May You Continue to Blossom
Inteview with Alexandra Dautel on the occasion of the exhibition Prix Photoforum 2020.
Can you tell us briefly about the project currently on display at the Photoforum?
May You Continue to Blossom is an investigative project about an Israeli community, a kibbutz called Neot Semadar, created in 1989 in the middle of the Negev desert. After being there for a few days, I discovered that it was more a school than a kibbutz. Through an extensive digital research, interviewing present and past members of the community, this project exposes the ambiguity and the violence of a place that at first glance seemed completely utopian. Digging deeper, I realized that not everything was following this utopian idea. The people in the community used to follow a man… a guru. Some of them described to me this community as a cult. Using different points of view, the visual language reflects the contradictions and the complexities of the community and its history, as well as the gaps and grey areas.
What does it mean for you to exhibit this project? What would you like to convey to the audience?
This exhibition is for me the opportunity to show my work, which first took the form of a book, on the walls. The relationship between the image and the text is different, and the viewer has a general vision of the history of this community from the onset. However, through a process of repetition, I like to give the viewers the possibility to go through the pictures at their own pace, moving back and forth between the images. What is displayed here is the illusory character of the kibbutz. Behind the utopia hides a form of violence. Far from judging this oasis in which I have not lived, this project shows the complexity of this community, which can hardly be defined by the term ‘cult’ as it wouldn’t be necessarily appropriate. Totally insularized, their intentions seem admirable, but their goals are difficult to achieve without violence.
How did you come about to make a project about this particular place, are there any personal ties to Israel, or does it stem purely from curiosity?
Israel appeared to me as a place to be discovered, as a result of identity questioning related to the Jewish religion — which is mine — but also as a result of questioning related to the collapsology theories and alternative lifestyles. This led me to visit several kibbutzim — these socialist communities, sometimes self-sufficient, religious or not. It was essential for me to visit Neot Semadar, this kibbutz which seemed astonishing by its architecture, following the model of a ‘cooling tower’ (ecological air-conditioning through architecture). After a visit there, it quickly became almost obsessive for me to understand the mechanisms of this community that seemed secret and idyllic at the same time.
After having researched this particular subject over a long period of time, what is your own position?
Using a variety of points of view, this project aims to give them a voice, and, in a way, let them talk together. The members describe a utopian place, a dream, a family. Those who left describe a lot of violence, and this community as a cult. My goal is to let the readers make up their own mind. As an artist and investigator, I am not criticising this particular community, but rather the illusion of a utopia that this place gives us to see, similar to many other communities or groups. In this sense, certain excerpts from the interviews are understanding keys to psychological mechanisms employed by the guru, inspired in particular by thinkers such as Krishnamurti or Gurdjieff.
You have a process of going back to the same images, showing them cropped or overlaying one over the other. Can you explain the thoughts behind this process?
This process of manipulating images, whether by cropping or overlaying, aims to bring the viewers to look differently, to look a second time by focusing on a detail, to perceive something differently from their first impression. In an archival image from the beginning of the creation of this community, we see at first glance a group and a man standing while the others are seated; we could deduce that this man is leading, whereas by showing this image a second time and reframed on the real leader, we realise that this other man is much older than the group, that two women are sitting next to him and that in fact all eyes are turned towards him… The way of proceeding by ‘layers’ superimposing photographs, archives, sometimes plans, documents, and even screenshots of Skype interviews, is meant to resemble my investigation, by layers of thoughts and information.
What are you currently working on? Can you tell us about your current or future projects?
I am currently working on a second editing of the book May You Continue to Blossom, incorporating new research, both interviews and images. I am also working on a new investigative project about the disappearance of an airplane, a personal and global story at the same time.
The exhibition Prix Photoforum 2021 is presented at Photoforum Pasquart, Switzerland, from 3 March to 4 April 2021.