Catherine Yass

The Holy Land is much like Passaic, New Jersey—“a kind of self-destroying postcard world of failed immortality and oppressive grandeur,” as Robert Smithson put it; not so much holy as hole-y, comprised of “monumental vacancies that define, without trying, the memory-traces of an abandoned set of futures.” The Israeli government, as is well known, has been trying to shore up its nation’s dangerously porous ontology by erecting a vast wall isolating it from the Palestinian territories. Adhering to the best tenets of Minimalist aesthetics, this wall encapsulates a dense knot of possibly contradictory thoughts and emotions in a breathtakingly simple and decisive material presence.

Smithson observed that “time turns metaphors into things,” but Catherine Yass’s film Wall, 2004—shot on 16mm film but here presented as a DVD projection—seems to have the opposite function, that of turning a thing back into time and thereby yielding a metaphor. Rather than simply filming the wall, she has converted the wall into film, each one of its innumerable successive concrete slabs functioning as yet another frame in an interminable unreeling. There is little else to see but the wall, and a bit of sky and the barren earth. No human figure intrudes; only the occasional passing military patrol car recalls the fact that this terrain is not completely uninhabited.

The camera moves tirelessly, with a steadiness that seems almost placid, along this brutal gray expanse; it simply follows and follows. It keeps as close as possible to its subject—succeeding for the most part in maintaining a companionable reach, as between two travelers keeping step without crowding each other but sometimes forced to withdraw to a more formal distance. But then at one point, on the contrary, it attains a propinquity that becomes almost embarrassingly intimate, as the wall’s cement skin, grown so close that sky and ground are lost to sight, becomes the camera’s all in all. Occasionally there is a gap, as in the mouth of child losing its milk teeth. Though the camera does not stop, the viewer cannot help but try and hold back, at those moments, from its onward motion and peer through to catch some glimpse of the mysterious other side that, in fact, looks equally bleak. And then, before one has really had a chance to confirm one’s impression, the gap is gone. The film has gaps of its own as well—moments of complete blackout between segments shot along different lengths of the wall, during which one is suddenly jolted out of the lulling rhythm.

Also on view here were four color photographs of the wall, shown as lightbox transparencies. In comparison with the heated, almost lurid color in many of Yass’s earlier photographs, the shades of gray that dominate these images, as they do the film, might seem restrained. And yet gray, as Yass shows, can be intense and saturated, too. Where her earlier work had an optical zing that somehow rendered its imagery spectral, immaterial, here the wall and, even more, the earth on which it rests take on an uncanny tangibility. Somehow her technique of layering her positive transparency with a blue negative one of the same image heightens its tactile qualities—as if one could sense the motif particle by particle. What better way to know a thing that can only be, in Smithson’s phrase, a ruin in reverse?

Barry Schwabsky