A man and woman stand facing us, side by side. Her hand rests in his. His other hand is raised, as if in salute. Her free hand holds the hem of her long dress, cinching it to her belly, giving her the appearance of pregnancy. They do not look at each other, but avert their gaze, frozen in stance. They are figures in a scene of couplehood, playing the role scripted for them.
The starting point of the video installation The Arnolfinis is the masterpiece – “The Arnolfini Portrait” (Portret van Giovanni Arnolfini en zijn vrouw, 1434) by Flemish painter Jan van Eyck. The couple in van Eyck’s work stand before us, ignoring the fact that they subject to observation. The dog, centered and crouching at their feet, does acknowledge another presence. It is the only one looking ahead, right at us. On the mirror, hanging on the wall behind them, are reflected two additional figures as they stare at the couple. The two perspectives contained in the original painting – anterior and posterior – are also present in Adar Bechar’s work, but with a twist.
The video was filmed within a reconstructed space designed specifically for this purpose. One camera was positioned to provide an anterior view, while the other hidden in a circular opening that takes the place of van Eyck’s round mirror, where it reflects a space invisible to viewers. Taking in the video work, one immediately notices the two cameras are positioned at precisely the same height, simultaneously documenting every occurrence in the room.
The Arnolfini Wedding
The Arnolfini Wedding, considered a canonical artwork of Western culture, combines issues of religion, sexuality and status in a way that exceeds the limitations of the time and place of its making in early 15th century Northern Europe. The portrayed couple is surrounded by carefully selected, meticulously painted items, all strictly within the definitions of the time for a monogamous, bourgeoisie marriage. Despite the realism, the painting is not merely a piece of documentary, but an ideal representation constructed with the utmost care.
The double portrait is a study of contrasts: man and woman, the married couple and the two figures watching them, inside and out, rosary beads and dusting brushes, the dog on the floor and the single burning candle in the chandelier above. In the video, some couples respond to each other, while others do not. It depicts a matrix of relationships between people and objects, laid out across the breadth and depth of the space. The enigma of the original painting stirred the interest of generations of viewers and art researchers, raising endless speculations regarding the identity of the figures, the symbolism of the displayed artifacts, and of course – the ultimate mystery of the painter’s signature – “Johannes de eyck fuit hic 1434” (“Jan van Eyck was here 1434”). Perhaps some of the attraction stems from the fact that the multitude of details van Eyck presents – all with profound symbolic meaning – somehow manage to tell a tale of intimacy.
The relationship of man and woman, standing dead center, are typical of 15th century Europe. The man stands near the window, designated as liaison to the outside world, to the street. The woman stands passively, oriented back to the rooms depth. Her robe is of a rich fabric, and her body is a direct extension of the bed behind her. They have already taken off their shoes; his wood clogs are at the front, while her red slippers are strewn behind. Their stockinged feet are a sign of sexuality and fertility.
Other elements of sexuality and fertility are also evident in the room: the single flame of one burning candle implies a ritual of lighting candles on one’s wedding night to ensure conception; the dog – a symbol of fidelity – may also symbolize an unrestrained passion (as dogs are known to cede to their impulses regardless of spectators); the rosary beads hanging on the wall were a common gift to newlyweds. Meaning, these and more are reminders of the piousness which typified the approach to a sacred bond based on sex and reproduction.
Their clasped hands create a bowing arc beneath the round mirror on the wall behind them, between the rosary and dusting brush, adorned with scenes from the life of Christ. This mirror is probably the most intriguing component, and functions as its vanishing point. It, the chandelier above it, and the dog below, provide the central axis of composition – and like the chandelier, mirrors are also a sign of wealth. The painter himself can be seen in the mirrors depths, and above is another testament to his presence, a personal inscription. The convex mirror, therefore, acts as a gaping eye on the back wall. It increases the space, refines the perspective, and allows us to see what cannot normally be seen: beyond the two figures it contains, it also provides a glimpse up at the ceiling and floorboards, and a slice of sky and garden.
The inclusion of the mirror in the painting undermines the stable array of representations. This approach is obviously not unique to the The Arnolfini Wedding – not even to representations of mirrors in art. In real life also, mirrors have an effect of duplication and contradiction, of reality and non-reality. Mirrors may be tangible objects, but they have infinite power in shaping our incorporeal self-image. The image reflected in mirrors is just that – an image; mirrors constitute black holes drawing the visual world inside them, and spitting out an echo – a representation. They expand visible territory beyond the bounds of what individuals can discern directly. And so, the restructuring this painted mirror achieves in the depicted scene (and real mirrors in our real lives) enhances our awareness of vision itself.
Adar Bechar has chosen to bring five couples into her reconstructed space. Four of these are presented in her video installation. All presented couples are in real relationships, and they were instructed to do as they saw fit in the room, but on hearing the whistle to stop and face the camera in the van Eyck pose, standing still until a second whistle released them. The number and duration of whistles was random, as was the duration in which they would have to hold their poses.
Adar Bechar creates patterns, providing the rules of the game, instructing couples to “be themselves” between whistle blows. But how are you to be yourself in a specially designed set? How are couples to behave as they are? How are they to present their relationship to the camera? In the cameras gaze, are intimate gestures truly intimate, or simply a mark of what such gestures are meant to be? Documenting such actions reveals the ability and willingness of participants to fulfil the role requirements Adar Bechar has thrust them in, and also exposes the various levels of tolerance each has to obey an external factor directing them according to her needs.
The installation room contains all the necessary accoutrements – the bed, chandelier, oranges and large window spilling light into the room, but this is not a period reconstruction of the painting. The hardwood floor has become plywood boards, the furniture is contemporary, and the general look of the room shifts between a designed set and the familiar sight of divided apartments in central Tel Aviv. Time is also represented in the various items scattered about: van Eyck’s exotic, imported oranges, marks of wealth and fertility, are not like the local oranges of the video work, and his ostentatious chandelier is now an old and darkened light fixture. The painted dog is now several variations of dog, one made of wood, another a stuffed toy, a third in the form of a vacuum cleaner, and finally a real live dog called Baruch.
And yet, the most telling difference is the replacement of the convex mirror with a round opening for the camera. Instead of van Eyck’s upside-down image draining inwardly into that single point, we receive a surveillance camera that shoots from a fixed frame on the wall, and is presented on equal standing as the footage from the anterior camera angle. The result seems like an impartial documentary, almost like security footage, dramatically different from the accepted cinematic approach: two static and completely neutral positions, facing each other, covering the room indiscriminately.
This double view is precisely the mechanism that establishes Adar-Bechar (and us viewers) as having an automatic and anonymous position of power. The couples in the room do not know who may be watching, or when, but that they may be observed at any point. They can see two round black holes in the wall, internalize the gaze pointed at them, and reciprocate in various ways. In that room, they exist in a state of constant visibility, and are constantly aware of it. This awareness ensures the continued power of the indifferent, unnamed, nonstop gaze they are subjected to.
The room provides a functional layout, clearly defining the power relations between each couple and the pair (or pairs) of eyes always observing them. This mechanism of supervision dominates their behavior. Each couple takes in this play of power in their own fashion, and their internalization burdens them with another role to play: they are watched, but they also watch themselves. They absorb the external gaze focused on them, and so are willingly enslaved. The invisible eyes behind the wall provide both the burden and freedom of passivity, making their own perspective yield to the comprehension of being subjected to scrutiny. And while this situation produces a coerced conduct, a scripted behavior, it also seems entirely ordinary. Adar Bechar has portrayed her couples as natural and intimate, while robbing them of any real naturalness or intimacy, and restricting their possible actions both overtly and covertly.
Unlike van Eyck’s actual presence in his painting, Adar Bechar is veiled behind her black camera openings. These allow her to control the room equally well while hypothetically being there, or hypothetically absent, and to redefine the couples’ identity for them. It is a radical version of reality, one based on various symbolic myths – monogamy itself can be viewed as an economic-religious-bourgeoisie norm developed specifically to preserve existing power structures. Yet, it also a liberated, subversive act in a strictly controlled and regimented world, perhaps the last autonomous act in a world of constant surveillance.
Mirror, maze, world
Orientation in time and space lies at the core of Adar Bechar’s work. The environments she creates require our imagination, and the reservoir of imagery in our collective memory, to establish archetypal networks that bring such works to life. Her works present a treasure trove of inventions and illusions, from plays on light to daily materials. The viewers’ imagination, relying (among other things) on collective memory, completes the fantasy image she creates, becoming an integral element of her construct settings.
This is what Adar Bechar did in her 1993 work – A Perfect Childhood, presented in the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion, where she flooded the bottom floor of the gallery in water. The depth of it (only several centimeters) could not be measured by eye, but it seemed meters deep. This effect was achieved by covering the floor with black linoleum, so the water was also murky. The reflection of water on the ceiling seemed to double or even triple the gallery space. This disruption of spatial perception and basic orientation in space produced a harsh dissonance between the tranquility of water and sense of dread it evoked.
This weakened spatial sense was also strongly felt in Adar Bechar’s miniatures: clumsy-looking sculptural pieces created over the years, scored with tiny peepholes for viewing. Those tempted to look in found the space they inhabited erased and replaced with a fictitious one, a place of artifice and manipulation. The artist cleverly employed relations of wall height and spatial depth to create astonishingly convincing inner worlds of plywood, making viewers forget their true location and pulling them in to imaginary depths. She created man-made spaces where human life was but a memory, an embodiment of reality where the actual human form was absent. There is always something behind the wall, beyond the door, always something close but unattainable. These abandoned spaces, seemingly low and underground, called viewers in, persuading them of impending disaster (or disaster already struck). Standing in front of such fabricated realities conjured pseudo-historical memories that had no true context; the viewer’s imagination was shunted aside to complete its own image of horrors, and thus enlisted as another material in the hands of the artist.
At a later stage, having reached the limits of the human eye and that of miniature viewing possibilities – Adar Bechar moved on to incorporating video footage inside her works, transforming them into a complex set. Video, allowing for motion, was then used in larger spaces, and the artist subverted it to her needs in other worlds as well. She began using real, flesh-and-blood people in her spaces, subjects that move and rove along dictated routes. And yet, whatever the scale, all of the worlds built by Adar Bechar are investigations into alternative ways of living – they are proposals to change scales, a way for viewers to reassess themselves, to peer over the barriers of time and space, to ignore their bodies or forget them or their dimensions entirely now that they are in a reconstructed space.
The space she erected for The Arnolfinis allows her to employ her control over the participating couples. She directs them, even in her absence, as she sees fit. She positions herself in a stance inherently violent, a place from which she exacts her domination – and more, she forces the couples to unknowingly accede to her will. This is the politics of controlling life, the politicization of the human body on a personal level. The couples are her subjects, she holds their fate in her hands. She governs them with simple, unforgiving law, and her rules allow them to indorse her presence in the room, to extract it from the symbolic array of the narrow world into which she put them. The possibilities open to each couple depend on their ability to adapt, and also on their ability to challenge the laws she leaves for them, to undermined and subvert them. Either way, all their actions are carried out in relation to Adar Bechar’s rules, and cannot help but acknowledge them. Their existence within this model relies entirely on her gaze and ours, but it is crystal clear that even outside the model room our existence is always reliant on the observation of others. Our adjustment to the ways in which the hegemonic power gradually narrows our range of possibilities is what hides its power from our view, and what makes our narrowing world seem utterly natural and acceptable.
Within the work’s limitations, it seems the longer each of the couples stayed in the constructed room, the easier it was for them to internalize their situation, to forget they were no longer in control of their own bodies. However, it also seems this forgetfulness is what allows for genuine intimacy to sometimes reemerge, overcoming the strict boundaries, and breaking free of the gaze’s confinement. Suddenly we are witness to moments where unaffected closeness makes the walls, the construct, disappear. In such raw moments, the exposed affinity, the true look into someone’s soul, provides comprehension, validation, and trust. In intimacy, the voyeuristic gaze cannot retain its power; losing its potency, it cannot help but turn to wonderment. Just as in van Eyck’s Arnolfinis, where intimacy overcomes an array of collected symbols, the couples in Adar Bechar’s work also carry the secret, made evident within the works limitations but existing outside its bounds. A secret that no outside gaze could ever penetrate.