Yuval Atzili | Death of a nightingale

Yuval Atzili (1986), a graduate of the Department of Photography at Bezalel 2012 and the Master’s Arts Program in Bezalel 2016, presents his solo exhibition “Death of a Nightingale” in the gallery. The body of works in the exhibition combines several mediums – paper works, photography, and video art.

“Photography is an elegiac art, a twilight art. All photographs are memento mori.” writes Susan Sontag in “On Photography,” her book published in 1977. She refers to the photograph’s essence in general, but the phrase “remember that you die” is strongly validated in Atzili’s work. The gallery displays seven large-sized portraits of half-naked men, each holding a bird. The birds are all dead. Six of the seven portraits were taken at a nightclub to which Yuval took the photography equipment and the birds. He asked random men, who were, according to their appearance, between adolescence and young manhood, to be photographed with the bird. The background is dark and gloomy; a single beam of light illuminates the photograph, the frames are staged and meticulous. A performative theater is created between the photographer, the person photographed, the dead animal, and us, the observers.

Beauty is a significant aspect of Atzili’s works. In the portraits series, its quality is mainly material. It is found in the contours of the body exposed to observation, in the encounter between the naked male skin and the feathers’ softness, in the living body accepting the dead body in its bosom, in the cradling, protecting, bearing, supporting, serving hands. The flamingo is cradled in a defensive position, and it seems to be sleeping in the bosom of the man holding it. The stork wraps around itself and is hugged into a bare chest; the parakeet stands on the palm of the hand – the birds look alive. It isn’t apparent who the dead animal’s personification is guarding against death’s annihilation. The white heron is exceptional; its open and milky eye looking out lifeless. Its feathers’ whiteness stands out against the dark skin of the man holding it. The men have no names. The anonymity turns them into representations of masculinity in all its aspects.

The death in the exhibition is neither violent nor impure. The attitude towards this issue of impurity and contamination is social: dirtiness (or contamination) is out of place. The impurity that may result from contact between a living body and a dead body stems from the attitude towards deviating from the order and going beyond the boundaries of the socio-cultural organization. What we perceive as perversion or dirtiness mainly reveals the principles of cultural sorting and organization. What is the boundary between hygiene and dirtiness, holiness and impurity? These are not absolute values. The thing itself, the naked body, the exposed skin, or the dead animal’s body have no internal characteristic that makes them dirty or impure. The preoccupation with death, life, the physical representation of masculinity, contamination and taboo, purity and danger, aesthetics and beauty, power and control are repeated in the works.

In this sense, it is possible to refer to the implicit physical contact and the homosexual relationship between the two portraits hanging next to each other – the man embracing the flamingo and the boy holding the hoopoe. The reference to the appearance of the relationship developing between the living human body and the dead animal body, as between the male bodies and themselves, is a reflection of hierarchy models that apply to the social system. Like with the attitude towards dirt and contamination, here also can be seen as an attempt to impose a method on an essentially disordered experience. Life, death, and sexuality. Order is for appearance’s sake only, created by exaggerating the importance of the differences between inside and outside, between male and female, between holy and impure, between what is allowed and forbidden to do, photograph, commemorate, show.

Although the portraits series is staged and meticulous, it still permeates “…that unexpected flash which sometimes crosses this field and which I called the punctum.” – (Roland Barthes, “Reflections on Photography”). Barth defined the concept of the “punctum” (from punctuation, point, puncture) – as something that destroys the intellectual reading and demands a different kind of decoding: physical and emotional decoding of the photograph, an experience that demands a reaction in front of the object, demanding the gaze and its penetration inward, relishing or feeling the pain and not just to be content with the rational experience. The punctum demands emotional involvement, which animates the photograph and turns it from a learned object into an object that personally penetrates the observer. By nature, the punctum is personal. It can be found in the position of the hand holding the heron, in spread lips, in the crease on the eyelid, in the hand’s posture on the body, in the proximity of the dead starling’s pink beak to the flesh of the living body, in a beardless young cheek, in unruly hair, in the red stripe of the briefs.

In the center of the space hangs a black and white photograph of a simple, bare iron bed with a mattress covered with a white sheet, a white curtain in the background, and a sculpted paper swan placed on the bed. The lack of color, the clean whiteness, the minimalist room, the exact and precise order violated only by the soft delicacy of the sheet’s folds and the curtain touching the floor, the splendor of the wings spreading swan, create an intimate atmosphere of almost sanctity through the whole exhibition. It becomes more precise with the triptych, which center is the photograph of the paper swan. To its right is a collage work of a hoopoe; to its left is a peacock – standard images of male birds. In churches and cathedrals, the altar decoration is usually done in the form of a triptych – a work of art consisting of three parts. The hoopoe is Israel’s national bird, familiar, rough, standard, and somewhat lusterless. Against it is the exotic, colorful peacock with the crown on its head, with its magnificent and vulnerable tail. Looking at both creates a tension reflecting the contrasts and poles present within the exhibition space, as a kind of subconscious of the fluidity of the concepts that Atzili handles in his works. So too, the sense of purity, cleanliness, and holiness clash with the gloom and dead birds in the portraits series. They all reside together in the space – the high and the low, life and death, holiness and impurity, ostentation and vulnerability.

The photographed birds are primarily local, and like them, the masculinity is local, one might also say, personal. Even if it’s not clearly present like in other photographic works dealing with homosexuality. It is still present, if only through the artist’s personal narrative. A small photo of a PlayStation joystick – cast from a waxy material. Its physicality is felt even without knowing that the casting is made of semen collected over months. Our attitude towards bodily secretions – the disgust, restraint, or the feeling of embarrassment, is as diverse and culture-dependent as the attitude to dirtiness, sexuality, sanctity, or impurity. Atzili’s partner is filmed in a video displayed in the screening room – “Chen” (2015). Chen stands half-naked in the street, the public space, dancing to music we cannot hear. People pass by. He stops sometimes. His gaze changes. So does his body posture. He resumes dancing.  Next to it, another video work is projected: “Marionette” (2016) – in which a sparrow, also dead, tied with transparent strings, dances with the help of a concealed hand.

The video work “Atzili is Dead” (2015) resonates in the exhibition space. It was filmed in the locker rooms of the football team for which his younger brother plays – Beitar Jerusalem. From beyond the door emerges the voice of fans of a rival team singing “Atzili’s Dead.” The sound emanates intermittently and evokes a clear and immediate feeling of violence, directed at the artist’s brother in a situation where it is acceptable. But moreover, it induces a sense of discomfort. After all, the Atzili to whom the curses are directed is not present here in the space or even in the video. Atzili, the artist whose homosexuality is open, is.

The video work “Common Swift” (2017) is projected on the screening room’s wall. The bird lies on its back, its wings spread out, and its feathers move with a gust of wind coming from an invisible source. Their terminal condition, like in the video of the little dancing sparrow and like in the photographs of the birds that could have been alive, is somewhat flexible, although it’s clear that even the apparent activeness will not rescue them from the terminality of death.

Sofie Berzon MacKie

More images from the exhibition