How to read artwork

Bucking the trend, Layan Assayed has curated an exhibition that tells stories.

A painting by Amir Pollak (photo credit: COURTESY AMIR POLLAK)
A painting by Amir Pollak
(photo credit: COURTESY AMIR POLLAK)
Modern and contemporary trends in visual art have taken on social, historical, political, cultural, and even environmental issues, aiming to inform and engage audiences with “big questions” through actions or images that create controversy.
But in the midst of this, curator Layan Assayed poses a simple question: “When we go to art exhibitions,” she asks, “why do we see fewer and fewer stories in the artworks?” Assayed, who studied visual arts as well as literature at the University of Haifa, is the organizing force behind the exhibition “The Dangers of a Story Untold,” which is running at Haifa’s Beit Hagefen Arab Jewish Cultural Center. The intimate exhibit features three artists – Lialy Kahawesh, Evgenia Novikova, and Amir Pollak – whose works incorporate storytelling elements.
Assayed’s inquiry is partially rhetorical.
Having studied art, she’s been taught why it has come to shun stories.
“As an art student,” she says, “you’re told that the first move toward modern art was to establish an autonomy from text – from mythology and biblical stories – to move away from any dependence on text.”
Ironically, she suggests, this resulted in modern art becoming increasingly dependent on theoretical and curatorial texts.
Her interest in literature led her to develop this question into the exhibition’s title, which provided the theme she wished to explore. She then started seeking out artworks that had some kind of narrative.
“I’m a little careful in using the word ‘narrative,” she says. “It has certain associations – Israel, Palestine, local, historical, personal. What I mean by narrative is a story, something literary. And I wonder what place it has in visual art.”
She looked for works that did more than visually illustrate stories, looking instead to explore the question of how we read an artwork. This meant finding works where the text and image went in different directions, opening the viewer to an interpretive experience.
ONE SUCH work is A Visit (2012) by Kahawesh, a sculptor and installation artist who also works in video. In this video piece, the artist appears on screen telling the story of her uncle’s last visit from Jordan, during which he commits suicide in her family’s house. What complicates her telling is that she does it with her back to the camera, so that we see only her hair and shoulders.
“The image she uses isn’t exactly static,” says Assayed, “but it gives a different association from the story she tells. People who come to the gallery say that the storyteller looks like an assault victim. This combination of image and oral text – that’s what’s interesting, and it expands the story. The ‘untold’ story is this image. It widens the narrated text.”
The curator describes another of Kahawesh’s video works, which is not in the exhibit, but which also portrays this kind of dissonance between image and text.
The work, translated from Arabic as Moonless Night, describes the artist’s experience of setting up for her master’s degree graduation exhibit at the Museum of Bat Yam – which fell on the first day of Ramadan. She tells the story over a visual in which clouds move across the sky in slow motion.
“What interests me is [Kahawesh’s] way of telling a story, which isn’t literal,” says Assayed. “It’s more sophisticated. You hear the text while reading the image.”
A Visit indeed brings out a kind of dissonance – but in order to “see” it, the viewer has to “read” the image. Whereas the story is of a family tragedy in which the storyteller emerges as a heroine, trying to save the uncle, the image suggests that she is actually the victim of the events she narrates.
“It’s like she doesn’t want to be present in the video,” observes Assayed. “But she’s there, so she does want to be present.”
Kahawesh’s videos always feature the artist as a first-person narrator speaking in Arabic and using her own voice. She is always the protagonist in the stories.
Still, “she always puts herself in the works with a partial presence, effacing herself,” Assayed adds. “It’s unclear whether she’s trying to claim authority over the story or not.”
This ambiguity is important for the work. It creates tension between one’s sense of the speaker as a heroic figure, and one’s sense of the person on the screen as a weak character. It makes us question the nature of trauma and heroism, suggesting the less obvious effects that heroic deeds can have, and the difficulty of traumatic events that cannot be easily processed into family history.
A SIMILAR kind of sophistication – in which visual language and textual information do not perfectly align – can be found in Pollak’s work Yaya’s Sad Story (2014). Appearing mainly in the form of animated videos, storyboards and paintings, the series of plates tell the adventure story of a little girl named Yaya and her two friends, Skeleton and Rabbit, who are being chased by Death.
Whereas the images pull from contemporary visual language such as Japanese manga and anime, the story resonates with allegorical literature in which death appears wearing a mask. Yaya looks like a kind of Alice in Wonderland, but she can also be understood as the little girl’s equivalent of Everyman in the famous medieval morality play of that name.
Assayed points out that the question of how death is depicted in animation is important to Pollak’s work. She compares this with other animated sources, such as the anime series Astro Boy. In the Japanese original, she says, a child dies and his father takes what’s left of his body and creates Astro Boy. We see the accident, and death is very present. In the American adaptation, however, there is no death scene, and viewers don’t know what happened before Astro Boy was created. Assayed also points to the famous example of Disney’s Bambi, in which viewers do not see Bambi’s mother die, but understand from the sound of a gunshot that this has occurred.
“In Pollak’s story, the girl dies,” Assayed explains. “Everything that happens in the story takes place in a forest that’s a kind of liminal space, a kind of post-mortem.
It’s an allegorical space that’s between life and death. The whole thing begins with Yaya stumbling upon a skull – which is the marking point from life toward death.”
In the story, there is a scene in which Death battles a deer, managing to take it in the end, but then turning it into a toy. In a sense, the deer never dies, and the theme of death is made lighter by the way the work represents it. The work establishes a middle ground in which death is dealt with, but also made tangible. The viewer, when first looking at the works, sees something cute, friendly, approachable. But when we read the text, we find that it’s difficult, heavy and sad. This creates a balance between the text and image that helps get its broader themes across.
“Yaya’s story has to do with not fulfilling one’s potential,” reflects Assayed. “That’s why he also uses the image of a silkmoth: It has eyes but can’t see, has wings but can’t fly. The death of a little girl is also about not fulfilling her potential.”
THIS THEME of unfulfilled potential is present in the last series of works in the exhibit as well – this time through the immigration experience of the artist as a little girl. Artist Novikova’s Gross Weight (2014) deals with her personal immigration story in a wall-sized diptych drawing.
The work consists of two large panels – the first part representing the artist in Russia, and the second in Israel. The images include architectural plans of houses and apartments, household objects such as chairs and embroidered napkins, and contour drawings of a little girl. There is text in Russian and Hebrew, as well as abstract shapes and interventions such as thumbprints.
“There’s no plot in this story,” Assayed points out. “There are only the ingredients of a plot.”
The structure of the work, she explains, is taken from the popular British nursery rhyme “This Is the House That Jack Built.”
But it works through a stream of consciousness, from left to right and top to bottom, following the way memories might come to mind. There’s also something anarchistic about the work, which tries to tell a story without a plot – a complication of image and text that it shares with the other works in the exhibit.
“It’s an action of storytelling, but it looks like she’s taking the story apart,” says the curator. “Instead of seeing a story accumulating, it’s a story that’s unraveling. The drawings of strings that we see between the images suggest that things are falling apart.”
The work recalls a travel narrative at the same time that it raises questions of identity and belonging. It also deals with the difficulty of being uprooted.
These are themes that have always interested the artist, Assayed explains, but as an art student, Novikova was always cautioned against bringing her personal story into her works. Having seen some of Novikova’s earlier works, which include images of a girl or lizard and which did not yet expand on her personal story, Assayed encouraged her to create a work especially for this exhibition.
“It was clear to me, even in her earlier works, that they were connected to a personal story,” says Assayed. “There’s something, not exactly childish, but closely associated with childhood in all her works. It takes you back to a childhood story – regardless of whether it’s fiction or not.”
Assayed suggests that there is something heavy in this work despite its apparent lightness. “The contour drawings of the little girl – they suggest a sort of hollowness. It’s a lullaby, but it’s also an untold story.”
THERE IS a general heaviness that appears in all the works in the exhibit – suicide in Kahawesh’s video, death in Pollak’s animation, and uprooting in Novikova’s drawings. There is a certain contradictoriness in these works that rises to a general level throughout the entire exhibition. What Assayed is trying to suggest by bringing these works together is not only that difficult stories must be told, but that storytelling itself is difficult and in danger if we do not notice how it slowly disappears from our culture of visual art.
Still, in her quest for storytelling, she is looking for more than a mere recounting of events – she wants something figurative or metaphorical, a kind of storytelling that helps us reflect more broadly on the important questions and circumstances that we face in our lives. She aims to broaden the idea of “telling” to include showing, insinuation and implication. She wants to suggest that storytelling is more than the sum of its parts – that it can help us not only see things, but also learn to deal with the difficulties we encounter.
She laughs to herself as she admits that perhaps there’s something didactic about the exhibition she’s curated.
“I want to encourage narration of stories in art,” she says. “The danger in contemporary art going away from stories is that the viewer becomes less active and more passive. Today, there’s something in contemporary art that leaves the viewer outside. The danger is that we’ll end up illiterate, that we won’t know how to read artworks.”
She suggests that today’s art is specialized and esoteric – and that it takes studying theory for years in order to access the works. She admits that she has more access because she studied visual art and was taught how to read artworks in a specific way. But she laments that others do not have the same kind of access that art students have.
“A story is one way to invite the viewer in as reader,” she says. “The act of viewing, in the end, is the act of reading.”
So what is the ultimate danger of a story untold? “The danger is death – the death of the story, even the death of the viewer, who slowly becomes illiterate.”
“The Dangers of a Story Untold” is on view at the Beit Hagefen Gallery. For more information and visiting hours: (04) 852-5252.