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The Object is Present

It is the possessor, not the souvenirs,

which ultimately is the curiosity.

—Susan Stewart

In this new body of work, Esther Naor’s investigation takes place inside her mother’s home. A daughter of Iraqi-Jewish immigrants, who migrated to Israel in 1950, Naor examines and photographs her mother’s miniature object collection she ceremoniously amassed over the years. Returning to her childhood home, Naor’s attention is drawn to these souvenirs and trinkets that occupy visible spaces in this domestic environment, raising questions about interior aesthetics and identity, and mother-daughter relationship. In her photographs, Naor captures each miniature individually, offering a quasi-clinical representation: decontextualizing these home ornaments from their original display, she places them against colorful backgrounds, uses bright lighting and minimal shadow, which conjures a flat appearance. The previous arrangement of these artifacts and their placement inside the house remain unknown to the viewer. Yet, through this meticulous documentation of articles, Naor attempts to trace the collector’s identity and background.

Elicited by popular culture, the collection consists of souvenirs from tourists’ sites, replicas of canonical figures, dolls, and a sundry of porcelain and other miniatures–all manufactured by machines or anonymous artisans. Present inside the home, likely after being acquired in a gift shop, or bequeathed by someone, the object’s identity is linked to the house and its owner, and less attached to its reproduction process. By eliminating the interior, distilling the objects and enhancing their size, the photographs are luscious and tactile. The conventions by which these miniatures are now presented – enlarged and floating on fields of bright colors –place them in a new spatial relationship that evokes new meaning. Naor’s bodily relation to these pieces changes twice –from seeing them in their miniaturized version to their life-size photographic depiction –creating a shift from three to two-dimensional objects. This alteration also distorts the viewers’ perception, and since they do not experience them as miniatures, greatly emphasizes the objects’ inherent fictional quality. In most souvenir collections, as in this one, the item reduces the monumental place or shape it is based on, such as classical sculptures, human figures, and nature, altering the three-dimensional into miniatures. In her work, Naor reorders this system by augmenting the souvenirs and flattening them on to a two-dimensional surface. As a result, the objects’ reduction in scale from monumental to miniature is then reversed in Naor’s photographs, suggesting a double removal from the representation of the representation. In this aggrandized version, the pieces break away from their household function and disconnect from their mass produced intentions, and as a result seen as unique. The distant treatment of the objects, greatly felt by the dissection of her mother’s self-curated arrangement, is as though these photographs assume an anthropological quality, scrutinizing the cultural attributions and origins of each artifact.

Observing Naor’s work through Walter Benjamin well-known essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, further questions notions of authenticity and the relation between the “original” object and its photographic representation. Disassociating the artifacts from their home setting and replicated purpose, Naor presents them as unique photographs, and by so doing plays with notions of “high” and “low” art. The object is now liberated from its reproduction notion and from its decorative conventions, begging the question of what is then considered then the authentic work or experience: Is it the way the owner displays the objects in her home? Or, is it the daughter’s creative interpretation conveyed by these photographs? Benjamin argues that “in photography, process reproduction can bring out those aspects of the original that are unattainable to the naked eye yet accessible to the lens […] And photographic reproduction, with the aid of certain processes, such as enlargement […], can capture images, which escape natural vision.”[1] This rings true in Naor’s case. The distortion and artificial background of the souvenirs offer great detail and sensibility, transforming the notion of uniformity and lack of human expression these objects ordinarily evoke, into unique and original works of art.

With the transformation of these objects’ value and perception, their nostalgic effect still remains. Residue of dust and stains, as well as cracks, abrasions and color peel, all symbolize the passage of time, reflecting on the past, and also demonstrating the trinkets’ distinguished and personalized status. These souvenirs are attached to accounts that are private, belonging exclusively to Naor’s mother, suggesting that it is not the narrative of the object, but the narrative of the possessor that is authentic. Portraying her mother through this collection, the evidence reveal that many cultures from around the world appear, except for her own. The lack of Iraqi materials representative of her heritage comes with a great sense of discomfort and unease. Expelled from Iraq and escaping the rise of violence against Jews, at the age of fourteen, Naor’s mother and family migrated to Israel. Similar to many Jewish families who fled from Iraq right after the establishment of the state of Israel, she was prohibited from taking any personal belongings, leaving all of her and her family’s household possessions behind. Establishing a new home in Israel, her mother recreated and adopted an identity that reconciled between interior and exterior spaces,[2] where these objects may function as a substitute for her Iraqi background and culture.

The notion of migration and reminiscence was and still is a major part of Naor’s everyday life and artistic process. The Arabic language spoken at home, the middle-eastern cuisine, and other traditions from Naor’s family’s heritage were very present, and also very different from the cultural customs existing outside the house. Naor witnessed how family members held on to different habits from their native country, and at the same time abandoning them in place of new ones. Living between these two extremes and aware of these cultural gaps, Naor’s work and practice continuously examines the relation between private and public spaces, East and West, and the split identity these conditions prescribe.

[1] Walter Benjamin, The work of art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.

[2] Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1993, 136.


Larnaca Biennial of Art 

Larnaca, Cyprus

October 2021

Still on View

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