Map and Territory / Guy Yanai’s exhibition “Battle, Therapy, Living Room” / by Noam Segal
The Battle of San Romano is a triptych painted by Paolo Uccello1, describing the battle between the fighters of Florence and Siena at three different points in time on the day of the battle, in 1432. This triptych is at the center of Yanai’s exhibition, which addresses the day-to-day atheist struggle in contemporary society.
Yanai’s previous exhibitions included mainly the paintings of objects, commodities, and branded consumer products. One could easily think of his paintings as desiring the object depicted by them. The body of his work replicated a certain lifestyle, and described a sequence of seductive commercial images, inviting us to appropriate them, acquire them and become their owners, if only for a moment. A branded bottle of drink, boutique toys for children, indoor domesticated plants in stylized vases, sneakers from fashion magazines and other lifestyle characteristics were central to Yanai’s work. The subjects of the painting were perceived as objects of desire; as if the artist, through the act of painting, appropriated them and digested the impulse of desiring them.
However, the paintings were enveloped in apathy; an expression of indifference towards what was depicted in the paintings prevailed. They lacked glamour and sex appeal, and when viewed instigated a sensual numbness. Yanai represented them by indifferent abstraction, by an abysmal banality, without marvel or aggrandizement. They became an indexical sequence, synthetic, mechanical and duplicated, partaking in the range of commodities, even so, through their abstraction and the alienation of the products of the process.
Along with a fetishist interpretation of the commodities’ images, an alternative possible reading becomes apparent, where the abstraction of the images, of the various consumer products, acts as a struggle with, and a protest against them. By turning them into
non - concrete, and stripping them of a particular identity, a system of resistance comes into being. Antonio Negri in his book Art and Multitude2, suggests that the visual abstraction of various commodities can function as a struggle, the purpose of which is to unveil the qualities of our common existence, of being social, of hard work and general labor.
He argues that market forces have absorbed and appropriated the human ability of becoming singular, unique, and have in fact dispossessed us all of any possibility of being of value to anyone or anything3. According to this standpoint everything is marketed to us under the pretext of one lifestyle or another, being branded, images constructed a-priori for selection and consumption. The market mechanism has created the nothingness of the subjective, the emptiness of the “I”. Within this process, betrayal and revenge in the form of abstraction have become moral. Once we have appropriated the commodities society’s treasury of visual images, we can oppose it. The abstraction will act as a weapon against the concreteness of the sea of contemporary images flooding us from all directions. If the false object is the truth, fantasizing about it as an abstract display, constitutes resistance.
The current exhibition includes five paintings - three works are a re-mix of The Battle of San Romano, a fourth , “Therapy”, depicts the psychoanalysis clinic where the artist spends some of his time, and the fifth, “Living Room”, features the exterior of the artist’s home. All the paintings depict certain non-objective spaces. Those spaces are stripped of their concreteness, of specific identity and belonging, and are painted in a rather flat style but concurrently, very powerful. They are frozen and visually static, in a state of complete impotence, but it appears this stems actually from excessive emotion, which paralyzes the ability to act. Like a nightmare, where the dreamer finds himself before a decisive moment in a battle and his body does not move, his voice falls silent. The paintings instigate a sense of paralysis and helplessness in the face of the fighting spirit prevailing in the colorful assemblage, in The Battle of San Romano, as well as in the psychoanalysis clinic and the living room.
The flatness which characterizes Yanai’s paintings is used in certain visual-motor psychological tests as an indicator to characterize the inability to contain emotional events. It functions as a conceptual defense mechanism that allows the patient to avoid the disruption of a particular internal pathological balance, by refraining from drawing and creating a particular spatial perception.
The works in the exhibition deal with spatial experience. Yanai creates an external, weird scrutiny of his most intimate spaces, yet acts as a stranger to them.
Being a stranger is forever “otherness”; the stranger is the enigmatic, contradicts what is natural to us, and takes us out of our comfort zone. The meaningful relationship between the stranger and the other consists in the fact that neither inhabits and exist in the spaces within which we recognize ourselves.
In the works, we find the artist outside his domestic spaces whilst creating for the viewer a hodological space4. This is the notion of a multi-trail space, with various meshed ramifications, associative paths and itineraries, contexts and entries, on the conceptual as well as the physical and geographical levels.
The paint surfaces in the works are applied in a non-hierarchical manner, and fill the canvas like a map, without differentiation of depth. They are not constructing a genealogy, but create the paths and the conflict, the emotional state and ethical situations. For example, at the heart of the battle paintings, yellow and red stains are applied flatly; this is the pair Goethe read creating “effect… enhanced up to the point of extreme excitement….the active side is here at its highest energy…In looking steadfastly at a perfectly yellow red surface, the color seems to actually penetrate the eye”5. Thus, the conflict and its various ramifications arise from the abstract image via the radical use of color. The power struggles are fought over the canvas, over the territory, on the same terrain, in a manner prior to physical borders and specific contours. They produce flat, alternative, emotional and territorial signifiers of those power struggles.
The hodological space that Yanai produces takes place as a battle over living space. As stated above, “fantasizing about it as an abstract display, constitutes resistance “6. The limitations of physical space alter the battle into a zero-sum game, a struggle over the locus assigned to one at the expense of the other. Thus Yanai, armed with abstraction as a method of resistance, shifts in his last exhibitions from the private conflict over a way of life, to a personal struggle over living room and a greater battle over human space.
Translated from Hebrew by: Mariana Lantzet