In the Bedroom with Lili Almog,
by A. D. Coleman
In still photographs:
Women -- young, middle-aged, and old -- lounge, lie, kneel, or sit on or near their beds in their bedrooms, resting, reading, showing off their tattoos, smelling their hair, cuddling live or stuffed animals, meditating.
In a video:
An oriental girl dances through her apartment to the Cuban sound of the Buena Vista Social Club. A Black woman surrounds herself with memorabilia relating to Marilyn Monroe. A Caucasian redhead surrounds herself with animal-skin prints and other jungle-themed items. A young Greek-Israeli proudly displays her new acquisition, her "Venus" -- a Wonder Woman figurine. An elderly Jewish woman dances to soul music, and another sings the Dixieland anthem "When the Saints Go Marching In. A psychiatrist explains why she sleeps with her guitar.
Somewhere between art and sociology, a space has emerged for occupation by projects such as Lili Almog's Bedroom Sequence, a set of photographs accompanied by a 20-minute video (or vice versa), produced between 1999 and 2002 -- that is, on the cusp of the new century and the new millennium. The prints are large-scale (21"x28") digital C-prints: formal, environmental, transactional photographic color portraits of women aged 18-76 in their bedrooms, made with their subjects' full consent and collaboration. The video (subtitled "a video-collage") offers roughly 90 seconds' worth of each subject's commentary -- on herself, her bedroom, her dreams, her past, life in general. Though generated during the still-portrait sessions, these snippets do not coincide with or document the making of the still images, and do not exactly caption or contextualize the photographs, any more than the photographs illustrate or distill the video passages. They simply coexist, reverberating and ricocheting between themselves, autonomous yet clearly relevant to each other.
Almog considers this a work in progress, with several more portraits already scheduled, but rejects a description of this pairing as a form of documentary rather than an installation. "I'm coming to this from photography," insists this Israeli artist who currently resides in New York. "I've always dealt with portraiture, and with women through the ages, and with masks or facades. In this case, I just let the women present themselves as they wanted to be seen." Though of course a photographer's prearranged and anticipated presence, and the intrusion of two cameras (still and video), necessarily perturbs and changes any situation, Almog did not design or alter the settings and, as she says, "the sessions are unscripted." What emerges, then, is a presentation of self on both sides of the lens that neither photographer nor subject completely controls.
Bedroom Sequence grew directly out of Almog's long-term fascination with masks, manifested in such earlier works as a series of wall pieces resulting
from projecting slides of images of classical masks onto living faces and photographing the resulting montage. "I see a great connection between that earlier work and this new one. The first images [in this series] were of women wearing masks in their bedrooms," she recalls. "Then I realized that I didn't need those masks -- the masks were already there. Ninety per cent of them were playing roles . . . which was fine." She took this for granted because, she explains, "I see the bed as a stage, a performance space, an empty canvas -- the place where you lose your consciousness when you sleep and dream."
Eschewing any concern with a systematic cross-section, and working with a sampling so small as to be necessarily random, what Almog shows us is how a
haphazard selection of women living in the New York area -- most but not all of them Americans, and many of them complete strangers to her when invited to
participate -- make their bedrooms and beds into havens, sanctuaries, nests, and how they behave within those spaces when a female photographer comes to call. Though the women speak frankly and behave with relative unselfconsciousness, nothing particularly erotic emanates from this collective statement, nor even anything that suggests a voyeuristic access to the intimate. Instead, what results in these still pictures and the video feels not like intrusion but rather like privilege, an unusual opportunity to watch and listen in as women present a prepared version of their private personae to the camera while getting to know the photographer through female-to-female dialogue, a fascinating process that mixes disclosure, revelation, fiction, and theater.
Given that, aside from her occasional reflection in a mirror and the infrequent inclusion of her voice on the video soundtrack, Almog chooses to remain
invisible in this project, is there an element of self-portraiture in this project? "I can identify with each one of them," the photographer acknowledges in relation to her subjects. "For some bit of time, I shared each of their dreams in my own life." She adds that one of her inspirations was Virginia Woolf's desideratum for a woman's independence, "a room of her own." Almog notes, "That's what you need as an artist as well."
© Copyright 2002 by A. D. Coleman. All rights reserved.