18
Apr
13

Review: ‘Aliza Levi / Books on a White Background’ at Edmund Pearce Gallery, Melbourne

Exhibition dates: 10th April – 4th May 2013

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Aura of white

Shadow of black

Books for the boys *

Black bodies out the back

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* Books for the bourgeois

* Books for the parlour

* Books for the burning

* Books to hide memories

* Books lost in archives

* Books still in libraries

* Books for the tower (implying Babel)

* Books for the scrapheap

* Books for academics

* Books for the garbo

* Books for the church stall

* Books to forget

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Many thankx to Edmund Pearce Gallery for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

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Across-Australia_WEB

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Aliza Levi
Across Australia
2011
Archival Inkjet Print
59 x 42 cm

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121128_Vic_State_library_0068_WEB

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Aliza Levi
Australia, its History and Present Condition
2013
Archival Inkjet Print
59 x 42 cm

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Australia-the-land-of-promise_WEB

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Aliza Levi
Australia the Land of Promise
2012
Archival Inkjet Print
59 x 42 cm

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Black-But-Comely_WEB

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Aliza Levi
Black But Comely
2013
Archival Inkjet Print
59 x 42 cm

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Malthus-on-Population_WEB

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Aliza Levi
Malthus on Population
2012
Archival Inkjet Print
59 x 42 cm

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“I began this series by choosing books that reflected the assumptions and behaviour of the nineteenth century colonists, the persistent notations of self and other. I soon started to notice, that many of the titles were pertinent to today. A blurring of time and relevance, where views from a hundred years ago were intersecting with current attitudes and events.”

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Aliza Levi

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South African born artist, Aliza Levi premiers her latest body of work Books on a White Background at Edmund Pearce Gallery. Camera and lights in hand, Aliza has been photographing nineteenth century books in small town junk shops, second-hand book dealers, flea markets, rare book collections and libraries both here and in her native South Africa. Books authored by anthropologists, ethnologists and laypersons who took it upon themselves to comment on their travels. To date she has captured nearly 250 books.

The books, were initially chosen to reflect the ideologies and assumptions of the nineteenth century West. However, Aliza soon realised, that some of the titles were pertinent to today. A blurring of time and relevance where titles from a hundred years ago were intersecting with current attitudes and events. For example, the book Strangers May be Present, in its evocation of colonial settlers viewing the other as stranger also evoked for her the more recent, disturbing events in which the other is articulated: xenophobic attacks and corrective rapes in South Africa. Closer to home, the century old book entitled Australia, the Land of Promise immediately raises questions around certain stark realities such as refugee detention centres.

Kate Warren writes in the accompanying exhibition essay: “The precise regularity of her photographic compositions create a compelling visual plane that immediately draws the viewer’s attention. But look closer. In the situation that Levi presents us with, the seductive nature of the visual cannot escape the immediacy of language. The force of their titles – often starkly confronting and potentially upsetting – leaves the embossing, decoration and materiality of the books themselves as an ironic supplement.”

Born in 1969 in South Africa, Aliza Levi’s practice is multidisciplinary in form yet single-minded in concept. Much of her work presents a relationship to land, consciousness and memory brought on by her South African and Australian citizenship. Having recently presented her work in the UK, this is her first solo show in Melbourne, where she has been producing art as well as facilitating women’s art groups with refugees from Sudan. Levi is currently completing a Masters Degree in Fine Art at Monash University.”

Press release from the Edmund Pearce Gallery website

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Ourselves-Writ-Strange_WEB

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Aliza Levi
Ourselves Writ Strange
2011
Archival Inkjet Print
59 x 42 cm

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Scenes-and-Sports-of-Savage-Lands_WEB

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Aliza Levi
Scenes and Sports of Savage Lands
2012
Archival Inkjet Print
59 x 42 cm

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Strangers-May-Be-Present_WEB

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Aliza Levi
Strangers May Be Present
2010
Archival Inkjet Print
59 x 42 cm

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The-Art-of-Living-in-Australia_WEB

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Aliza Levi
The Art of Living in Australia
2012
Archival Inkjet Print
59 x 42 cm

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Textual thresholds: The uncomfortable nature of titles in Books on a White Background

by Kate Warren

Aliza Levi’s research-based photographic project, Books on a White Background (2012), confronts the viewer with an array that is at once visually compelling and profoundly difficult to look at. The precise regularity of her photographic compositions, the ‘grid-like’ repetition of these images’ installation, the consistent form and shape of her subject matter, and the contrast between the stark white background and the darker shadows thrown, all create a compelling visual plane that immediately draws the viewer’s attention. But look closer. In the situation that Levi presents us with, the seductive nature of the visual cannot escape the immediacy of language. The force of their titles – often starkly confronting and potentially upsetting – leaves the embossing, decoration and materiality of the books themselves as an ironic supplement.

This is not a ‘library’. Although developed from Levi’s archival research, the final photographic project is not an ‘archive’. Rather than displaying the original books themselves as objets trouvés, Levi disavows their materiality and tactility. Photographing the books’ ‘spines’, she not only flattens but removes entirely from view their ‘flesh’ the pages and the content – and in doing so opens up a liminal space that can accommodate and illuminate a multiplicity of (sometimes uncomfortable) and connections between the past and the present.

In the human form, our spines form the connection between the psychical realm of our brains and the physicality of our bodies; between our ‘inner’ subjectivity and our ‘outer’ ability to move, communicate and interact with our surroundings. Likewise in the case of the books that Levi photographs; the spines and titles are liminal spaces that mediate their content and the cultural and historical contexts in which they exist. Gérard Genette calls this the ‘paratext’, the “fringe [which] constitutes a zone between text and off-text, a zone not only of transition but also of transaction: a privileged place of a pragmatics and a strategy, of an influence on the public.” Levi’s project works at this juncture. By denying access to the detailed substance and content of these books she denies their overt ‘authority’, yet at the same time she reveals uncomfortable legacies that persist and cannot be wholly escaped.

The various ‘post’ discourses (post-colonialism, post-structuralism, post-modernism) and their influential theorists and practitioners have done enormous amounts of work to deconstruct and destabilise dominant narratives and histories. The process is necessarily ongoing and open-ended; because although many narratives that were once unquestioned have been removed from their dominance and acceptability, it is often through language that their traces and legacies remain.

Thus in the selection of Australian books included in this exhibition, there emerges jarring and disturbing contrasts between titles that clearly belie values that are no longer widely accepted (such as The Aboriginal as Human Being), and other titles which still resonate with national myths (such as Australia the Land of Promise). Other titles like Ourselves Writ Large and The Gulf Between become more ambiguous; for without access to the specificities of their content, these books’ paratexts are revealed in Levi’s project as (necessarily) multifaceted signifiers. They immediately open up a ‘zone of transaction’ that reveals the past as an immanent presence, constantly transformed by and transforming of the present. These now abstracted titles retain a force and power to reveal uncomfortable truths and forgotten narrative tropes, speaking to the way that Australian history and presumed cultural values are constructed and repeated in our contemporary life.

Kate Warren would like to thank Aliza Levi for the stimulating and ongoing discussions; and David Wlazlo for his timely and astute insights.

Gérard Genette, Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), p2.

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The-Australian-Aboriginal-as-a-Human-Being_WEB

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Aliza Levi
The Aboriginal as Human Being
2012
Archival Inkjet Print
59 x 42 cm

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The-Gulf-Between_WEB

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Aliza Levi
The Gulf Between
2012
Archival Inkjet Print
59 x 42 cm

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The-Report-of-the-Aborigines-Commitee-of-the-Meeting-for-Sufferings_WEB

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Aliza Levi
The Report of the Aborigines Committee of the Meeting for Sufferings 1840
2012
Archival Inkjet Print
59 x 42 cm

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White-Settlers-and-Native-Peoples_WEB

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Aliza Levi
White Settlers and Native Peoples
2012
Archival Inkjet Print
59 x 42 cm

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Edmund Pearce Gallery
Level 2, Nicholas Building
37 Swanston Street (corner Flinders Lane)
Melbourne Victoria 3000

Opening hours:
Wed – Sat 11 am – 5 pm

Edmund Pearce Gallery website

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes the Art Blart blog which reviews exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia and posts exhibitions from around the world. He has a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently studying a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.

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