Two exhibitions at Tel Aviv's CCA challenge notions of memory

Adi Fluman and Irma Blank’s techniques and themes couldn’t seem more different. A closer look reveals that both produced art that asks, through objects and words, how memories come into being.

THE ARTWORK of Adi Fluman on view at the CCA (photo credit: EYAL AGIVAYEV)
THE ARTWORK of Adi Fluman on view at the CCA
(photo credit: EYAL AGIVAYEV)
In the 1890s, Sigmund Freud introduced into his writing a concept he would later neglect to expand on. Dubbed in German Nachträglichkeit and later translated into English as afterwardsness, the idea referred to the notion that an individual could belatedly understand or attribute meaning to earlier events. This specific term stipulated that the narrative a person ascribes to actions belonging in the past is sexual or traumatic in nature. While somewhat marginal compared to other celebrated hypotheses Freud had formulated, the so-called deferred memory is a compelling idea worth considering.
Israeli artist Adi Fluman, who is showcasing her work in a solo exhibition at the Center for Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv, seems to be grappling in her own distinct way with the same issue that the father of psychoanalysis had identified. While not arriving at a conclusive answer, Fluman’s show appears to raise several questions: How are memories formed, retained and then physically manifested? Can material objects embody or elicit memories that are decidedly emotional or at the very least neurological reactions? What remains of the memory attached to a beloved object once the item itself loses its original shape and consistency?
Adi Fluman's Souvenir d'amitie A show questioning the relationship between beloved objects and the formation of memories. (Photo: Eyal Agivayev)Adi Fluman's Souvenir d'amitie A show questioning the relationship between beloved objects and the formation of memories. (Photo: Eyal Agivayev)
On the second floor of the CCA, the 33-year-old Fluman is displaying her exhibition “Souvenir d’amitié.” The artist, who lives and works in Tel Aviv and attained her BFA and MFA at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, has harnessed a meticulous method she developed to digitally create two-dimensional sculptures that represent three-dimensional objects. Using special computer software, Fluman manually creates her highly detailed artifacts. For this exhibition, she printed and enlarged the deceptively tangible-looking items she designed and then framed them. Thus, her creations are mounted on the gallery walls as flat representations that simultaneously expose and veil the sysphyic process she had embarked on to make them.
The inspiration for Fluman’s project came from a random discovery the artist made. She perused the collection of the RISD Museum in Rhode Island, where she found a small wallet from the 18th century that was made in France by an unidentified woman for her husband as a symbol of their love. This token led Fluman to create other items that belong in the same symbolic sphere as the forgotten present given by a woman to her lover. A dusty-looking, flattened piano, an intricately decorated cotton tablecloth, a pair of kitchen gloves punctured by sewing needles and a worn shoe sole are some of the surprisingly realistic mementos Fluman crafted.
Adi Fluman was inspired by the discovery of a token from the 18th century. (photo: Eyal Agivayev)Adi Fluman was inspired by the discovery of a token from the 18th century. (photo: Eyal Agivayev)

Fluman deserves all the praise for the painstaking efforts she must have taken in order to manufacture these works. The power of her art lies first and foremost in its aesthetic appeal. The trompe l’oeil stunning sensory effect of Fluman’s digital sculptures is her trademark visual feat, and has become synonymous with her work since she presented similar oeuvres at a solo exhibition in Tel Aviv’s Dvir Gallery in 2017, and even prior to that at the graduate show in Bezalel.
The artist clearly invested in producing the illusory sensation that her work triggers. However, she appears not to have placed as much emphasis on the emotional value that should have been the guiding principle steering the creation of precious objects that were lost, forgotten or altered as a byproduct of the wear and tear of life itself.
The flawlessness of Fluman’s works makes it more challenging to imagine the stories of the individuals who may have used or exchanged the items she crafted. The magic of intimate, domestic artifacts is that their very physical presence denotes the passage of time. Their worn surfaces are dear to us because they evoke the contours of the hands that used them to cook, play or work. The perfection of Fluman’s sculptures is pleasing to the eye, but their immaculateness also gives away a certain disadvantage – they don’t reflect much of the passion and pain that are often associated in our memories with the knickknacks that are handed down to us by our loved ones.
One cannot help but think about a different, iconic artwork that set out to do the opposite of what Fluman achieves in her creative endeavor. In 1921, American artist Man Ray created Cadeau, a disturbing monument that he dedicated to his friend, French composer Erik Satie. The sculpture, which has since become an icon of the Surrealist movement, was a simple, everyday flat iron. But Ray had turned the innocent device into a sadistic symbol, sticking into it 14 nails that protruded from its frame. It would be interesting to see what could happen to Fluman’s work if she allowed the same spirit of disenchantment, cynicism or sorrow to seep into her digitized renditions of real-world heirlooms.
Language of self-exile
On the ground level of the CCA, a different exhibition by the celebrated German-Italian painter Irma Blank handles the question of how memories are formulated and perpetuated through completely different means. The show, parts of which are on view at the Bauhaus Foundation, offers a glance at various artworks that Blank created during a career that has spanned decades. Known for her minimalistic works that look like a hybrid of poetry, asemic writing and painting, Blank began exploring creation through this mode when she emigrated from her homeland of Germany to Italy.
Irma Blank at the CCA in Tel Aviv. (photo: Eyal Agivayev)Irma Blank at the CCA in Tel Aviv. (photo: Eyal Agivayev)
The curatorial decision to juxtapose the veteran artist’s works with Fluman’s project is clever, because it allows visitors who are familiar with Blank’s practice to view it in a new light. But even gallery-goers who have not encountered the painter’s creations before can benefit from this display, because it highlights the tension between Fluman’s attempt to explore the fragile act of memory-making through people’s relationship with objects, and Blank’s deconstruction of language as a vehicle of self-expression and commemoration.
Blank’s work has been referred to by critics before as a form of visual journaling. She began combining words in her craft in a more pronounced manner when she became an immigrant and was forced to replace the eloquence of speaking in her mother tongue with the struggle of communicating in a foreign language. The artist’s quest to regain control over her internal narrative is evident in a series of drawings in blue ink on white paper, grouped together and encased by glass on the bare walls of the exhibition hall. Only when one approaches the works and glances at them from up close can one discern the words scrawled repetitively by Blank. But looking at them from afar, they look like chunks of text or smeared ink positioned according to some inexplicable succession that was regulated by the hand that made them.
Blank’s decision to create clusters of words instead of placing stains of color on paper is interesting not just because the visual result she obtains is clearly different than what one might expect to find in a painting, thereby casting into doubt what we think we know about the medium itself. It is an engaging method that, not unlike Fluman’s work, sheds light on the many elements that only when combined together form one singular piece. In that sense, Blank’s art functions as a system that exposes the very mechanism that makes it operate, much like the negatives of a photograph suggest that an original copy once told a different story.
It is impossible to provide an analysis of the 86-year-old Blank’s multiple projects in a few sentences. Perhaps it suffices to say that her work is graceful as much as it is mystifying to observe, and that it should not be described or criticized solely from an analytical viewpoint. Blank created an opus that points at the place where language fails the artist (and the viewer), but simultaneously gives her cause to continue creating. In her paintings, language is transformed into an index of memories. Write one word over and over hundreds of times, Blank appears to suggest, and you might be able to return to the place where you first learned it.
‘Souvenir d’amitié’ and ‘Blank’ are on view at the Center for Contemporary Art until October 10, 2020.