Life from the ashes

Internationally renowned photographer Lili Almog's latest exhibition, "Between Presence and Absence," sets a special narrative about disasters and loss.

‘Between Presence and Absence’: ‘Exteriors: House #2.’ (photo credit: LILI ALMOG)
‘Between Presence and Absence’: ‘Exteriors: House #2.’
(photo credit: LILI ALMOG)
Artists can search high and low for their muse, but occasionally come across a creative catalyst in unexpected, and sometimes unwanted, circumstances. A personal catastrophe led Lili Almog to document a disaster of national proportions.
Around six and a half years ago, the Carmel Forest was devastated by the largest fire the country had ever known. The conflagration claimed the lives of 44 people, destroyed millions of trees and severely damaged 250 buildings, including over a third of the houses at Kibbutz Beit Oren. At the time, Almog was in the country, trying to come to terms with a traumatic experience of her own, following her mother’s death from cancer.
Tel Aviv-born Almog is an internationally renowned photographer who relocated to New York in the 1980s.
Over the years she has exhibited at some of our leading cultural institutions, including the Israel Museum, as well as in the States, across Europe and in Australia. She has published several tomes of her works, together with essays by learned colleagues and professionals from other disciplines.
Almog’s latest exhibition, “Between Presence and Absence,” is currently on show at the Naggar Multidisciplinary School of Art and Society in Musrara. Almog is most readily associated with pictures that portray the female body and psyche, particularly of nuns taken in the cloistered space of three Carmelite monasteries in Israel and the US. She has also taken pictures of rural women in China, mostly of the Muslim community.
Is “Between Presence and Absence” something of a professional departure for Almog? The show is based on images Almog took of still-smoking ghostly structures, teetering between the ashes left by the enormous flames that swept through the kibbutz that Hanukka.
“My mother had cancer and I came to Israel to care for her,” explains the photographer.
The end came in September 2010, a couple of months before the Carmel fire, and it left Almog bereft, both in a physical and emotional sense.
All of a sudden, she felt the temporal, geographic and cultural gap more keenly than it had during the course of the intervening three-plus decades.
“I wanted to do something connected to my roots,” she recalls. “I started to take pictures of my family, of Tel Aviv, but nothing really did it for me.”
Her Tel Aviv origin notwithstanding, it was the cataclysmic event that took place up north that provided the requisite emotional facilitator and release.
“I went there and I immediately connected with what took place there. It wasn’t a conscious development or something I understood cerebrally. It wasn’t that I thought ‘oh, yes, this is a disaster and I just went through a personal disaster.’” Once she found her subject, Almog got straight down to brass tacks, even though she had no concrete idea of how the venture would pan out, or even how to go about it.
“I began to work, and I didn’t initially think anything would come out of it. I just started going there and taking pictures.”
The Carmel fire cast its powerful and somber spell over the New Yorker, and the emotional impact of both events, and the link between them, began to come into sharper focus.
“It was only when I began working on this series that I realized that the traces left by the burnt effects of the people who lived in these houses reminded me of my mother’s X-rays. That was what provided the link between my mother and this project. I suddenly realized how it all connected to loss. That’s why I dedicated the book on the exhibition to my mother.”
The series in question is possibly the most emotive and chilling in the “Between Presence and Absence” lineup.
There is something particularly engaging in having to make an effort to grasp the subtext of a work of art. It draws the observer into the exhibit in question, and makes them an active party in the creative message.
It takes a few moments to get to grips with the primarily amorphous patterns on the stricken structures. Even when you become aware of what you are looking at, the contours and textures still need some cerebral input before you fully comprehend the subject matter.
Almog took pictures of the interiors as well as of the exteriors of the ravaged kibbutz edifices and she came across an eerie wonderland of specters left behind by a world that has ceased to be. There are recognizable shapes – sort of negatives of objects that you find in millions of homes across the globe, such as the inferno-generated imprint of a framed painting, or the unmistakable mark of a hamsa, a hand-shaped Arabic talisman, but there are also ephemeral reminders of everyday domestic dynamics, savagely curtailed by the fire. One photograph, for instance, shows a blackened wall with several light blotches, presumably protected from the heat by some objects.
That, in itself, is a pretty clear reference to the pre-disaster milieu, and to the aforementioned X-rays, but the intensity of the destruction is more immediately conveyed by the drip marks of paint, or some other household substance, spawned by the life-sapping heat that consumed the dwelling.
Almog’s richly eclectic oeuvre also takes in sculptural works, and there is a handful of items in the exhibition that pertain to, or allude to, the discipline. One comprises a mess of ferally contorted thick metal rods and, in effect, you could place all the structures she shot in the sculptural category.
The photographs are umbral sentinels of a brutally truncated pastoral lifestyle.
“You have to digest it all,” Almog notes, presumably referring to her own sad event, as well as the one on the northern hillside.
“It is something between something that was so close to you, was tangible, and something that no longer exists but, in fact, has not vanished from your life. It still lives on inside you and you have to learn to live with this vacuousness, which really still exists. This series is like a metaphor for loss, and the need to start afresh.”
That sounds tragic and emotionally exhausting, but Almog has clearly picked up the pieces of her own life, and sees the same happening at Beit Oren.
“This topography and this wasteland will spring back to life, at some stage,” she muses, adding that she was around to capture a temporal and physical twilight hiatus. “That’s why this exhibition is called “Between Presence and Absence.”
This is about what once was, and is no more, and I don’t know what will come to be.”
Almog took numerous shots of Beit Oren and also monitored the demolition process, often picking her way through the rubble in search of the requisite angle, subject and composition.
She says it heightened her appreciation of the transient nature of our corporeal existence.
“It was amazing how a house, which was home to several generations of a family, where they lived and grew up, and probably left, was reduced to nothing in a flash,” she observes.
Fortunately, Almog found a way of reconnecting with her native land, and herself, notwithstanding the horrendous misfortune which befell humans and Mother Nature alike.
“There is no artistic work that is not therapeutic on some level,” she says. “There is simply nothing of the kind. Otherwise, we [artists] would all end up in a mental hospital,” she laughs.
“Between Presence and Absence” closes on May 18. For more information: and