Ben Lam: Manya, Vera and Pola

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Ben Lam: Manya, Vera and Pola

17.03.2017 – 20.04.2017
Curator: Sophia Dekel-Caspi
“People are curious to know what clever, witty people think about their home, because  one’s daily routine, constraints and long-time favorites dull the gaze…”
Dan Tsalka, A Thousand Hearts (Elef Levavot, Vol. II, 1991, p. 791)

Images of a bathroom, a sewing nook, a shoe polishing kit and kitchen towel rack, along with living rooms both modest and lavish, desks and wood-paneled libraries, are only a few of Ben Lam’s fascinating photographs. He mostly engages with marking out distinct foundational moments in Israeli visual culture through an examination of the personal, private and public spaces of leading figures from Israeli history, spaces whose character was shaped by their wives.

In the series of photographs on view, Lam has chosen to enter the private residences of three historical figures: the house of national poet Chaim Nachman Bialik and his wife Manya (built in 1925); the home of first President Chaim Weizmann and his wife Vera, built on the grounds of the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot (1935–1936); the apartment of Israel’s first Prime Minister and Defense Minister David Ben-Gurion and his wife Pola, on Sderot Ben-Gurion, Tel Aviv (1930–1931) and the hut in Sde Boker to which they moved in 1953.

These three couples had a direct and indirect impact on local aesthetics, its ethical and ethnic character, and domestic culture in pre-state Israel, leaving a lasting mark on approximately two decades post-independence. Ben Lam seeks to contribute his part to documenting the findings referring to personal narratives: the inkwell and desk used by Chaim Nachman Bialik to write the Book of Legends (Sefer HaAggadah); the room where Ben-Gurion ate Pola’s famous “kutch-mutch”; the English tone that Vera Weizmann imported into the Middle East, which was becoming more westernized through Erich Mendelsohn’s Modernism.

Lavish decoration appears alongside austere ambience; family photographs in the style of the time and photographs of leading public figures. Lam’s photographs reveal cultural and social lifestyle preferences throughout  three consecutive yet different decades, from sophisticated modernism characterizing the Weizmann House, to the eclecticism and lavish decoration, bordering on the exotic, in the Bialik House, and staying in the moment to consider what we are now able to define as “Early Israeli Style” evidenced in the Ben-Gurion family residences.

With his intimate, high quality gaze, Ben Lam succeeds in pulling aside the representational veil for a moment to invade the private space. He boldly draws near with his digital camera to the corner, to the object, using the room’s natural ambient light. As Roland Barthes noted, “…the Photograph is a certain but fugitive testimony…‒ and no doubt, the astonishment of ‘that-has-been’ will also disappear. It has already disappeared…” (Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, 1980, p. 94).  The object becomes the subject and the portrait of its owner. The gaze seeks traces of life and of the cultural field.

The exhibition took place at the Jerusalem Artists House between 2.1.2016 – 27.2.2016