Tali Amitai Tabib
The University Gallery, Tel Aviv University
November 2001 – January 2002
In October 2000, Tali Amitai-Tabib traveled to Britain, to visit the old university city of Oxford. This was neither an ordinary touring visit, nor a simple working journey. Amitai-Tabib, who could not read fluently until the age of twenty, and only at a later age was diagnosed as dyslectic, traveled to Oxford in order to close a circle; in order to confront and come to terms with that object of desire which had always constituted the most significant force of threat — though also of attraction — in her life: the library. 1
It was a well co-ordinated journey, during which Amitai-Tabib visited more than 15 different libraries — from the most ancient library, that of Merton College, established in the early 13th century, to the younger libraries such as those of Mansfield College or Harris Manchester College, built in the late 19th century — and took photographs in each of them; she photographed the sense of majesty, of splendor and of sanctity; the somewhat darkened spaces, the gilded decorations, the worn leather bindings; the books she had so yearned for.
There is thus no doubt that Tali Amitai-Tabib came to the project of photographing the libraries from distinctively biographical motives. However, the course of her work during the project and while preparing for the exhibition has extended her works beyond their particular narrative context, expropriating them from the merely private plane, and bringing them to a broad public plane — a plane where the question of the tension between the signifier and the signified, between the image and its meaning, takes up a central place.
Thus, although ostensibly Amitai-Tabib traveled to Oxford in order to close a personal circle, her exhibition actually deals with the complex fetishistic place that the book and the library have in Western culture — a place that functions as a metaphor not only for knowledge but also for authority, for culture, and for the human spirit in general.
The works on show at the exhibition may be divided into three groups which complement one another: wide-angle shots, that unfold the differentiated architectural character of the various spaces; medium-range shots, that focus on the sense of sublimity evoked by those spaces and on a characterization of the furniture, the lighting and the colors that distinguish each of them; and a distinct group of close-up shots of the library shelves and the bindings of the books themselves, displayed in a grid structure that rebuilds something like a library wall in the exhibition space itself.
Most of the photographs emphasize the depth dimension of the various spaces, the potential for physical and mental movement within them — but also the fixating steering embodied in this
potential — the recurring structure that dictates predetermined procedures of body-language and thought, and especially the convergence of the architecture of the book-laden corridors towards large windows, and through this the convergence of the gaze towards the vanishing-point, which is always located within a bold burst of light.
And even though the character of this light resembles the “ Divine Light ” familiar to us from art history and from the structures of the old European churches, the meaning derived from it in this context is not that of a great and hidden light (the Divine Light of the religious conception, which emphasizes the minuteness and insignificance of man in relation to God), but of an accessible and lasting light: the light of education, which symbolizes the potential for knowledge, the sole instrument by means of which the individual can reach enlightenment.
The tension in the exhibition space between the expository photographs and the close-ups is analogous to the tension between the two kinds of gaze that Amitai-Tabib activated in the course of her work: the somewhat typological gaze, which investigates, studies and characterizes, versus the formalistic gaze, which deals with composition, with color planes, and with form.
On the one hand she presents the library in a traditional way, as a shrine of knowledge, of reason, of enlightenment — and, on the other hand, she contemplates the books that stand inside it not only as usable inanimate objects, objects that need to be aroused so that they may yield information and meaning, but mainly as plastic, tangible, sensual objects possessing a conspicuous dimension of visibility.
In this way, these objects, which generally constitute a focus for a studious, research-oriented, or theoretical gaze, are burst open, under the camera ' s lens, to a different gaze, a gaze that identifies and defines graphic contour lines, not only semantic ones, materials and textures, not only meaning and information.
Amitai-Tabib ' s gaze, then, is not a distinctively postmodernist one. It is not a conceptual gaze that strips the library institution of its organizing power, or the concept of knowledge of its regimenting power. It is, to a large extent, a gaze that responds to the sense of the sublime and intensifies the aura of mystery that shrouds old library spaces — but it is important to emphasize that it is also a gaze that converts this supreme sphere of knowledge, this largely inaccessible sphere, into a visual language that is both rich and new.
Amitai-Tabib ' s work thus produces a dual dynamic. True, she comes out against the exclusion of the sensual and the material from the bounds of the art experience, but at the same time she does not entirely distance or ignore the textual and the conceptual, for these are imbedded in the objects of her work.
Thus, in contrast to Joseph Kosuth ' s Two Oxford Reading Rooms project, 2 for example, which dealt with the library from a Post-Structuralist position that sought to undermine the place of the image or the visual object as an end in itself, we may say that Amitai-Tabib comes to the library with an approach that may be termed Neo-Expressionistic, an
approach that is nourished simultaneously by the recent conceptual-typological history and by the older formalistic-sensual tradition.
1. In addition to the specific significance of Oxford in Amitai-Tabib ' s biography, her journey there represents her endeavor to touch one of the archetypal roots of the institution of the library throughout the ages.
2. Kosuth worked on the Two Oxford Reading Rooms project in the course of a visit to Oxford University, and it was published in 1994 by Book Works, in an edition of one thousand ordinary copies and another 250 special copies, all signed and numbered. The project contains two parts: The Ethical Space of Cabinets , which was done in the Voltaire Room at the Taylor Institution Library: and Say: I Do Not Know , done at the Bodleian Library of the Divinity School. Both parts of the project combine photography and text.