Anna Yam wants you to feel a little bit anxious. Hers is a world of in-between places and gaps. Her native Russia and her adopted home in Israel are viewed through staged, aesthetic compositions and indigenous snapshots and family photographs imported from far-away Yekaterinburg. She navigates chaos and stillness, the familiar and unfamiliar and, perhaps most crucially, belonging and being set apart. Her images are both inside and outside the experiences they capture. Yam uses wit and humor as a bulwark against the harsher realities of alienation and transplantation; soothing the viewer with extreme beauty while presenting images both alluring and at times disarmingly foreign and fetishistic.
Upon my first encounter with Yam’s work in a small exhibition in Israel several years ago, I was immediately reminded of a line in Abigail Solomon-Godeau’s seminal essay on photographer Francesca Woodman: “Prodigies in photography are singularly rare, women prodigies virtually unheard of.” Yam was 26 years old at the time. The majority of her work produced till then was made while she was in her early 20’s (and much of it was drawn from her student portfolio); it included images taken in Israel and on her return trips to Russia as well as an ongoing series of re-photographic work and appropriations culled from her family photographs and deemed “readymades”.
Francesca Woodman, whose life and ambitiously remarkable body of work were cut tragically short at the age of twenty-two, focused on women's bodies. Both subject and voyeur, Woodman subverted notions of the male gaze by placing her work in autobiographical and intimate, albeit crumbling, domestic settings. Anna Yam, who immigrated to Israel from the Soviet Union, offers a platform for feelings of dislocation, anxiety and rupture that are inextricably linked to immigrant experiences, particularly those of the Russian Jews living in Israel today. But she does so in a way that is humorous, witty and even a bit sly.
While much of her work is placed in domestic settings, there is a palpable absence of what some might call a "female" sensibility. It is not a "woman’s space", it is not even "real" space. Her work occupies a liminal zone between comfort and anxiety, native and tourist, nostalgia and distance and, perhaps most seminally in her working method, between artist and appropriator. She uproots familiar notions of authorship and cultural belonging and asks that the viewer find a place of comfort, if not of ease, in a world full of quirky, oddly suspended and unexpected images: fur balls on wildly patterned sofas, spotted cow tongues lying on plush carpets, towels twisted to evoke charmed snakes against heavily printed wallpaper and the contortions of the human form against chaotic and remote domestic backdrops. All these seem to connote both otherworldly possibilities and the "medicalized" limitations of the body. Her work is both humorous and full of unexpected finds. It is a revelation.
Consider her accomplished photograph of a darkly spotted cow’s tongue, laid out in clear focus against a plush, heavily patterned and jewel-toned carpet like a turgid, medicalized sculpture, its background receding into darkness. It is quite lush, yet slightly disturbing. It is extreme in both its beauty and in the liminal place it occupies. In a more prosaic photograph of a domestic interior, an eerily unoccupied yet ramshackle living room sets the scene, while a large mound of brown fur sits upright on a brightly printed sofa, like a friend waiting for company. This is set against patterned walls and thickly piled carpets, bridging feelings of unease with a sense of humor. This sense of humor, so vital to her work and to the unique balance of comfort and anxiety she cultivates, functions like an invitation to appreciate the strange weirdness of life. She asks you to be comfortable with the disquieting sense that you don’t quite belong anywhere and yet her work – both in Russia and in Israel – operates in a kind of ambiguous zone, both familiar and foreign, inviting you in while reminding you that you don’t really have a place.
Yam is formally trained, yet she aspires to the “ordinary” as exemplified by her "readymade" family snapshots cleverly reused to snub authorship and defined artistic hierarchies. The use she makes of these is entirely new. By appropriating her family albums to cultivate a sense of unease, she manages to convey a warm invitation to join her on an intimate journey, yet you are never quite sure if you will really be allowed in. As a child, Yam was obsessed with her family albums, many of which were carefully embellished by her grandmother, a physician and amateur photographer. As an art student, she returned to these images and filed them away for future projects, hoping they would make their intentions known to her in due course.
When she begins a project, Yam does not have a rigid narrative in mind. Rather, she allows the images to communicate an evolving mood as she reviews her photographic travel-booty. She roams between formats, styles, cameras and black and white and color film; she utilizes amateur approaches alongside highly staged fine-art shots. From the hundreds of captured images she chooses only a select few that “make it” to print. Her editing process is strict and precise – she envisions everything: from the size of the print and the color of the frame to the relationships between the images in the space.
Yam returns to the same two places year after year: Haifa, where she spent her childhood, and Yekaterinburg, where her father still lives today. Up until 1990, the latter was a Soviet city full of industrial army factories, so throughout Yam’s childhood it was completely closed to tourists. She returns to the same spot twice a year, navigating memories of the past, both tourist and native guide. When she’s in Russia she photographs like crazy, stopping to review and edit the copious images she’s shot only upon returning to Israel. She is often amazed at what she sees; at what she didn't remember photographing during her trip. It is not surprising that her work so poignantly communicates sensations of rupture and dislocation and that she is always aware of photography’s indubitable ties to memory.
Yam arrived in Israel at the age of twelve. Her primary goal was to become fully Israeli; to fully embrace her new home. Ironically, her success as one of Israel’s most promising young artists is the result of her foreign point of view on both of her photographic locations – Russia and Israel. Yam’s work gives one the feeling that something is slightly amiss (a feeling she actively cultivates). She is thrilled when something is not quite right, when "accidents" enter the frame and when the serendipity of such accidents conveys a world that is slightly off kilter. This leads to a subtle yet palpable shift in perspective on the part of the viewer. She asks you, with wit and humor, to get comfortable with the anxiety of all the in-between places she continues to discover and expose.
Maya Benton is a curator at the International Center of Photography, New York