By Efrat Shir
Alone with his heart at last, does the fortunate traveler find
In the vague touch of a breeze, the fickle flash of a wave,
Proofs that somewhere exists, really, the Good Place,
Convincing as those that children find in stones and holes?
No, he discovers nothing: he does not want to arrive.
His journey is false, his unreal excitement really an illness.
On a false island where the heart cannot act and will not buffer:
He condones his fever; he is weaker than he thought; his weakness is
(W.H. Auden: “A Voyage”, 1938)
Annemarie Schwarzenbach – a Swiss journalist, writer and photographer – passed away seventy years ago, on November 15, 1942. This is the woman whose portrait is hanging on the gallery’s walls; the main character that appears over and over again in the varied historical sources that Porat photographed, scanned, dissected, distorted, and arranged according to visual contexts and in no chronological order. This is the woman whose story and appearance Porat decided to appropriate, to plunder and to fix as part of her own array of memories.
And this is the story of the main character: Annemarie Schwarzenbach was born to a wealthy intellectual Swiss family, and died at the age of 34 after falling off her bicycle near her home and at the bidding of her mother – with whom she had a troublesome relationship – dwindled without proper care. During her lifetime she managed to publish books, essays and more than three hundred articles that documented her extensive travels in Europe, America, Africa and Asia. Her career as a writer and photojournalist brought her acclaim in the 1930s. She had complex relationships with men and women, suffered from depression, was addicted to morphine, and joined the struggle against Fascism in the late 1930s.
Since the 1980s, with her rediscovery in Switzerland, Schwarzenbach has become a subject of research as well as a European cult figure. It is her androgynous looks, imagination-igniting voyages, and astonishing literary and journalistic productivity. And it is also her radiating passion for suffering, her ambiguous sexuality, and the abundant written and visual documentation that was preserved. But Porat does not present an isolated main character, nor does she utilize her and her alone. Illuminated by the many secondary characters around, the era of the Weimar Republic and its rupture are revealed, as a pre-catastrophic fascination.
The historian Janet Ward described the Weimar years as an era in which “the new was not yet old, modernity was still modern, and spectacle was still spectacular”. These were the years of the “New Objectivity” movement in art, of the notion of a liberated “New Woman” in the public sphere, of urbanism, decadence and bursting sexuality. It was also an era of technological innovations – flying machines and automobiles, cameras and films. It seems as though everything accelerated during these years. “Stop reading! Look!” exclaimed a German poster from 1928 that celebrated the exchange of the human eye with the camera lens. Indeed, the development of 35mm lightweight cameras enabled widespread documentation of everyday life, and simultaneously, the development of photography as an artistic and journalistic profession.
And because it was relatively new, and because of the fragmentation of rigid gender perceptions following the First World War, professional photography became a field with an impressive presence of women, and Porat revels in that. At the same time, however, she knows that its remarkable documentation capacities rendered photography a first-class propaganda tool during these years, and recoils from its absolute powers. She uses Schwarzenbach as a documented and documenting figure whose memoirs were burned by her mother, and reverts to the Weimar era and its downfall in order to portray photography’s ability to structure memories and create truths. (Marianne Breslauer’s self-portrait was torn to seemingly allow removal and introduction of memories, and its re-photography is perceived as a satisfying stitch).
And accordingly, envelopes from photography labs turn into the hippocampus – the part of the brain whose mechanisms are not quite understood, but that clearly plays a part in the transition of short-term memories to long-term memories and in spatial navigation and comprehension. These envelopes serve as an organizing force, as a system in a surplus of possible connections. But Porat does not rely solely on her own photography envelopes, on the ‘pure’ act of photography; she erases and glues and adds and writes in a visible manner. She moulds photography as a tool to connect facts and fictions, and the photographer – as a curator of shared memories.
Porat constructs a story with many characters and with transparent borders. She unravels historic boundaries and processes archival images to fit her own narrative (The shot down children, for instance, are taken from one of LIFE Magazine’s famous joyous photos, “The Marching Children”). By blurring sequences and hierarchies, Porat establishes her photographs as a part of history’s flow and invites the viewers to a documented journey that never happened. She relies on all those internal photography envelopes that hoard information – known figures and images, dates and historic events, theories of post and modernism, thoughts about photography and its purpose. With these envelopes she invites us to a personal journey of pain.
Because everything in this exhibition happened – but not necessarily so.