999. Bachelard emphasizes the fact that the sea-routes taken by the phantom mariners (such as the “Flying Dutchman”), and the journeys of other shadow figures that passed so frequently under and over seas in the constitutive epics of modernism, linked the aquatic world of the dead with the regions of the subconscious and the unconscious. Similarly, Ayala Serfaty’s works seek to pair the petrified face of design (a face that has frozen, as it were, under the mythological “Medusa’s gaze”) with this medium’s irrational, unknown and uncontrolled side. The evoking of this irrational component (which practitioners of contemporary and modern art have recognized as risky and frightening, uncanny) is like a conjuring up of vitality, of a life force that works incessantly within the limits of the form, the sign or the object by means of which it reveals itself; the conjuring up from memory of this vital and irrational force may also be understood as the archetypal/symbolic allusion to the image of water as an embodiment of the place and the material of the beginning of life, of the Creation, of the story of the Beginning (in its biblical, mythological or scientific versions), of the cavernous womb of the human/womanly body from which we emerge into the world.
The breath of life that is associated with the soma serves Serfaty as a kind of guarantee for invoking motives that strive to undermine the still and textual identity of the design medium, and to make perceptible her deviation from the desire to satisfy familiar patterns of registering the real. With her later light objects Serfaty also comes up from the sea onto dry land, from the watery regions to the earth’s surface, as if wanting to wash the things that belong to a world with its “feet on the ground” – a world that is stable and more objectified, familiar and ordered – with a memory of the contexts of the aquatic images. Since 1999, to her figures of denizens of the watery deeps she has joined figures of creatures that grow in the sunlight, as organic bodies from the animate or inanimate worlds, among them images of leaves, tree foliage, rocks, pebbles, minerals, stalactites, salt crystals, mushrooms, corals, various forms of clouds, of ice crystals or dewdrops that have frozen in pallid-hued glass bodies. When again and again she imprints the signs of these things in her light objects, Serfaty as-it-were insists on creating a symbiosis between them and the figure of the soma, the antique figure of the living body, and also as-it-were returns her objects to the domain of ancient sculpture, which mimicked the physical body of the human being and was designed according to a canon of perfect measures. This covert move towards the archaic identity of sculpture may definitely be perceived as the journey of Serfaty’s light objects towards the place where they may attain their identity as sculptures – as light sculptures that until this point in time are enfolded in each one of her objects.
Nietzschean aesthetics has taught us that ancient Greek art was based on the encounter of the Apollonian element – which presents the things that are made in the world as form, as sculptural bodies and as still, configured states – with the Dionysian force, that uncontrollable, profligate movement that breaks the yoke of every closed form or structure. The organic images that are inscribed in Serfaty’s light objects/sculptures, too, take the trouble to bound themselves within their own boundaries, to reveal themselves to us as being presented as a body, a soma, an image, a design object, while at the same time also enfolding within themselves the memory of the movement of perpetual change, of life-cycles of growing and wilting, of cycles of the shaping and the erosion of things in nature, of the blowing of winds, of the circles of changes of the states of water in nature, of the disaster and of the blessing inherent in the ability of cloud forms to change in a moment and to turn into torrential downpours or long-awaited rain. In the past, the aquatic image – which, as already noted, represents the unconscious, the unknown, and the unexpected – was associated with the biosphere that contains Serfaty’s fictitious water creatures. Now, however, it is compressed into the images themselves, images of clouds or dewdrops whose ephemerality and momentary existence is an innate quality of theirs. The material that these light bodies are made of, too, contributes to their transient appearance: the fine and fragile-looking glass that serves as their surface and the fine lines embossed between the glass planes like the ribbing of a skeleton that will not last long may also arouse the impression that the existence of all those means that define the light body, that determine its boundaries in space, or also bound the space that is imprisoned in it, is merely temporary. In more than one way, these object/sculptures make perceptible to us that they belong to processes that take place in time, while Serfaty also places this belonging of her objects to the time dimension in the context of their being directed toward the cycles of the action of the “eternal return” that is discernible in natural phenomena. Serfaty: “I would like my works to be perceived, like minerals in nature, as part of processes of crystallization and erosion. Each item that you see is meant to be associated with the accumulative memory of cells and molecular units, so that it enfolds within it the memory of the broad organic process that yielded it; each ‘mineral’ item of this kind is meant to arouse the sensation that things go on crystallizing after you’re no longer there (you’ve left the studio or the display space)”. This is how her light objects point towards life, as a yearning to re-conjure life again, from the very place and moment where artistic movements like those of Romanticism, “Truth to Nature”, or Surrealism degenerated by means of design.
From one point of view, the embodiment of all those organic images that were prevalent in modernism in the medium of design in particular is like a more sober (even almost cynical) expression regarding the impotent and sterile (Baudelarian) aspect of every attempt made in an artificial-cultural action to connect with “nature”, “life”, and any other expanse of movement that is so strange to the modernist habits and forms of cognition and understanding reality. But from another point of view (perhaps also a more interesting one, if only for its innocence and its absurdity), through the evoking of these organic images by the design medium, what becomes more discernible is the magical sign that is inscribed in one of culture’s mediums, and with it the human being’s stubborn insistence to link his or her deeds with the processes of life and by means of them to again be born anew and to move time after time from darkness to light.