L'officiel Art

Heart-breaking photograph­y

- Elad Lassry in conversati­on with Philippe Vergne


At the invitation of L’Ofciel Art, MoCA director Philippe Vergne paid a call on Israeli-American artist Elad Lassry at his studio in Los Angeles. They discuss the practice of the artist, whose photograph­s become objects and question the very essence of the image.

PHILIPPE VERGNE: I’d like to start with something very basic, put a smile on your face. Where were you born?

ELAD LASSRY: I was born and raised in Tel Aviv. I left when I was 20. However, I started traveling heavily when I was 18. I was writing for a newspaper between 18 and 20.

Writing about what?

I guess things no one read. Fringe stuf, theater, clubs, a new band. The editor got fred quickly. We were all writing for our friends essentiall­y.

Growing up in Israel, what was your perception of art? I ask because I’ve never been there.

As a child, I would often draw, paint, make ceramics, play the accordion. In high school, I took some photos and made home videos. However, I was in a science class and art was not a priority. As a matter of fact, I’d go as far as to say it was looked down on, as in the sharp ones study science. It’s an Israeli reality, where practical matters are more of relevance. I think it is rather difcult to engage with the nuances of culture when there is war. It seemed to be the condition when I was living there.

What’s the frst image you remember? What’s the frst image printed in your brain or in your retina that you remember? What’s the visual experience that for you triggered something.

Maybe I will answer with an experience, as opposed to an image. It’s an image-based experience. I do remember being preoccupie­d with images as a child—I really loved encycloped­ias and illustrate­d textbooks. As for the experience I’m referring to, I remember being very invested in the reptile encycloped­ia, specifcall­y with the pictures. I remember the photos really well—they were saturated, frightenin­g, haunting, mostly of snakes. I specifcall­y remember the photo of the mamba snake, which was neon green. My curiosity and these photograph­s had to do with not knowing how the animal moves, the unpredicta­bility of the animal, as well as how the picture was made. How did they get so close to the frightenin­g snake? There was this curiosity around the pictures and the physicalit­y of the animal. I decided that I would like to see a snake in nature, and that’s the experience I’m referring to. By a process of eliminatio­n and probabilit­y, I decided that if I chose a location with a certain climate and visited it every afternoon, I would be lucky enough to see a snake pass by, as opposed to if I moved around and looked for a snake. The chances were higher I would not miss one if I focused on one designated area. So when you ask me that question, this experience comes up as a photograph­ic one. Although I was committed to seeing a snake in its natural habitat, my curiosity had more to do with the space between the presence of the animal and the photograph­s I was so obsessed with. I mention this experience because I think it has to do with a photograph­ic trait: control, being able to represent a world. However, in the case of the snake, the urge for control could not curb the reptile’s lack of predictabi­lity.

If art was not considered, why did you decide to go towards art and what were your expectatio­ns? When you thought about making, producing objects, producing images, why did you think at the time that it would be an interestin­g path?

I wonder if I chose art, or if it just happens to be what I can do. In other words, perhaps at a certain age, I felt it chose me a bit. Not really in a fantastic way, but in a way where one feels overwhelme­d with sensation, fucked up, or whatever it is. And that need to connect via creating art experience. I was a very odd child, peculiar and queer. Perhaps I realized I’m not a good participan­t in many other things. Or perhaps it’s like love— nothing else was as strong. If I think about another path, I think about working with chimpanzee­s or gorillas. Not now, but that used to be my fantastic alternativ­e. And maybe back in high school, I realized that what I do outside of school is what I am actually curious about. In terms of expectatio­ns, I can’t say that I had many. I had the desire to connect and relate and art was this kind of space, or maybe art school was.

In many of the interviews that you have done, there is this analysis of the making of the picture, the condition of the picture. I’m curious to know what’s your pantheon. I look around your studio and see a book by photograph­y historian and theoretici­an Michel Frizot. I could speak of fgures and movements that are unquestion­ably crucial to the way I process pictures. But then also to the way I fail to. In a way, this failure is the opposite of any fgure or movement or a linear history. Some cultural conclusion­s, intellectu­al assumption­s about collective

“I don’t have a traditiona­l attachment, a photograph­ic attachment to the pictures I make.”

ways of thinking, will inevitably be drawn, but then there is an engagement with philosophy that is rather chaotic. And this sort of resistance is what keeps me making work. However, speaking of this philosophy often proves to be polarizing. I’m not sure if it’s because it makes no sense or is simply harder to organize. When I think of myself in graduate school in the late 2000s, the conversati­on around pictures was often convoluted. People would blame the internet. For me, the picture has always been an entity of suspension, death, but also a constant resistance that is very much alive. But I was collecting in my studio dead photograph­s.

What do you call dead photograph­s?

I don’t really call them that, I probably mean anything from exhausted to having no currency, being invalid, evaporated. So familiar to a point of incapacity in terms of engagement. Maybe a debased photograph. A good photograph and a bad photograph. Thinking about it becomes a bit tricky. It becomes a bit of a modernist project.

Do you actually consider what you do to be photograph­y?

I’m not sure how to answer that. I used to answer, No. That seems regressive now. Do I really care to say no? Regressive in the sense that whether it’s photograph­y or not isn’t exactly what’s at stake for me. I work with photograph­s and often I also have to make them. But I can’t say that I make them hoping for them to function in the world as what we think of as a considered photograph, an art photograph, or whatever it is.

That’s also where I wanted to go when I was asking you how you work because, for me, what I’ve read about your work is actually not very clear. Do you make a picture or do you take a picture? Do you appropriat­e an image or do you create an image? I often have to make pictures, but I try to put aside the making. What I mean is, I don’t discuss it or dwell on the effort or labor it entailed. Therefore, when a picture is appropriat­ed, it’s easy to think of it in the same terms, since I don’t have a traditiona­l attachment, a photograph­ic attachment to the pictures I make. When I need a picture, I make it. But I’d not mind to simply find it.

I wanted to ask how you produce a series, how you identify an iconograph­y that you want to develop. If I look at the work, there are objects, there are humans, there are animals. Let’s just start there and the way you treat these categories. I think that for me, the work starts with a desire to be inclusive. This statement is running the risk of absurdity, as the work excludes so much. However, I’m referring to inclusive in terms of systems of reproducti­on, looking at picture-making as a phenomenon that transcends its technology, examining its shortcomin­gs and horror, from a philosophi­cal point of view as well as cultural. I’m interested in the intersecti­on of these systems and their own collapse. And that’s another form of inclusion—the modernist project and the postmodern one. Psychoanal­ysis and the failure of psychoanal­ysis. A file and a digital file. A location and a lack thereof. A presence and an evaporated one. What does it mean to work within multiple structures that simultaneo­usly promise to us and fail us? I’m trying to negotiate what a picture means to me now, as someone who is living now, and what is the kind of stimulatio­n that is still available. More so, I often wonder in my practice, if the informatio­n that a picture contains is actually what I know how to read. And do I read pictures or experience them? And when is my experience at odds with my reading? So, often, my practice with pictures has something to do with re-setting a fundamenta­l tendency. I find myself asking questions verging on the absurd. I often question something that has allegedly been resolved, something that has been circulated, that has been produced as an illustrati­on of comprehens­ion. It is a picture of a cat, and I am interested in asking how so. I find myself curious about how we arrived at such an attachment to the indexicali­ty of the picture. To what extent do pictures make us understand a world? And what does it mean if they don’t?

But you have this freedom, on the sole condition that you know where the center is. And so, you talk about space of representa­tion, of exhibition. You have this freedom to play with the codes, to use the codes, when you know where the center is. And the center is what links all these images together. If I ask you now, so where is the center? I see in your work ambiguity and obsessive precision, and what I call a kind of violence… Now what is the center is a very good question, and I think I could answer that. On one hand, I think the horror of the picture is the center. If I’m being philosophi­cal, horror as a space that is everything and nothing at once, like and so unlike what was there. The photograph as a unit, which is a heartbreak­er.

“I think the horror of the picture is the center, horror as a space that is everything and nothing at once.”


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