Immersion - Yair Barak

October 4, 2011

Winter Houses

Yair Barak's works combine direct photography and manipulated images that are subjected to various forms of disruption and erasure, inviting the viewer to engage in a process of deconstruction and decoding. Barak's photographs are distinguished by a crisp, streamlined elegance; in order to explore their historical and cultural charge, one must engage in sustained observation. The three series of photographs featured in the exhibition Immersion center on abandoned architectural structures devoid of human presence. Barak makes use of the dramatic, even majestic architecture of these buildings, which were mostly photographed in the United States, as a tool for raising a range of cultural and historical questions.

 

The series Real Estate was photographed in the winter of 2008 in Spring Lake, a wealthy resort town on the Jersey Shore whose stately homes are temporarily abandoned at the end of every summer. Driving along the shoreline, Barak captured these desolate seaside mansions as they face the winter season. Although most of these houses were built in recent decades, they represent an eclectic mixture of different architectural styles – ranging from imitation Victorians to modernist designs. Although these dark photographs seem to have been taken at night, they were in fact shot in midday; it is only later that they were enveloped in a black, semi-transparent veil, out of which each image emerges. The name of this series alludes to seductive, commercial real-estate images; yet the technical manipulation of the photographs, and the artificial darkness that surrounds these mansions, transforms them into sinking luxury ships, icons of capitalism and of a pastoral lifestyle in the process of dissolving into a dark, threatening void. The fact that these houses were photographed at the height of the recent financial crisis endows the images with an additional layer of meaning, which is related to the decline of American symbols and dissolution of capitalist fantasies.


Another form of technical manipulation appears in the series Missing Mies. In this case, Barak processed archival photographs taken during the 1950s, which feature Farnsworth House in Illinois – an icon of modernist architecture designed by architect Mies van der Rohe. Like the mansions in the series Real Estate, this transparent, geometric glass and steel structure, which seems to hover above ground, was designed as a summer resort house. It too was photographed in winter, with its interior empty and its exterior covered in snow. In this case, Barak erased every single exterior detail – including the antennas, stairs, chimneys, etc. – by covering them in a blanket of white. The process of "painting" the house the color of the surrounding snow, however, only serves to underscore its contours, lending it the appearance of a full, perfect structure. The erasure of the trees located in front of the house similarly pushes the architectural structure into the foreground. Barak thus offers a commentary on modernist architecture, and on its indestructible presence in the face of post-modernist doubt. The disappearance of the house, moreover, humorously alludes to one of van der Rohe's best-known adages, "Less is more."

 

The series Arena similarly features an abandoned, majestic structure – the skeleton of a monstrous football stadium in the Israeli city of Netanya, which remains incomplete due to a decade-long conflict concerning the construction process. Here too, one may note recurrent elements characteristic of modernist architecture – exposed concrete, geometric forms, and a colonnade reminiscent of Le Corbusier's columns. In this case, however, the "modernist" elements are due to the structure's suspension in an intermediate state between construction and destruction – and to the fact that it has yet to be completed and whitewashed – rather than due to an architectural agenda concerning the exposure of building materials. On one level, it calls to mind a public bomb shelter that has fallen out of use; on another level, it is reminiscent of a luxurious palace, such as the summer palace designed for King Hussein of Jordan, which was constructed and abandoned on the outskirts of Jerusalem during the first half of the 1960s. Like the temporarily abandoned American resort homes, this structure is captured in a state of suspension, in which it does not fulfill its function.  

Another structure whose original historical function has been transformed appears in the video Big House. This work was filmed on the outskirts of Berlin, in a summer house located on the shore of a pastoral lake, where top SS commanders assembled in 1941 to draft the Final Solution for the annihilation of European Jewry. During the 1990s, the house was transformed into a Holocaust museum that documents its wartime history, and includes a library and archive that are open to the public. This work, which is composed of a series of frames that seemingly restore the house to its original function as a lakeside resort, is shaped by the tension between the pastoral landscape and the unimaginable horror associated with this site. In one frame, an elderly couple is seen reading by a window, as if glancing at the newspaper headlines at their own breakfast table. In reality, however, these are visitors to the museum who are immersed in the study of historical documents. Another frame captures a boat slowly making its way across the lake, while yet another image features two men applying sunscreen lotion to their naked torsos. In this manner, Barak attempts to detach the house from its current museal function, to efface the acts of commemoration and remembrance that divest it of its historical charge, and to underscore the horror and shock of what is invisible to the eye, yet is known to the viewer.

Stately vacation homes emerge out of the darkness like threatening shadows, symbols of a vanishing world; an architectural icon is swallowed by a white, opaque form that effaces its details and captures its place like a white elephant; a local stadium is featured as an imaginary palace; a pastoral villa transformed into a museum is gradually divested of the layers of oblivion that surround it, and which camouflage the site's deeply unsettling history. 

The processes of veiling, camouflaging, and erasing to which Barak subjects the architectural structures in all three series thus serves to undermine a range of cultural and historical concepts, while examining the tension between a pastoral beauty and evil, construction and destruction, luxury and emptiness.

 

Ravit Harari

 

 

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