The vase is a central element of Yael Atzmony’s work. It is the axis around which the processes of creation organize, conceptually and practically and from one series to the next, and along which the surprising crossroads of pottery creation have been interspersed for three decades. The vase is ubiquitous in most of Yael Atzmony’s works; the preoccupation with it is obsessive. It is a constant challenge in a strategy that seeks to innovate it and through it, to contain it and re-conceptualize it repeatedly. It is a historical, cultural, personal, social and conceptual substrate. From within the material collision with the vase, Atzmony attempts to appropriate it sensually, to deconstruct it in order to comprehend it differently, but also to negate and repress it to free up space. It is a monumental presence, and coping with it, trying to bypass it and coming to contact with it trace the outlines of its activity in the field of craft. It is about direct, manual, material intervention alongside continuous development of customized novel technology, and about the complexity of manufacturing and experimental approaches to display.
In the Dictionary series (1990-2000), which has been an ongoing project for Atzmony since the beginning of her career, the vase is everything: a substrate and subject simultaneously, and object whose subject is an object. It is an empty vessel and a platform for drawings.
The vases in this series have a classic, noble profile; their color palette is refined and localized; they feature an “antique” finish of crackle glaze (figure 1). The last layer, above the paint and the glazing, is raku firing, which is totally foreign to our region, and through which the silk-print drawings are applied to the surface of the vase. The act of distancing – the glazing’s cracked and frayed surface – accentuate the dark, graphical-technical streak of the encyclopedic decoration.
Each vase has the features of a historical vase from Ruth Amiran’s book.11 Amiran, R. (1963), Ancient Pottery of the Holy Land, Jerusalem: Massada (in Hebrew). Every one of them shows, as a kind of index, graphs, drawings, tables, place names and dates and descriptions of drawings in the archaeological literature. The vase has become an icon in a circular conceptual path. It is an object that bears witness to its past by way of mimicking, in form and stylistic language, a different historical vase, something that it is not.
Dictionary was a prolonged process of vase terminology construction, hence the series name. At a later stage in the series, the vase becomes again a metaphorical vessel, as the tall cylindrical forms allude to the hidden scrolls (figure 2). At this stage, the vase substrate is used for a freestyle drawing: one image is congruous with another image on a background of coarse strokes of paint, where the glazing no longer covers the entire vase. The pottery work is basic, without refinement – a vase with a simple but “pretty” lid, unapologetic.
The Dictionary series enjoyed wide exposure. The flower ornament on the vase was substituted with images of vessels from archaeological tables analyzing the development of local pottery, formally and in the context of time and place. This conceptual process saw the turning of the vase into an object that bears the image of itself through time.
A decade later, Atzmony felt the urge to transcend the vase and search for alternative paths of expression, and to work differently at the wheel. This search led her, among other things, to experimental works such as the Postcards series (1997-1998), which also deals with the relation between vase and locale, and which features a slideshow of childhood landscapes on a collection of vases that function as a split and deformed screen (figure 3) and illuminate the vase in an encounter with personal memory.
The status of memory in Atzmony’s works became primary and at times intimidating. On a shelf in her studio lies a series of heads of Saint Bernard dogs (figure 4) – that colossal and benign canine, which saves people’s lives in the snowy mountains. This dog reminds Atzmony of the dog that belonged to guards in the Sobibor prison camp, and which was used to torture prisoners to death. This is what Dov Freiberg, Yael’s father, wrote:
One day, Paul came to us with this dog… Now and then he would set the dog upon someone. “Man, catch the dog” he would order Barry. Paul was amused. Sometimes he would set the dog upon someone, then call him back when he was close enough to touch the victim; Sometimes he just let the dog sink his teeth in and then he would pull him back. But sometimes he would let the dog attack someone without intervening… Then suddenly, I saw Barry coming straight at me”.22 Freiberg, D. (2007), To Survive Sobibor, Jerusalem: Gefen Publishing House, 204
Subsequently, the father describes the brutal attack, from which he emerged injured and bleeding, only to continue the arduous slavery life in the camp.
The hollow head of Atzmony’s ceramic dog is torn ferociously, punctured in its right side. One eye is missing too, leaving a gaping hole through which the viewer can gaze into the cavity. The head is a thick shell, coarse and ruffled. The surface texture is cracked and furrowed. The head was built by pressing (forcefully pressing a clay surface to the mold), and each of the heads was finished differently: one is made of porcelain (figure 5) and remains white; another is coated throughout with shiny bronze paint; another is covered by stains made with a wide brush in dark grey on a white background; yet another is covered by stains that drip down sloppily. Apart from the white head, the paint-laying seems as a mutilation of the three-dimensional image, like a vandalizing graffiti. This is a rather aggressive outburst toward the head substrate, which suffered some abuse like that inflicted by the real dog on his human victims.
When they are placed side by side on a shelf, the Saint Bernard heads are reminiscent of a series of masks. In Sobibor, the mask is an additional rung in the ladder of evil. The inversion of identity is a component present in many of the Sobibor memories that are transformed into clay. The familiar, compassionate dog becomes a monster. Yet it now becomes the “mensch”; the dogs are the prisoners. The execution grounds in the camp are called “lazaret” (hospital). Many mental torments that the prisoners undergo are based on mockery, on execution decrees that are disguised as flattery.
Atzmony’s creation contains many inversion games of varying intensities and procedures. By means of the clay dog, she reconstructs the memory of torture in the Holocaust. She refers to mechanisms of reproduction, of duplication, of inversion between victim and executioner – perhaps because of the understanding that the memory and circumstances of the Holocaust cannot be grasped and fathomed, as she says, since this event is unlike any other thing that we know. In fact, the inversion is a means of repression: being there in the past and here in the present at the same time. Atzmony says:
“My relation to the Holocaust… touches upon injury and pain. I cannot think of my father’s heroism but of the loss and the realization that struck me when I grasped, in one of my early visits, how the Nazi killing machine passed from sporadic to mass operation. From this I leapt to processing.
As a young girl I was already told these stories as heroic stories; the word ‘Sobibor’ was terrifying for me and well into adulthood, when I went there for the third time, I almost could not understand those around me who use this name in such a casual manner. It seemed as a cursed name, inappropriate for use. I grew up into the Holocaust memory, not as a stain but as a fact. I found out that my parents grew from it as two young people who found one another. My relation to the Holocaust grew out of theirs […]. I deal with memories that are not my own. Although, of course, they pass through my head, my hands and my emotions”.33 Private conversations between the author and Atzmony, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Rehovot, 2017
The Barry series is about a personal and private encounter of the artist with the memory of the Holocaust, and it embodies the memory that her father, a survivor of Sobibor, shared with her. This was the only camp in which the uprising succeeded and in which her father was held as a youth. This is second-hand memory – not elaborate but indirect, though not dim; a memory formed in the lap of the family, brimming with verbal recollection, embodied by the home space that is filled by this memory. In fact, the work is a transformation of narrative images into ceramic vessels. The process of building the dog head is the pathway through which memory flows and solidifies into matter. The sculptural object curates and presents, without filtering, the act of hasty design of the soft material into the hard shell, and it discloses the pressing marks of the torn clay surfaces on the dog mold. The head is built as pieces laid side by side, neither overlapping nor covering the entire surface. These are two-way acts of realization, hesitation and then removal or erasure of memory.
Atzmony reminds of Gertraud Möhwald, the most important ceramic artist who lived in East Germany. Indeed, Möhwald’s works displays memories of clay – cultural memory, temporal memory – expressed in clay that seems almost wet, in authentic ceramic fragments inlaid in objects and expressed in the materiality of the works. Nevertheless, silence is predominant in her sculptures, in which she uses ready-made pieces of fired and unfired ceramics and creates the memory of vessels and ceramic parts inlaid in the body parts.
However, in contrast to Möhwald, Atzmony’s dog has no stand; its positioning as an object resting on rickety jaws underscores its hollowness. The head is breached, deliberately or in methodical carelessness, unfinished. Its walls partially surround an empty, exposed, inner space, a kind of intimate cave or refuge from a threat, a hiding place. This is memory’s sound box, which allows abstractly to treat the essence of reconstructed and imagined memory – this time experiential not narrative.
The construction of inner space – which serves, at least purportedly, as storage like the space inside vases, or which conceals the images and protects them – and its contact points with the external wall, around the openings and on the rim, are the fundamental questions in Atzmony’s oeuvre. In this regard, the hollow heads of the Saint Bernard dogs is a branching out of the somber dialog and the struggles she engages in with the archetypes of the vase and the Holocaust memory. There are many fronts in this struggle, and each series is at conflict with other facets of the iconic vase, which is etched in the deep material consciousness, and which functions as a cornerstone of pottery. The discomfort induced by the works with relation to the vase, the hostility as well as the liberty Atzmony assumes with regard to it, intensify from step to step.
The series of flat and rolled up maps was created in 2012, when Atzmony was in Holland during her residency there (figure 6). Her mission statement was the creation of a project for the memory of Sobibor. In her youth, Atzmony began obsessively to study everything related to the Third Reich, until she could no longer listen to her father’s Sobibor story and broke away from it. This breakup continued almost to her father’s death, when she told him her wish to create a memorial and laid out her plans for it. The father’s imminent death prompted the daughter to create a memorial in the camp itself, although, in fact, nothing remained of it. She said,
“Before my father passed away, I showed him the sketches for different ideas of memorial works I had planned in the location of the camp, in Sobibor. My father chose the works related to the camp map, and said: ‘it would be wonderful if you create something that has to do with the mapping of Sobibor’. The meaning of the camp’s name in Polish is ‘Owl Forest’. In my opinion, even my father in his stories could not encompass the insane circumstances of genocide. Out of this understanding, the work Blind Map was born – the work of the rolled-up map with the camp plan printed in porcelain, the map that cannot be unrolled”.44 Private conversations with Atzmony, 2017. Atzmony’s citations below are from the same conversations
For her, the maps marked the most restrained way to deal with this charged and painful theme:
“A map is an image to which you decide how close to approach. You can see things, but you decide how much you’d like to see”.55 Ibid
In the flat maps, in the reliefs and in the rolled-up maps, the maps functions as a mechanism of removal and concealment. The map, an abstract technical drawing of the Sobibor camp structures, removes the human, concrete dimension of the things that happened there and then were deliberately reduced to a graphic document. The map functions as a testament and as an evocation based on what we know about the extermination project. The maps can be analyzed as another defying act against the vase. The choice of the porcelain platform is posited defiantly against the more obvious paper substrate. It is dictated by Atzmony’s material-professional practice, and increases, in the exhibited object, the flexibility that was lost, in favor of imprinting a noble and sustainable material whose dimensions make it extremely fragile. In the transformation of paper to porcelain, a new dimension is added – that of the vessel; a vase flattened, or a surface before its being raised to three-dimensionality. It is the ultimate spreading of the map onto a thinly flattened porcelain rectangle until the inside-outside duality dissolves – everything is outside, above or below the whitish-transparent panel on which the camp maps are drawn. It is the immortalization of the present, more than that of the past; a memorial for an erased, empty monument.
Why porcelain, rather than paper, metal or any other material? Atzmony explains,
“There is something in porcelain that always reaches a breaking point and struggles with one, and it is a tough struggle. It is hard to work with porcelain. It requires precision and perceptiveness like this theme, and it is fragile. This is the challenge – to cope with the material at this level of thinness that is perhaps the most difficult technically, the larger the map surface. Size and thinness are analogous to the theme, but not only these. While being worked on, the material is very soft, sensitive, beautiful, transparent, and one must choose carefully how to work with it technically and what its final appearance would be. It is just like the theme I worked on – riddled with sentiment, which is almost hard to reach for all the self-evidence that needs to be cleared away, for the trite pitfalls that must be avoided, for the accusations and procrastinations, all the places that block further movement, or that blind us to our own image”.66 Ibid
The resulting plates harbor extreme tension, stemming from the material’s flattening capability – greyish porcelain, semi-transparent, imprinted with the inversion, positive and negative, her father’s handwriting in Yiddish on a topographic relief of the camp, in mirror writing, an inversion that persists throughout the memory project.
Manufacturing the thin ceramic surfaces had indeed proven to be a complex technological challenge, and the hardest step was the production of a 1-2 mm thin surface. According to Atzmony, “I could not believe such a thing is feasible – it was only possible thanks to the knowhow and technology found in EKWC in Holland, where I felt like Alice in Wonderland”.77 EKWC is an institute in Oisterwijk, Holland, which offers artist residencies. Yael Atzmony stayed there for a several ... Based on the knowledge she acquired at the workshop, adapted to the unique task of producing the maps, an original use was made of standard industrial molds: the liquid porcelain was poured onto a wet plaster mold, and once it dried it was separated from the mold with air pressure; it takes two pairs of hands to turn the mold upside down simultaneously and the sheet of slender porcelain falls directly on a kiln shelf where it dries and then taken immediately to firing. In cases where three-dimensional topographies are imprinted on the material, the porcelain sheet undergoes another process of rolling on a rubber mold, in which the three-dimensional information is copied before the transfer to the kiln shelf. Thus, fifty porcelain maps were created. The workshop that hosted Atzmony in Holland operates according to the principle that every guest artist uses the technological knowledge acquired and memorized in that workshop for his work, and at the end of their stay they impart this knowledge on those who follow them.
The wish to push the material to its very limit, to look for alternative work methods in the outer reaches of ceramic traditions, has placed most of Atzmony’s works in the experimental arena, in a tight convergence of content and technique development sur mesure. With respect to the maps, this process was intensified and radicalized about a year later.
During Atzmony’s next visit to Holland in 2013, in another step up the technical ladder, she formed the series of rolled maps (figure 7). The internal volume lost in the flattening has re-emerged in the cylinder’s internal space. Here, too, the focus is on the camp map, displayed on both sides of the rolled-up surface, inside and out, in another mirror effect, while the unique workflow kept on developing: the printout passes from the silk paper directly onto the wet material; the paint transfers from the paper to the clay by rubbing; working in four hands is the epitome of skill, born out of an idea that another artist in the workshop brought up. This time, the porcelain surface was rolled on a paper-coated tube; with the help of a sand pillow the surface was rolled on the rubber mold of Sobibor’s landscape relief, and then placed on a shelf before its firing in the kiln. Thus, eleven, big, rolled-up maps were created, exhibited hanging on guitar strings. The porcelain cylinder with the map reinstated in the object the vase’s hidden internal space as well as its conceptual decorations, which were present in previous series. The technical front (or, better, the technological one since this is about an entire array of disciplines) gained a meaning that is integrated into the works’ conceptualization, and it is inherent to the works themselves.
Dear Mr. Allach
The last series of works that deals with Sobibor is Dear Mr. Allach (figures 8, 9). The little mice work is the first one in which Atzmony relieved herself of the Sobibor mapping works and began to work freely around her reaction to the Holocaust. Her study of ceramics in the Holocaust period led her to factories that were active during that time and focused on Allach, the factory the operated under Himmler’s auspices and produced the Nazi elite’s most favorite models, alongside simple ceramic ware such as candle holders or plant pots. The products reflected the race theory – the factory produced only statuettes of pureblood creatures under the conception of “love of nature”. “In the boys cast in white porcelain you could almost discern the blue eyes and blond hair”, says Atzmony.
The little mice souvenirs caught Atzmony’s attention. She could not imagine someone wishing to place such a little mouse on a living-room shelf, unless it is related to German mythology or to the image of the loathsome mouse as a symbol of a certain human race. These were not mouse statuettes but souvenirs: a stand on which the little mouse is placed, its tail wound around itself, nibbling a scrap of food – a nut or something similar. Atzmony states that “this detail is important, since it is an attempt to beautify the mouse”. Thereby, she wished to use the little mouse as a replicated object, made in the same factory – a symbol of the striving to socially replicate the individual, who will function and think like the collective, in parallel with the abolition of his or her free thinking.
Since an original model could not be found at the factory itself, a model was created based on photographs and reproduced in four sizes, like it was in the factory, by means of a three-dimensional printer, measuring between 2.5 and 5.5 cm. For this series, which included about one-hundred little mice, Atzmony created a sailor-like porcelain figure with a crispy appearance. The little mouse statuette is folded in a fetal position, his eyes bulging, and it is preoccupied with a gluttonous nibble of something that it grasps in its hands. Despite its rough texture, its body passes off as slippery. It stands on its hinds, its tail wound around its legs, and it effuses sweetness and cunningness, a contemptibleness familiar from the anti-Semitic caricatures, combined with innocence and vulnerability. Only its erect ears indicate awareness of the surroundings, stemming from a sense of persecution or fear. The lack of uniformity of the three-dimensional printouts in Holland had become a turning point for Atzmony and led her to a decision to include, from that stage onwards, all the deformed types – those which were damaged, destroyed or almost emaciated in the printing process, turning the little that remained of them to a message, to a new essence. The defect became intentional. The decision to forgo the perfect outcome is not without an emotional aspect of a sentimental identification with all the mice that came defective out of printing. Hence, a lighted shelf was designed to house the one-hundred little mice, which are in fact both the perfect and the defective souvenirs, the good ones and the deformed ones, including those of which only an empty stand remained – a memento for those who should have been there and a reminder of that shelf in the German workshop.
In the Sobibor works cycle, thanks to bold decisions regarding material, which culminated in the complex process of rolling the maps, Atzmony challenges the status of the vase in her previous work series and manages to avoid being excessively emotive, opting instead for restrained and non-defiant expression. The material treatment and the technological risk-taking, manifested in devising unique, experimental and challenging production methods, as described above, extract the works from the sticky mess that the theme of Holocaust can be, and render them with universal, humane reverberation, which extends beyond the Sobibor horror.
Back to the Vase
Recurring visits in Holland (2014-2015) resulted in a few series of works that do not touch upon the Sobibor theme, and which mark renewed assaults on the vase from novel angles, based on the previously acquired technological knowledge. The first wave, Tipovase (figure 10), saw the construction of a production mechanism based on slicing of a Styrofoam mold of the vase prototype to several typological layers: base, rim, neck and body, assembled differently each time. Pressing the material on the mold left all the slicing marks on the finished product. The images on the horizontally sliced vases are freehand drawings of naked children, playing or handling objects. Painful memories emerge from childhood spent in the streets of Ramla. Like the vases, the images of children with big heads are cut crosswise, broken and sliced against backgrounds of coarse textures, intense colors, sharp brush strokes and runny paint stains. The vase appears as a puzzle of deconstructed and misplaced cylinders, which have to be held together to prevent them from falling apart. This assault on the vase icon is perhaps the most direct, almost violent. However, every slice represents a formal-stylistic feature of the vase, which broke down to a formula of its historic constituents. Enigmatic personal memories, figurative drawing and expressive color are laid upon an analytical substrate.
In the second wave of the series, Landscape Vases,88 See the text accompanying the exhibition Vase, Glowing Pink by Irena Gordon (curator), Tel Aviv: Beit HaOmanim ... photographs from the Elah Valley were scanned to become textures on an engraved Styrofoam mold. Using the pressing technique, 13 monochromatic vases were created with a flat mat finish on reliefs of landscape fragments: trees, mountains, farms, satellite dishes etc. (figure 11). These were a far cry from the first vases, which drew their power from their bare, raw, coarse and uncompromising look. In the Landscape Vases series, the decoration and the vase body are fused, without allusion to the beauty or sheen of the prestigious vessel. Undoubtedly, something from inside the void of the Sobibor maps was copied to these vases. The digital relief surfaces now complete the round volume of the vase, which corresponds naturally with the landscape pattern.
According to Bruno Latour,
“When it is said that a ‘technical problem’ needs to be solved, what is asked for is precisely to present the bypasses, the mazes that have to be dealt with to proceed toward the initial goals. When an expert’s ‘technique’ is admired, it is acknowledged that the path contains a passage that no one knows but him, precisely he who does not know what he does. How far we are from the function, the control, the means. We are suddenly facing what enables (without understanding why) or what prevents, without understanding it better, our reaching our goals”.99 Latour, B. (2000), “La fin des moyens”, in Réseaux, Vol. 18, no. 100, 42
In my opinion, what Latour says here expresses the twisted bypasses that Atzmony explored in the Holland workshop. Since it is a map – why not paper? And if porcelain was chosen – why such a thin and large surface? And if it is a surface – why roll it up? Atzmony’s choices highlight the search for solutions that challenge the previous treatment of the vase, gradually proceeding to material acrobatics, in an attempt to leap beyond the abyss of Holocaust stories.
In the collective imagination, the historical vase is related to a world of objects salvaged from the sea after spending ages lying in its depths; an ancient memory that water preserves and perverts. The video-art works Forest Paths and Diver are not only the revival of the ceramic creation practice and its insertion in another medium (the time, movement and light of the video), and not only a challenge of the display modes of ceramic artifacts, far away from shelves and display stands, but also a pressing referral to the historical-cultural dimension of the simple object – the vase as memory’s signifying vessel. Not less relevant is the desire to place the ceramic vessel in a different context – in water. I am reminded of the work Sublimation by David Cushway, in which a video traces a slow, morbid dissolving of a clay head inside a water tank.1010 Cushway, D. (2000), Sublimation, video art. The work is mentioned in Zahavi, R. (2015), “What is Craft anyway?”, in ...
The poetic power of water – be it still or sparkling – in which Atzmony placed her works, is roundly expressed by Gaston Bachelard:
“The water is always flowing, always falling, always ending at their horizontal death. Countless examples show that for the material imagination, the death of water is more dreamlike than the death of earth: the pain of water is infinite… I always recognize the same melancholy in still water, a very special melancholy whose color is that of a puddle in a damp forest, a melancholy without oppression, dreamy, slow, peaceful. A miniscule detail in the life of the water becomes for me an essential psychological symbol”.1111 Bachelard, G. (1942), L’Eau et les Rêves, Essai sur l’imagination de la matière, Paris: Librairie Jose ...
Turning to create the video-art Tracing Oblivion1212 The video-art Tracing Oblivion (2012), photography: Wim Voets, editing: Yoav Cohen. The work was displayed in a solo ... was Atzmony’s response to her depression brought about by the maps she created in Holland,1313 The works were displayed in a group exhibition curated by Lekker Belangrijk (2012), in Den Bosch residency, and in a ... as she disclosed in a conversation between us. The work was inspired by the local landscapes, in an attempt to find some consolation after the maps. The video, which was filmed in water canals, presents an inverted reflection of a figure.
Forest Paths (figure 12) is a work whose starting point is the Israeli landscape, and it comprises video-art and an installation of roughly seventy pieces of ceramic, statues of partridges and cypresses, and iron pieces scattered around the water of Ramla’s Pool of Arches. The video, spanning 8:20 minutes (looped), was shot at night from a boat on the water. This is a remembrance journey playing on two screens, in parallel but non-synchronized motion. The camera hovers above a scattering of ceramic relics, wheel-crafted vases torn into ugly pieces and abstractly laid around, then placed on the ancient pool’s shallow bottom or tossed onto it. The camera lends these a very organic appearance, and they seem like body parts caressed by the water and by the camera movements. Suddenly, with a swift cut, the camera moves in dolly motion to a smooth flight over forest trees against the sky, and in the next scene the camera moves horizontally, facing forward, to capture residential buildings in Ramla – a childhood memory. The bright light reflections flicker and vibrate on the water surface and below it. The shallow water, murky like puddle water, is uninviting. The camera records movement in a dormant body of water that suddenly awakens under heavy and oppressive stone arches. The water lends the scraps of wheel-work a temporal dimension, the deformed and beautiful relics seem as if they just happen to be in the water, and the entire scene smacks of the archaeological scent of discovered remnants and broken vessels, a reminder of sorts of the mimicry of the Dictionary vases.