Hell is Other People
By: Sofie Berzon MacKie
“A man may be born into a foreign land. And even though he has a father and a mother, brothers, and sisters, language and culture – he is actually from another place, and he doesn’t know it. He aches all his life until the realization hits, and he begins the journey back to his homeland, which he has never been to, and no one can guarantee that it actually exists. A person like that is born into hell, and at first, he does not know that it is hell. He continues living his life and falling again and again, and only after a long time something happens: A moment of grace, in which he gets to see, if even just for one quick and clear moment, his place. Let’s say, a torn piece of postcard from his place. Or someone who is from there passes by and smiles. A life-altering moment because he instantly realizes that indeed there is such a place. That he is not dreaming. That there is a better life than that he is living now. And, of course, at that same moment, he also realizes that he is living in hell.” [Uzi Weil’s preface to the Hebrew edition of Raymond Carver’s poems (Modan Publishing).
A faded Israel descends to the edge of a forgotten road, stopping at a wind-nibbled stone house entrance. Rugged and rocky soil dominates the view; fog and snow followed by the flickering of neon lights; sun blazes in clear blue skies casting deep, heavy shadows. Each frame is an isolated universe; their boundaries not ending at the edges but spilling out; the end is not visible. These universes and the people within them coexist like a row of glass globes you can shake and snow will begin to fall on their occupants. The pass of time is tormenting in its circularity and in the human gestures, their necessity vague. In these landscapes entire lives occur, the characters are haunted by something and full of questions. Who are you? What are you doing here? In some cases, this question seems to be asked back through measuring glances. Far from this world, they appear to roam their personal planets, sustaining their life routine with semi-comprehensible thoughts and exchanges of complex glances with the visitor who stopped to document them. Elusive and perturbing questions hover between them, and a fatalistic atmosphere envelops the work with a tone of gloom. The absence of a moment of grace or clarity regarding a purpose of any kind is intensely present, and touching other people feels as exposed as the bones he constantly photographs.
This essay can be read as an allegory for many narratives. It contains the story of a state founded on a utopian vision and its unstable encounter with the complexities of reality, through the eyes of an immigrant who came to Israel from the Soviet Union at the age of 17. Now in his adulthood he wanders the margins, seeking his place. There is a transition between states of consciousness reflected in the photography medium itself and its various uses. The story unfolds through black-and-white photographs of anonymous figures moving towards an unknown place and fate, through sharp colored works, culminating in the wet-plate episode. The wet-plate collodion technique reminds us of its origins: a historically rich relic from the mid-19th century, and its utilization that became common in war scenes, in the hands of towering figures such as Roger Fenton. It is a photographic technique that carries with it memories of violence. Encoded into it is the considerable effort of producing a single image. The photographer is required to work in not-always-forgiving areas with the darkroom carried on his back, while also carrying a precious cargo in the form of a delicate glass plate. The photograph lacks spontaneity and is vulnerable, sometimes ending in bitter failure when at the end of all efforts the thin glass shatters into pieces. So, the world he composed in this body of work sits on a fault-line, in a constant state of instability and potential destruction. Hints of external shocks and a chaotic reality that tends to fall apart from the slightest touch are scattered in it. His work reflects an unbridgeable gap between man and man and between our complex and prosperous existence, yearning for a world that is essentially indifferent to this existence.
Edward walks beyond reality, taken over by a powerful hallucination that causes a feeling of slowly unraveling. The world becomes a strange place where the line between reality and imagination blurs. Day-to-day mingles with stories from the past or distant places and encounters, with characters and places that feel mythical parallel to the flesh and blood they clearly are. He outlines a dilatory outward move, extending beyond personal, historical, spiritual or political spaces, only to re-converge into one person’s journey in the world. The transition between the worlds, breaking of boundaries between them, the surrealistic feeling in a tangible and very realistic space, lead the viewing of his work and challenge its reality. We fluctuate with him between closeness and distance with a desire to discover (and be exposed), and the fear of knowing. But at the same time, just as the weight accumulates, the most crucial aspects of our shared humanity begin to gently grow between the gaping cracks of the abandoned road, and grace emerges through them.
L’enfer, c’est les autres”, Hell is other people, is written in “No Exit”, Jean Paul Sartre’s existential play. The play takes place in a room that turns out to be hell. There are no windows or mirrors, only a few pieces of furniture, a door, and a bell that works arbitrarily. Three figures are led into the room at different time intervals. The door is locked, and the three of them wait for the punisher and tormentor to come, but no one arrives. The conversation develops into mutually delving into their past actions and memories and into what led them to this room. As the conversation progresses, they realize that their otherness and reliance on the other’s gaze for establishing themselves, is hell. They are now interdependent in being each other’s “mirror” through which they will decipher themselves. One of two things will happen through that mutual gaze – they will experience hell or redeem each other.
“GARCIN: Inez, they’ve laid their snare damned cunningly-like a cobweb. If you make any movement, if you raise your hand to fan yourself, Estelle and I feel a little tug. Alone, none of us can save himself or herself; we’re linked together inextricably. So, you can take your choice.”
There is a stubborn coupling between being constantly injured by the world and the comforting touch of its simple moments. Mutual recognition can at times be experienced as alienating, like a distorted mirror, and as such will only emphasize our loneliness. But sometimes, in an elusive moment of sincerity, on the path unfolding between locked gazes, rides comfort. Redemption will be possible in rare moments where intimacy between two people succeeds in breaking through the wall of loneliness. An insight forms- acceptance is the road for overcoming the horrors of the world, our emptiness, sadness, and bitter disappointment. Reconciliation enables not only self-observation but also observing the other. Each moment of revelation is a miracle, quenching water for a thirsty soul. In those precious moments scattered throughout this body of work, we find serenity, admiration of a view and a deed, or extrication from the gap between one person and another. There lies an understanding about one of life’s roots. Our lives are absurd, incomprehensible, and priceless.