ESSAYS Mousse 70
Momentary Snaps: Gili Tal
by Mitchell Anderson
The banal images of Gili Tal, stretched onto billboards, scattered across canvases, or printed on rolling blinds, consider the role of digital and urban intervention in our daily experience. Born in Tel Aviv and working in London, Tal taps the neutral architectural elements of Western society, and the human figures that surround them, as the building blocks of workaday life. Benches and public art, handrails and handbags, fountains and those who dance in them are all leveled down into a sort of contemporary civic soup. The structural support of her practice changes freely and draws further attention toward a vital interest in the fatigued dreams of modernist metropolitan myths.
Speaking of the antibourgeois, antipainting artistic ramifications of the Russian Revolution a few years prior, in 1922 El Lissitzky declared that this socialist “New world will not need pictures. If it needs a mirror, it has the photograph.”1 Many peers felt similarly, envisioning the industrially produced camera as the mechanical relative of an empowered working class. Artists like László Moholy-Nagy and Aleksandr Rodchenko turned to photography as amateurs and captured new compositions of the everyday. Tal’s works pick up these distorted views and alternate angles in a multigenerational digestion of Moholy-Nagy’s Eiffel Tower series of 1925. Shot from beneath, these pictures altered the perception of a grand symbol of the modern age, showcasing beauty amid industry. The images in Tal’s Places for Connection (2019) are of bridges and other civic architecture, shot in the same dramatic and modern style, some exhibiting the watermarks of the stock websites they have been grabbed from. Over a century, the style has been altered little, even if the original communal meaning has. Both the Eiffel Tower and these bridges are possible symbols—Tal labels each directly with their globe-spanning titles—but in her serial reproductions, she points to a tired sameness in every city’s need for “iconic” architecture that does little to positively impact citizens’ lives.
For her 2018 solo show Civic Virtues at Cabinet in London, two dozen underlit roller blinds were printed with a wide-reaching cross section of daily urban plop. Bike racks, trash cans, and street signs were all nonchalantly snapped. Similar to the more prestigious sites of other series, these works offered atypical compositions. Whereas the modernist artist sought to advance the unexpected, Tal’s work asks whether anything can be unexpected once literally everyone in your society has access and interest in producing and consuming an endless reproduction of immediate ones and zeros. Tal’s images are hardly individual; every digital camera, every smartphone, is full of similar shots made out of passing interest. Unlike most photographic art of the past four decades, this work negates questions of authorship; rather, it reminds viewers of the increasing uselessness of the word unique in a digital continuity full of captured momentary snaps.
One could see Tal’s tackling of the common photo as an opposition to and a revelation of how images have changed since Piotr Uklański’s The Joy of Photography (1997–2007). His series reproduced the tricks in an Eastman Kodak book on the techniques of darkroom photography to purportedly add layers of meaning and irony to the resultant cliché images of reflecting light and long-exposure waterfalls. Tal has no such wishes or denials in her work. Today there are no tricks, there are only filters, and everyone is a pro-amateur photographer. Look at the blinds: if partly rolled up, as some are, all that stares back from the promised window is a vast nothingness.
Tal herself namechecked a photography manual, Mastering the Nikon D750, for the title of her recent exhibition at gta Exhibitions in Zurich (October–December 2019). The show stretched similarly benign yet beautiful images across wide, freestanding billboard-like structures in both exhibition and public space throughout a university of engineering and architecture. Continuing her flaneur aesthetics, Tal created pathways with these architectural intruders picturing architectural intruders. They directed flow from rotating doors or cut off an exterior entrance, in a play on the urban detritus we hardly see in our way both physically and socially.
Tal consistently tackles the invisible that guides us spatially and the visual that offers us nothing. Her recent series Spaces for Reflection (2019) took the idea of the dérive and compared it to the experience of surfing exhibitions online. Photographed on her computer screen, the works—nearly all gray, in cheap clip frames—seem to ask if the space for reflection is the endlessly similar white cube or the equally dreary laptop screen. At every turn, Tal’s work suggests that for all our advancement and creative options, we are left with a deep nothingness and a society built of small but compounding social controls. Everyone is trading freedom for cameras as the city returns to the arms of privilege, and a century after Lissitzky suggested that the photograph be our mirror, that suggestion makes a bitter kind of sense.
1. El Lissitzky, “The Conquest of Art,” Ringen 109 (1922): 32–34, trans. Michael Steinlauf, in Peter Nisbet, El Lissitzky (1890–1941), (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Art Museums; Busch-Reisinger Museum, 1987), 61.
Gili Tal (b.1983) lives in London. Recent solo exhibitions include Civic Virtues, Cabinet, London (2018); Roaming, Jenny’s, Los Angeles (2016), Paris Gardens London, Goton, Paris (2016); 6A Minerva St, Vilma Gold, London (2015); Agonisers, Temnikova & Kasela, Tallinn (2015); and Panoramic Views of the City, Sandy Brown, Berlin (2014). She has participated in numerous group exhibitions including Swiss Institute, New York; LUMA Foundation, Zurich; 500 Capp Street Foundation, San Francisco; Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, Salt Lake City; Glasgow International, Scotland; and Kunstverein Munich, Germany. She is the current recipient of the 2019 Laurenz-Haus Stiftung Residency in Basel.
Mitchell Anderson is an artist interested in the narrative capacities of objects and forms. Recent solo exhibitions include CONVERSO, Milan (2019), Galerie Maria Bernheim, Zurich (2018), and Fri-Art Kunsthalle Fribourg (2017). Since 2014 he has organized and curated the nonprofit project space Plymouth Rock in Zurich. He is a frequent contributor to a variety of international arts publications.