A few things immediately come to mind when you think, “Passover seder”: matzah, maror, charoset, four glasses of wine. But in “Seder.Table,” a cool, stark and fascinating new photography exhibit at the 92nd Street Y, none of that matters. In fact, the artist, Galia Gur Zeev, while showing several plates, people around them, and a large wooden table, doesn’t even show a crumb of food.
For the Israeli artist, the Passover seder is not about the food, or even the biblical tale it commemorates. It’s about the function it serves: bringing families together year after year. “I think it’s a family ritual,” Gur Zeev said in an interview from Tel Aviv. “What comes to your mind while you’re preparing the meal?” she said. Who will be there this year? Who won’t? “It’s a physical place, but it’s also a mental one.”
Her photographs make the point clear. The exhibit is really two separate series — “Seder” and “Table” — squeezed into one show. “Table,” from 1997, shows eight bird’s-eye portraits of people sitting behind empty white plates. The portraits — the head and plate surrounded in a black background — are arranged in a rectangular fashion, as if they’re sitting around a table. “Seder,” made a year later, consists of 10 full-body portraits with each of the guests — an elderly woman, a soldier and a middle-aged man among them — seated at a table. These photographs were taken at eye level with the table’s edge and depict exactly half of each person’s body above the table, and half below.
Like many of the choices Gur Zeev made, the split view was deliberate: “Things happen there beneath the table,” she said — “emotions.” In other words, the view from under the table serves as a metaphor for the thoughts a person may have but rarely expresses. Likewise, the empty blackness engulfing the portraits is meant to draw attention away from the identity of the actual guests. “When they’re not in their material environment, you can’t know much about them,” Gur Zeev said. “It makes them a little bit anonymous.”
To be fair, it is not hard to find out who they are; the wall text says Gur Zeev “portrays her own family.” But the effect helps you think about your own family, not the artist’s. The curator, Shosh Dagan, who was at the exhibit last week finishing the installation, pointed to the elderly woman in the “Seder” portraits and shared her own view: “She thinks, ‘He’s with us this year. But maybe he won’t be next year.” If there are any particular details about the people worth noting, it’s that this family is Israeli — and the “he” Dagan referred to is the young soldier pictured.
This is the first exhibit Gur Zeev, 55, has shown in the United States, but she has a strong reputation in Israel. “Seder” was first exhibited at the Tel Aviv Museum in 2002, one of the perks of winning the Leon Constantiner Photography Prize. (Other winners have included Ori Gersht and Pavel Wolberg, both now well-known artists.) And Gur Zeev has exhibited at other prominent venues, too: the Jewish Museum in Berlin, the Israel Museum and the Limbus Art Gallery in Tel Aviv, which she co-founded with four other artists in 1992.
But oddly enough, she did not even discover photography until she was 30. While she was in her 20s, Gur Zeev worked as a graphic designer producing gallery exhibitions. Then, in the late-1980s, she was accepted at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, Israel’s leading art school, and decided to take a photography class for kicks. “I never held a camera before that,” she said.
But she has not put one down since, and says she finds models in artists like Andreas Gursky and Sophie Calle. Their influence on her work is apparent. Gursky-like sweeping views can been seen in her photographs of swimming pools and large empty rooms. And allusions to Calle, known for her intimate close-ups, can be seen in “Seder” and “Table,” as well as her portraits of swimmers, children and faces in mirrors.
But unlike the peripatetic Gursky and Calle, Gur Zeev’s work is mainly homebound. She takes most her photographs near her home in Tel Aviv, which she says is for a simple reason: she has three kids. Years ago she realized that in order to raise a family, she could not travel far. “If I started to look for subjects outside [of my home] it would have been hard to find work,” she said.
The result is a body of work that is notably domestic, yet still richly varied. In her most recent series, “Aftermath,” she took images of her father’s apartment shortly after his death. Each photograph was taken after some of his belongings were removed, leaving ghostly imprints on the walls — of a dresser, or a television, or a hanging work of art. “It’s all very personal,” she said. “I’m not shooting landscapes — but maybe I will, if that’s where I’m living.”
The current exhibit at the 92nd Street Y came about in large part because of Dagan. She spent 13 years at the Diaspora Museum in Israel, where she first met Gur Zeev. The curator, after living in the States for 10 years, returned to Israel in 2001. Back in Israel, Dagan thought that she might be able to use her connections from New York to help Israeli artists. “It’s such a small country that you want to get out,” Dagan said. “I wanted to open doors.”
She curated her first exhibit at the 92nd Street Y a few years ago, then approached the gallery’s director, Robert Gilson, about doing a show of Gur Zeev’s photographs. “Quite frankly,” Gilson said, “a lot of the work I see is pretty sentimental. But one of the things that I liked about Galia’s work is that it’s so objective. … I thought it was beautiful and intelligent.” He knew he wanted to show her work, but time and money were not on his side.
Dagan approached Gilson with the “Seder.Table” idea three years ago, but because the gallery was booked for several months, they had to hold off. Then came the recession. “We do everything on a shoestring” anyway, Gilson said. So he told Dagan that he would exhibit “Seder.Table” as long as she found money to stage it. El-Al Airlines stepped up — with the proviso that the Y put a kiosk in the gallery for viewers to purchase tickets to Israel online — and the show is now on its feet. “It’s very much to her credit that we were able to do this,” Gilson said of Dagan. But he is satisfied: “I’ve been showing works in this gallery for 23 years,” he said, “and this is one of the best shows I’ve seen.”
Galia Gur Zeev’s “Seder.Table” exhibition is on view at the 92nd Street Y’s Milton J. Weill Art Gallery, located inside 92nd Street and 1395 Lexington Ave. (212) 415-5500. Exhibit runs through May 3.
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