What is memory? What does the brain choose to remember? And what distinguishes memory from remembrance? These issues have, in recent years, stood at the heart of Belle Shafir’s artistic research. This research focuses on the invisible, elusive, internal processes that cause some things to sink into the depths of our memory and allow other experiences, long forgotten in its chaotic archives, to be recovered and made real.
Shafir’s continuous, reflexive work process takes her back to the sights of her childhood and youth, to the stories of the earlier generations of her family, when they had resided in other countries. Through these, her own memories, she examines the mechanisms of memory, and how memories shape our identities. The motivation for this process is neither nostalgia nor the desire to document the past, but rather the awareness of the gap between the memory itself, and its recollection, which takes place place many years after the events had occurred (or not), as well as of the futility of the attempt to capture a memory and view it as absolute.
The decision to explore these issues and their relation to her personal, split and conflict-ridden identity has pulled the carpet from under Shafir’s feet. It is an experience akin to getting lost in the historical thicket of one who wanders between cultures; between the east and the west, between German and Israeli identities, while looming above it all, like a dark cloud, is the fact of her being the daughter of Polish Holocaust survivors, who had immigrated to Germany at the end of World War II.
The first expression of this can be seen in her knitted works, made from horse hair brought from her family’s horse ranch in Germany, founded by her father, who comes from a long line of distinguished horse breeders. She returned to this experience many years after she had left the place as a young woman. These pieces began as a link to an earlier series of works, which had dealt with cloning and genetic engineering. The series dealt with the disruptions found in internal, hidden places, caused by actions taken outside the body. Later, in her knitted works, she searched for the threat she had rejected and repressed for many years, which had since become a heavy burden. Her long, knitted chains, unraveled at the ends, are tangled together in a way reminiscent of damaged DNA sequences. The repetitive process of working with materials from her childhood has also led to the knitting of delicate creatures that defy definition by zoology. Some are reminiscent of tiny sea-horses, while others resemble miniature, fragile spiders, spread out on a white wall, pinned to it, like drawings, echoes of Louise Bourgeois’ large “Maman”, with all the contexts this association brings.
The dark hue and rough texture of the hair gives the works a minimalistic, drawing-like appearance, a sort of knitted secret code that tries to tell a life story, where the empty spaces in between echo the missing pieces, yet to be found.
Alongside these works, as part of her continuous search, a process, where things twist into tangles, came Shafir’s video art piece, “Vertigo”. In this piece, the artist’s blue eye darts around the screen, simulating the medical condition of vertigo, one of the symptoms of which is rapid, involuntary, vertical and horizontal eye movements, preventing the artist form focusing her gaze. The close-up of the disoriented eye neutralizes the properties that make the eye an image of vision. This disruption deviates from the meanings normally attributed to the eye and suspends the viewer’s understanding of the piece, forcing him to go through the process of identifying and focusing on a tangled network of fine capillaries that can be read as a coded image – an enigmatic map, projecting an internal state.
During the recent year, Shafir began to process the family collection of photographs, which has since become a Pandora’s Box for her. She recovers images from its depths and confronts them by placing them on sheets of parchment paper. The flood of scenes and multitude of images, closely arranged next to each other, and sometimes on top of one another, overwhelms the viewer.
Working with the images forces the artist into a direct confrontation with the gap between the simulation of the memory of a certain situation, which occurs inside the brain, and the recovery of that memory from a photograph, in which the situation had been captured by a photographer. What, then, is the real memory? What does it mean to look through a family photo album, where memories are preserved many years after the fact? How does Belle, the adult, view Belle, the child, and the characters in her family, documented at a younger age than she is today?
The ever-changing, ever-evolving process of her work is laden with associations and techniques. It appears to want to answer these questions, but in truth, it only raises more and more questions, posing an enormous artistic challenge.
Ruty Chinsky Amitay