Text: Hava Aldouby
Nogah Engler has chosen to borrow the title that Polish poet and essayist, Zbigniew Herbert, gave to his first, euphoric, journey to Western Europe in 1958. According to its author, Barbarian in the Garden is “a collection of sketches, travel notes … along the trails of cities, museums, ruins.” In his first excursion beyond the Iron Curtain, Herbert pursues and documents the cornerstones of canonical European art with eager diligence. Recounted through the longing eyes of the man of the periphery who finds himself in (yet not necessarily invited into) the Garden – the heart of hegemonic culture he was raised on, his sensual, tactile descriptions lead the reader deep into the experience. Like an outsider who enters the Garden for the first time, armed with historical and critical knowledge acquired from afar, he takes pleasure in the flavors and sights. At the same time, Herbert’s Europe is inscribed with the memory of a dark history. While the poet harks back to the distant Middle Ages, dryly detailing the cruelty of the Inquisition, a more immediate historical memory reverberates through his words – the atrocities of 1940s Europe. Undoubtedly the descriptions of the catholic church burning heretics at the stake in 13th century France, will also resonate with the contemporary reader, echoing current events in the Middle East.
In the exhibition Barbarian in the Garden, Nogah Engler wanders through canonical European culture via imagined scenes based, among other sources, on photographs she has taken in her travels. She steps into lofty opera houses, sneaks a glance at the awe-inspiring museum halls, dominated by centuries long silence. With the care of a foreigner allowed into the Garden, her brush caresses the surface of ancient vases, lingers on the “oil on canvas” texture of Old Master paintings, records with longing meticulousness the stone reliefs and rich tapestry that adorn the vaulted halls. Like Herbert, she goes into elaborate and fine detail, charts the foreign and coveted territory inch by inch, yearning to appropriate it, to “know” it in the biblical sense. In Leaning #1, a figure leans over a porcelain swan, wistfully. The light regal swans contrast with the dark silhouette of the hunched, observing, woman, who has no name or identity. In Leaning #2 the same figure, this time in negative, is an absent/present apparition.
In the second decade of the 21st century, the Garden itself threatens to dissipate, like the celluloid negative of a grand history. Engler documents the crumbling margins and the dwindling time with an air of angst. In Embroidered in Marble (Herbert’s term for Orvieto Cathedral), a stream of sand or dust pours in through a wide crack in the ceiling, threatening to bury the refined furniture and drown the lofty space. The aura that surrounds the Garden has not yet faded, but in Engler’s paintings, the ground is shaking. The painting Embroidered in Marble brings to mind Federico Fellini’s apocalyptic film, Orchestra Rehearsal (1978), filmed in the wake of a political terrorist attack in Italy. At the end of the film, the conductor struggles to create music in the midst of chaos. The ceiling of the hall and the surrounding walls are cracked with the blows of a huge demolition ball, and a cascade of dust and debris threatens to bury the musicians and their instruments.
Engler’s works echo the words with which Herbert concludes his day in Siena: “…before reaching the gate I turn to look again at the Campo. Everything is as it should be: the walls of the Town Hall wedging sharply into the night, its tower as beautiful as yesterday. One can go to bed. Explosions mushroom above the earth, but maybe we shall still manage to make a couple of rotations around the sun – with this cathedral, this palace, this painting.”
*Zbigniew Herbert, Barbarian in the Garden.