Aprons spotted with dough hanging on a white tiled wall, chubby golden bread loaves in a blazing oven, lumps of dough covered with plastic sheets swooning on huge trays, dough-stained fabrics, burnt baking trays, used rubber gloves, an oven’s dark interior, an empty industrial freezer – and, yes, a black flour bag lying like an abandoned corpse: Orit Raff’s bakery.
Bread – a word that inhabits a basic existence, a metonymy for hunger as well as satiation; Bread and Circuses – the Emperor’s bribe to the masses in ancient Rome; in western hedonistic society, where culture and gastronomy habitually flirt with each other, industrial bread is upgraded with mixtures that improve its taste infinitely and it spreads its aroma in prestigious pastry shops, a spectacle of inspiration and grace; at the same time, it is displayed on the news as the sign of an intense social struggle in the Jerusalem “Bread Plaza” in front of the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset; in Judaism, bread’s power is strengthened by dipping it in salt before saying Hamotsi (the blessing over bread), and in former times bread and salt were presented as a peace offering to all those who came through the Jerusalem gates; and yet, it is no coincidence that in Hebrew the same letters form the words bread (lechem), salt (melach) and war (milchama).
In religious rites and according to folklore bread is an icon with magic powers. In the Bible it represents a caring Providence, providing manna to the hungry people in the desert (Exodus 15:15), while according to Christianity Jesus said the dividend-carrying words: “I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger” (John 6:35). The Greek Demeter is one of the most well-known mythic goddesses of grain and fertility, a maternal archetype that is realized in conception and nourishment. The Homeric Hymn To Demeter describes her as the “fair-stressed awesome goddess […] of the bright fruit and golden sword”, and her narrative – tales of seduction and of the twists and turns of desire, death and resurrection – was accompanied by secret, mysterious rites of purification.
“‘For me’, said Dulac, ‘there is more to bread than mix and bake, mix and bake. […] Bread is something that is alive; we must take great care with it'”. A bakery is often pictured as a hellish place of fermenting yeast, heavy smells and burning furnaces, a volcanic space of soft, sensual dough lumps awaiting their turn in the oven while others swell in the fire like demons. In contrast, Raff’s photographs of the bread bakery are immersed in coldness and darkness. The groups of monochromatic images bring to mind death or purification chambers. The white aprons hang on the white tile wall like exhausted corpses, and the light baking fabrics, hanging like washing, also resemble shrouds awaiting their dead. In the past, Raff made several white on white photographic series, dealing with cleanliness and sterility: photographs of white laundry (1997-1998), a series of sparkling bath fixtures (Untitled, 1998), and an installation of bathing soaps (The Pot Calling the Kettle Black, 2002). In another work (Untitled, 1996) the artist herself goes through a personal purification rite, immersing her naked body in a white bath that suggests a sterile facility or a narrow burial casket. The obsessive preoccupation with cleanliness and dirt removal is also evident in a humoristic ready-made installation of empty rubber gloves, of the type used for cleaning (2002), and in the series of photographs Dis(located) Land (2001), in which Raff isolated spaces, mapped them and took photographic samples of intimate body remnants – hair, skin, nails – that have been defamiliarized and were left as unidentified post-mortem evidence.
In her works, Raff favors the implicit over the explicit, and her images intensify a past that seeks clarification. Like an act of detection, the artist follows with her camera traces and signs of a place or a time, findings by means of which she wishes to breath life into a frozen memory and construct a narrative from vague fragments, left behind as a present absence: the markings of furniture in an abandoned house, signs engraved on school desks or ice accumulations in an empty household refrigerator. Now the evidence line-up is augmented by dough crumbs that cling to walls and charred baking trays, extinguished ovens and rows of stainless-steel trays on which dough lumps covered in batter are stretched out, looking like rotting corpses. Raff’s observation of the bakery’s walk-in refrigerator uncovers only empty cells, referring back to the morbid, splendid glacier-scapes in her photographs of old freezers (Untitled, 1999-2000).
Writing about Andres Serrano’s series of photographs The Morgue, Stephen Bann describes, following Hubert Damisch, how the Ovidian myth of metamorphosis is visually depicted in Poussin’s Echo and Narcissus (1629-1630), where the body of the hero, Narcissus, is seen alongside the flower that perpetuates his name, the narcissus: “thus the painting is representing both death and resurrection – cold and pale flesh, and a crown of spring flowers”. Bann points out a similar metamorphosis in Serrano’s glowing cibachrome surfaces, where the photographic plate adheres to the flesh of anonymous dead bodies, victims of murder and disease, and the mythological flower is nothing but the vivid presence of pink and red death wounds. The proximity of the terrifying and morbid to the spectacular and enchanting is also evident in some of Raff’s works. There is an unresolved tension in her photographs between potential vitality and beauty, and nullifying restraint. The radicalization that is fundamental to Raff’s photographic staging neutralizes the vitality implied by the image of turning live dough into bread, converting it into a clinical presence. The glowing fire that breaths life into dough as in an act of creation is stamped onto the singed limbs of Raff’s floury “death victims” like a decisive seal.
Like the photographs, the video A Roundabout (Fertility/Futility) (2004), depicting a female figure in the midst of a strange bread ritual, also puts bread back in its mythical cultural contexts, where it is associated with ritual acts. Associations of fecundity, conception and birth, impurity and lust, death and resurrection flow into the bread-stomach kneaded by the woman, who is dressed in white like a priestess. “He wrestled a gobbet of dough to the table and began massaging it […] This could be a woman. Thighs, buttocks. Deep, soulful flesh. He pressed and kneaded, using his hips. […] It tensed, relaxed, grew fragrant with its pleasure. It stretched […] then contracted into a shuddering, swollen mound. When he cut the dough into pieces and gave it over to the fire, it was very nearly a human sacrifice.” The presence of bread dough as an erotic entity that combines sex and death was common in pagan rituals that sought to appease the Spirit of Grain by means of human or animal sacrifices, eaten in unbridled gorging feasts at first harvest. Some of the rituals were overtly sexual: bread loaves shaped like young girls were eaten in public feasts, as well as different types of grain, identified as male and female, symbolizing a union that yields golden sheaves.
The woman in Raff’s video, shaman-like, frantically strives to bring a stale loaf of bread back to life. Her hands tear the bread’s flesh, ravenously digging into its guts, Beuys-like, Sisyphically trying to restore the shriveled bread crust, to heal its dry skin with sandpaper, but the bread crumbles in her exertion-reddened hands. The ruptured fruit of the womb is dispersed, and the agonizing process starts all over again. A desperate act in an endless loop was also evident in the video Palindrome (2001), where Raff stacked thick felt squares inside a frozen arctic igloo and wallowed in them like an animal as she attempted to heat her body and preserve her life. She also challenged the boundaries of personal space in a repetitive attempt to realize the female body’s desire in The Moon Tastes Like Letters (2004), this time with the reflexive image of a moon caught in a bucket of water that is placed in a home territory – the kitchen. Raff explores the affinity between instinct and necessity, between sexuality and urge, and in her present video her ongoing preoccupation with femininity, obsession and compulsion presents itself with archaic urgency: the manic bursts accelerate and seem to seek fulfillment of a physical hunger, a sexual hunger, an insatiable creative process.
 “The Homeric Hymn To Demeter”, The Homeric Hymns, translated by Helene P. Foley, Princeton University Press, 1993, p. 2.
 Paul Hond, The Baker, Random House, New York, 1997, p. 226.
 Stephen Bann, “Death and Metamorphosis: a propos the Morgue of Andres Serrano”, Andre Serrano – The Morgue, exhibition catalogue, Tel Aviv Museum of Art, 1996, p. 62.
 Paul Hond, The Baker, p. 270.
 “Moonlight vision”, the way of seeing attributed to the moon goddess Artemis, is interpreted in psychological theories of femininity as enabling access to deeper levels of consciousness and widening the boundaries of perception.