Ronit Porat (b. 1975, kibbutz Kfar Giladi), the 2017 recipient of the Lauren and Mitchell Presser Prize for a Young Israeli photographer, is showing the third part in a trilogy of exhibitions, centered on Lieschen Neumann, a poor German street girl turned murderer after falling victim to a sexual predator. The first exhibition, The Hunter of Time, (2016) presented the scandalous story and the period’s cultural spirit. The second exhibition, Mr. Ulbrich and Miss Neumann, (2017) presented the murder and centered on the characters involved.(1) The current exhibition focuses on the court procedure and its outcome.
In the 1920s, Fritz Ulbrich, a Berlin watchmaker and amateur photographer set up a photography studio at the back of his shop. Into this room he lured more than 1000 teenage girls and young women, offering them money in exchange for their participation in naked and pornographic photographs. Ulbrich would photograph these women in poses mimicking mythical, lesbian or sadomasochistic scenarios, and in some cases would himself model in the scene. It is likely that he also traded in these photographs. Lieschen Neumann was fifteen years-old when she chanced into 57-year-old Ulbrich’s workshop and spent a year as his model and sexual partner. However, Neumann planned to rob Ulbrich and convinced her 22-year-old unemployed boyfriend, Richard Stolpe, to carry out the job in return for 28 Duetsche Mark. One night in January 1931, Stolpe and his friend Erich Benziger broke into the workshop while Neumann was sleeping beside Ulbrich. The striking of the clocks, presumably at midnight, disturbed the robbery and in a moment of panic, using a pillow, they suffocated the watchmaker-photographer. Stolpe was sentenced to death, Benziger to six years imprisonment and Neumann, who was pregnant, to eight years behind bars. The trial attracted a lot of media attention and commentaries and interpretations were offered by the expert sexologists and psychoanalysts.(2) The trilogy does not tell this story in its entirety. In fact, it can be learned only through the accompanying texts. Porat’s photographic installation combines dozens of collages done in the Dadaist-photomontage method developed in Berlin. The images come from many sources such as, the internet, photography books, history books and journals from the Weimar Republic. These are processed in different ways. At times with minimal and almost unnoticeable interference, and at times by acts of cutting or joining. The cuts and additions emphasize what is torn, disconnected and impaired. Porat’s work is characterized by an original merging of her own photographic works with readymade elements. This juxtaposition crosses the personal story with the collective one as she combines historical periods, familiar images of criminals and victims, and her own photographs, thus orders and hierarchies. The images are then transformed, moving away from the informative source and leading viewers from a concrete world to one of emotions. “In so, collective and personal knowledge and memory (about the role of photography in establishing them) become fragmentary parameters, constantly developing and changing, that influence self-perception, leave their traces on the body and chart the possibilities of its presence and movement in space…”(3) “Works of art are ‘texts’; signage systems that demand the viewer engage in an interpretational process that oscillates between the affirmation of analogies and their refutation.”(4) All three parts of Porat’s trilogy should be regarded as texts. The link between its parts is thematic, historical (the murder) and formal (the collages of found photographs from the Weimer period, Berlin in black and white).
Recurring motifs are recharged anew — naked women in seducing poses, old tools and machines, animals (rabbit, swan, an owl as witness), body parts, prosthesis, gloves and a record player from the watchmaker-photographer series, and more. To these she adds photographs from Hanna Höch’s image album — a versatile, multisourced archive, divided into categories such as, plants, dance, sport, or modern woman.(5) In the three exhibitions, Porat emphasizes the duality of viewpoints — the man and the woman, the perpetrator and the victim, the defense attorney and the prosecutor — and through these she examines formation and mechanisms of control and social policing. The periscope standing at the center allows viewers to leave the exhibition space and experience a personal moment, and furthermore, gain another angle on the exhibition’s story, especially of the trial. “Thus,” writes Orit Bulgaro, “it establishes tension between the scene, presented in its entirety, and the changing perspectives of the viewer within a given space; between vision, which establishes definite data, and movement, which construes knowledge as relative.”(6) The non-linear arrangement of the works creates new connections on the walls, a psychological puzzle of sorts. The lack of guidance through the story generates a cut-up, fragmentary sense, bringing us face to face with scenes that vacillate between the details of the trial — between the prosecutor and the offender, the judge and the accused, the law and rulership, justice and corruption.
Furthermore, the arrangement in space allows Porat to tell her story visually. Robert Storr’s thoughts on exhibition making clarifies the many associations of the exhibition’s title. “The primary means for ‘explaining’ an artist’s work is to let it reveal itself. Showing is telling. Space is the medium in which ideas are visually phrased. Installation is both presentation and commentary, documentation and interpretation. Galleries are paragraphs, the walls and formal subdivisions of the floors are sentences, clusters of works are the clauses, and individual works … operate as nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and often as more than one of these functions according to their context.”(7) The layout of the walls in the exhibition space and the seemingly associative hanging of the works recalls the panels arranged by art historian Aby Warburg in his monumental Mnemosyne Atlas, named after the Greek goddess of memory. Warburg amassed a visual and thematic archive of more than 1000 images which he arranged on 60 panels, with each panel combining several images of the same subject taken from different visual sources, past and present. The link between the images is created without text or interpretation, only by proximity. The Atlas unites, categorizes and characterizes cultural, historical and artistic images, and creates a visual language that compares different narratives, with images prioritized over text. According to Warburg: “The Atlas, as a reservoir of figurative materials — seeks first to be an inventory of primal forms which influence modes of representation of life in movement.”8 Through the Atlas, Warbug examines terms of movement, bodily gestures, and identification of gestures in textless images. Similarly, Porat juxtaposes images and tries to “solve the puzzle.” To decipher something that does not exist in the panel through contemplation and obvious connections. Even though most of the images are found, she manages to create her personal, distinct handwriting, so confirming Warburg’s observation that: “In the realm of mass orgiastic drunkenness — that is where one must seek the forms that give memory an expression of heightened internal excitement, of the kind expressed in body language; forms that strengthen and fix it so deeply that the markings of emotional experience will survive as an inheritance preserved in the memory. These forms return and are embodied in the outline made by the artist’s hand, as if the extreme values of the body language are seeking to come forth in shape by that hand.”(9)
Porat’s work contributes to the broad research into the notion of the archive as a meeting of collective narratives that can be activated and reinterpreted. According to Michel Foucault, the archive is a collection of the material traces left by the culture of a historical epoch. Through examining these traces, a person can deduce the “historical a-priori” and from it, collective unconscious structures. In Foucault’s understanding, the archive is a powerful site, an institution
meant to create a past in the guise of its recollection: “[The archive] is the general system of the formation and transformation of statements.”(10) Foucault shatters the image of the archive as innocent, neutral and unbiased, and reveals its innate political interests. Porat sees the archive as an institution interested in physical and mental control and considers control a central element in the judicial process of Miss Neumann and her accomplices. The knowledge of the archive in which Porat found the story adheres to the ideologies and powers of those who established the archive and decided on the rules of the game. Relations of dependency and subordination form between the guardians of the knowledge, its administers and its users; like the relation between the young girl and the watchmaker-photographer, and the young girl and the judicial panel. The archive, claims Jacques Derrida, functions according to a double principle of two opposing powers: it is tied to the human compulsion to fix the past, to repeat past patterns and in so to halt life. Yet it is also a prerequisite for the future. “The injunction, even when it summons memory or the safeguard of the archive, turns incontestably toward the future to come. It orders to promise, but it orders repetition, and first of all self-repetition, self-confirmation in a yes, yes. If repetition is thus inscribed at the heart of the future to come, one must also import there, in the same stroke, the death drive, the violence of forgetting, superrpression (suppression and repression), the anarchive, in short, the possibility of putting to death […] the archon of the archive…”(11) Derrida argues that the existence of the archive is essentially affixed to what is yet to come, just as it is involved in our moral responsibility toward the other. Each visit to the archive entails therefore an act of detection concerning the writing and the “erasing” of memory, the act of searching for clues, the blurring of evidence, the invention proof — an ongoing wandering after the illusive traces of the past; this is a journey through the shifting sands of language, to the raw fringes of truth. (12) Porat’s work functions like an archive because it forces us to recognize that the past, to which we yearn, is bound to constantly slip out of our grasp; to refuse our desires, and to enhance our anxiety, not to sooth it. Handwriting in pencil, Porat adds directly onto the wall sentences relating to the murder story or to her biography. “The way back, through memory, is always archival, and the dictionary-symbolic archive and those who are sentenced to memory — are sentenced to the word…”(13) These are the sentences and words that tie the images to her life. Porat’s intervention makes the entire issue personal, almost intimate. Information merges with knowledge, history with history, facts are diluted into imagination and fabrication. Viewers attempt to decode the symbolic system she creates, usually with little success.
The sequence of exhibitions invites us to a photographic journey after one story, historically insignificant, followed by a journey after traces of human behavioral patterns, hidden desires, oppressed fantasies, skeletons in closets, evil inclinations, power games, seduction and violence, all courtesy of the camera. Porat has important questions to ask about the way in which we perceive the world through photography, about the power of the medium and the many possibilities it embodies. Her works are linked to terms of origin, intervention, reproduction and modes of articulation, and the distribution and manipulation of images. They seek to understand how we consume photography, in what way we remember, and how this archive of photographic memory, constantly gathering endless images, operates.
1. The previous parts of the trilogy and their accompanying texts are: Ilanit Konopny (curator), “Ronit Porat, The Hunter of Time,” Indie Photography Group Gallery, July- August 2016 (pamphlet); Orit Bulgaro (curator), “Ronit Porat: Mrs. Ulbrich and Miss Neumann,” in Aya Lurie (ed.), In Her Footsteps (Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art, 2017), pp. 14-15.
2. For more on the murder case see, Erich Wulffen and Felix Abraham, Fritz Ulbrichs: Lebender Marmor (Vienna: Verlag fur Kulturforschung, 1931). Porat chose Neumann’s story to question the interpretation of the case. In her reading, Neumann is not a coldblooded murderer but a victim of a pedophile. A young girl who rebelled against her exploitation and refused to be victimized.
3. Tal Yahas, “Kinesphere: Ronit Porat,” exhibition text, Tmuna Theater, July-August 2015 [Hebrew].
4. Ofrat 2017, p. 9.
5. Hanna Höch’s work “Album” was completed in 1934. Running over 100 pages, it includes 421 photographs of subjects ranging from fashion photos, portraits of movie stars, architecture and other fields of knowledge that she cut from journals and magazines. It is not exactly photomontage, seeing as almost all the pictures are whole. The visual intensity of the book is achieved from the way in which they clash and merge over the double spreads. See, Gunda Luyken (ed.) Berlinische Galarie, Hanna Höch Album (Berlin: Hatje Cantz, 2004).
6. Bulgaro 2017.
7. Griffin, Tim, and Robert Storr. “Show and tell (Tim Griffin talks with curator Robert Storr about the 52nd Venice Biennale).” (2007): 181-+, p. 23.
8. Aby Warburg, “Introduction to Mnemosyne Atlas,” in Mordechai Omer (ed.), Mnemosyne, Aby Warburg Memory Atlas (Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv University Press, 1999), p. 15 [Hebrew]
9. Ibid., p. 15.
10. Michel Foucault, The Archeology of Knowledge (New York: Pantheon Books, 1972), p. 130.
11. Jacques Derrida, “Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression,” trans. Eric Prenowitz, Diacritics, vol. 25, no. 2 (Summer, 1995), p. 51.
13. Ofrat 2017, p. 154. Tel Aviv Museum of Art