The tale of Icarus spiraling out of the maze, soaring on wings constructed by his father, is the story of the ruination we inflict on ourselves through the sin of arrogance. The oafish son living in the shadow of his genius father suddenly decides to refuse the voice of authority, climbing to the sky and paying the consequent price. Yair Barak’s solo exhibition Continents and Faces concerns the relations between fathers and sons as they teeter on a delicate balance. Fathers must direct their sons, not stand in their way. Sons must disengage from their fathers, but not destroy them in the process. Both sides need to be strong enough to survive the experience intact. Both echo and reflect the other. This thorny relationship lies at the heart of the exhibition.
The child’s first relationship is with his mother. Mothers are nature itself, providing a protective bond that is an enclosed sphere just for two. It is the father figure that disrupts this couplehood, a presence informing them of an entire world of rules and authorities awaiting outside, of the possible awareness that stems from a process of differentiation. Who am I? Who is not myself? Who makes me what I am? There is no awareness without releasing the murky warmth of the womb, without letting go of insentience to become aware.
Fathers initiate their sons. They guide, love, and protect, but also bring ruin and rage. The initiation process is created with a father both constructive and destructive. Sons powerfully echo their fathers, both in their presence and their absence. Like light rays or sound waves, the resonance of the father floods the body and is then reflected back.
Fathers attach wings to their sons, but also rigorously restrict their movement. And so, it was something other than arrogance that brought down Icarus, perhaps his failed defiance against his father, Daedalus. His flight to the heavens, far from the path allotted by his father, is an attempt to transcend (his father), but also desperately try to part from him. To leave the maze of this relationship. But how far can Icarus go with a father such as Daedalus? His descent into the sea, engulfed in the waters of the great mother’s womb, can be seen as relinquishing the father figure, rejecting it. Barak’s exhibition is divided into two spaces that work in synchronicity: that of the father, and that of the son. The two territories are separate and stand side by side, taking turns in seniority. When one space is active, the other stands silent. Perhaps listening, perhaps standing still, or disappearing altogether. They cannot function simultaneously. They alternately flicker and fall mute in an endless loop, with a single wall between them.
The video Mirror Therapy (2016), presents an old man sitting in a semi-empty hall, listening to violin playing. This is violinist and teacher Chaim Taub, who served as the concertmaster of the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra for two decades. He is a mythological figure in the Israeli music scene. We witness one of his master classes, held during the Keshet Eilon workshops—a music center that promotes and nurtures gifted young violinists. Each in turn, the young players step forward for several moments, performing as he corrects them. But Barak’s camera does not focus on them, but on Taub himself, specifically on his physical reactions to the music. He is the embodiment of the quintessential sage, entrusted with passing on the wisdom of generations. He is the voice of authority, and he has the role of showing the way forward. This is an initiation ceremony, one where the old voice of experience instructs and informs those that will follow.
Two people face each other as the music is played. Potential versus experience. One has a lifetime of playing stretched before him, while the other has a lifetime behind him. Their meeting point is the violin. As he sits with his back to us, Taub gestures dramatically to a young violinist, demonstrating with his body how the music should be performed. He notices the young man swaying with his instrument, even letting it lead him, so Taub takes a forceful grip of the violin scroll. Merely grasping the small end of the instrument is enough to allow him full control of the body before him. He holds the violin, and through it the student, leaning forward to search out his gaze. With this firm grasp, as the music continues, he sets limits to the motion of transcendence. The student looks up to have his gaze caught by the eyes of the teacher. Moments later, Taub releases the violin.
He conducts his master class without a violin of his own, like a captain without his ship. The violin, an inseparable part of his body for over eight decades, a limb of his limbs, is no longer there. The hand that held the bow, slicing through the air of packed halls, now grips a walking stick. But the violin no longer held is still distinctly present. Clearly, the impulse to play is still there, strong as ever, and there is no escaping it. The right hand holds a ghost bow, arcing up and down with varying speed and force, vibrating the length of invisible strings. Vibrations are transferred through the bridge and the soundpost, into the body of a nonexistent violin, and through it onward.
The absence of the violin seems like a physical pain, evident in the left hand as it occasionally reaches up to massage the right shoulder. It absorbs the motion of an arm reaching out again and again to seek out a limb no longer there. The urge to play does not consider the limitations of the human body. It demands satisfaction, but the stimulation it requires cannot be satisfied. Phantom pain resounds throughout the body, a reminder of a limb lost, one felt particularly strongly as the body continues to hold on to its memory. Today, some people deal with this pain using feedback methods that reflect lost limbs to the patients.
The existent limb faces a mirror, and its reflection presents the missing limb. During treatment, to the extent of human visual abilities, the amputated limb appears to have remained intact. During this master class, the violin provides a point of reflection—the point of contact and healing that is also an immovable screen.
In the two-channel video Echo (After Borges) (2017), a young man is filmed both in profile and frontally in a close-up focusing on his neck. He is wearing a gray dress shirt, its two top buttons open and framing his Adam’s apple. Although his beard is streaked with gray, the little revealed of him does not present an old man. He suddenly swallows saliva, takes in a large lungful of air, and shouts. His throat swells with the effort, the air is squeezed from his lungs, vibrating his vocal chords as they stretch powerfully by the muscles of his larynx. This human voice box, located between the pharynx to the tip of the trachea, shoots the words out to the world. The echo of his cries reflects against the walls and back, revealing he stands in an empty space. He is the audience hearing the shouted echo as it bounces off walls like a mirror of sound waves.
The monologue he yells out at the top of his lungs are words of poetry—aptly, as poetry itself is the sound box of language. An internal space where the vibrations of language are enhanced, where the fluctuations of the simplest words are heightened. In poetry, every word echoes back, like a scream in an empty room.
The words are from The Suicide (1975) by Jorge Luis Borges.
The Suicide was written by Borges at the age of 76, but this is not the monologue of an old man, it is no song of twilight or the frail voice of parting. The speaker is not abandoning the world. Quite the opposite: he is the master of this empty cosmos, and it is he who devastates and destroys it. “I shall erase the pyramids, the medallions, the continents and faces. I shall erase the accumulated past. I shall make dust of history, dust of dust.”*—yells out Borges.
He turns his back on all that preceded him, erasing the history of the human tribe, wishing for certain oblivion, to nullification. His ends his call with the words—“I bequeath nothingness to no one.” Not only does he leave nothing for those to follow, there will be none to inherit. This is a monologue orated with the pathos of market square speeches, one devoid of all people. There is “other” except the speaker himself, the only one to hear the echoed cry as it rings against the walls of empty space. Acting against the world as it is, the world that cannot be borne, suicide is the fulfillment of absolute freedom (“To die: to sleep; No more; and by a sleep to say we end the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to”**). But alongside the pathos of the shouted words, it is this faceless cry—the cry where the body’s presence relies on a rising and falling Adam’s apple, on just a voice box—this cry that teaches of a frantic desire to live. To live differently, fully, free of the bounds circumscribed by others. Facing the video, on the wall between the two exhibition halves, stand a series of photographs titled Slough (2016). The center of each of these manipulated photographs presents the base of a monument. Each is detached from the statue above it, from the industry of commemoration of historical figures and events. Just as all monuments are fated to be emptied of content, to lose their associations, to be shattered. Bronze busts
of leaders will be brought down and melted to make cannons, stone sculptures made into paving tiles, cathedrals turned to mosques, and then repurposed into museums. Shapes will recur endlessly year after year, replicated and duplicated, appropriated for various uses, reflected and reorganized in order to undermine its source, to challenge the very existence of the father. The base is also detached from its environment in each of the photographs. It floats on a black background. It is merely a façade, as if a lump of rock had been hollowed out. Only a thin shell remains, the molted skin of a monument, dead stony crust.
Like father, like son. The son creates his father through the actions of life, the acts of creativity. He forms the future and changes the way we perceive the past. Like rays of light, like waves of sound, so does the echo of our father’s image permeate us, then reflect back from us as we divert it from its course.
* From Selected Poems by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Alastair Reid.
** William Shakespeare, Hamlet (Act III, Scene I).
The exhibition at the Artists’ Residence will be corresponding with Barak’s exhibition at the Herzliya Museum of .Contemporary Art