Sheffy Bleier

The Stuff Depression is Made of: On Sheffy Bleier's Works 

Ari Folman 

Once, ten years ago, neurologist Alistair Brown managed to isolate the substance of which depression is made. When this happened, Sheffy Bleier celebrated her 22nd birthday, and although I was at that celebration by utter chance, I clearly remember the details: there was a special night edition on television, and an inarticulate announcer in a leather jacket explained how the substance of which depression is made looks somewhat like bone marrow: "a yellow substance that multiplies like a malignant cell, and tends to flow in the right hemisphere of the brain," the leather jacket reported. "In some people the substance multiplies according to the seasons, and in others – in direct proportion to their psychic condition in life, work, love, their relationship with their bank account." In conclusion, they promised on television, the world is on the verge of redemption. Shortly, Alistair Brown will be able to run checkups on anyone to locate the quantity of the substance of which depression is made. 

On that wondrous night depression became chemistry. In South Africa five clinical psychologists jumped to their deaths, and many others on the planet felt the ground burning under their profession. It was said that within a month an injection would be invented to dilute the terrible fluid, and soon everyone will walk around with a cheese smile on his face. We sat in front of the television and laughed our heads off. We laughed for many reasons, but the best one was that we were happy, and the distance between us and Brown's chemical depression was tantamount to science fiction. 

Ever since that night in July '86, I never again heard of Dr. Alistair Brown. People I knew said that he hanged himself after the scientific milieu chewed his theory and spit the scientist out of the establishment. Ever since that night I never met Sheffy Bleier either, but people who knew her said she had started photographing her body. They didn’t know what had happened with her, where she lived, with whom and how many, but they were willing to swear they had seen Sheffy Bleier's body reworked on giant photographic sheets in cellars that present monumental photographic sheets and call them an "exhibition." At that moment, and without any logical reason, I was torn by curiosity. Two years ago I decided to return a book to her that she liked, as an excuse, and started looking for photographs of her body throughout the city. I took a list of exhibitions out of the paper and started looking. It's not that I knew her body intimately, but I knew that I would recognize it at once, by the parts. Not large but rather long and gentle appendages: hands, legs, fingers. You couldn't mistake the long hair. The structure of the eyes may be retouched, but you cannot mistake the long fingers or the legs. 

The search began at the height of summer. One man who called himself a curator stood and sweated in the corner of his bunker on Gordon Street: "Tell me. What's the specialization of that Sheffy you're looking for?" I said I didn't know; all I knew was that she photographs her own body, that it's important to her. But the sweater in the bunker insisted: "Does she exhibit a lot? Can her sales records be traced? Does she do it in a studio? With color? With other people in the frame? You know, many people photograph their bodies and call themselves photographers, but that Shiffy, is it with montage? Without montage? What kind of a name is Sheffy, is she Arab? Does it come from Shifra, Shefya? Say, are you in love with her or her husband's private eye?" 

I was desperate. After two months of basements, gallery owners, and people with thinning hair who bethink themselves great experts on plastic art, I went into this place by the sea which smelled of coriander. The man wanted to open a gallery by the port, sought originals, but in the meantime, to make a living, he broiled fish in coriander in the oven and sold it to the surfers at Sheraton beach. 

At the entrance to the gallery I thought to myself that even though I hadn't seen Sheffy Bleier for eight years, I felt sorry for her that she had to present her body on these large sheets in front of all these people. I looked at him, at this art pharmacist, at this plastic cook's assistant, with his bloody apron and scaly hands. I looked at him as he was taking down a package from the attic, and I knew she was there. Indeed, the third photograph was hers. I recognized her immediately. The long legs, the hands, the hair, her long body amidst broken glass and water. Apart from her there was something else there as well, something deep; it was the stuff from which depression is made. I sensed it immediately in the picture, running throughout my body. Someone else would have found the Holocaust, or death there. I realized it was an entirely chemical thing, processes experienced by the body. Alistair Brown's substance cried out from her photograph. 

I bought that picture for 500 shekels and six fish, and was given the following explanation from the scale-handed curator: "There are artists, women you know, who start messing with their bodies after giving birth; the change kills them. I realized it from the picture when she came here, and I figured her out quickly. She, who was a princess and her body was slave to her self love, all of a sudden has to wake up every morning and confront her new body. Her new figure. All of a sudden she is a woman, like her mother. I once had one like that, in real life, not in the gallery; she couldn’t get out of it for six consecutive labors." 

After that, the search became an obsession. When I exhausted all the galleries, all the cellars, all the haughty people who take custody of less haughty people who present their bodies on large sheets of paper, when it all ran out, salvation came from an entirely unexpected source: a friend of my parents, a plastic surgeon who did tinkering for all the aging singers in the city, reported that a year previously she had come to him and asked to see photographs of women before surgery. He remembered the name, Sheffy, and the fact that she didn't care what type of operation: breast lift, facelift, lip enhancement, hip liposuction, "everything goes," she told the surgeon, "so long as there are markings in thick pen on the patient's body. Thick black marker lines." 

The tinker of the Internet era too felt that Sheffy had a deep interest in her bodily transformations, even though he was convinced she had no personal interest in plastic surgery. He let her beg, but ultimately didn't release even a single photograph. "A matter of ethics," he said. Others did, and so, in some of the galleries where I made a second round, they remembered her spreading on the table blurred photographs of faceless women, half a minute before the scalpel cuts their bodies, their breasts exposed and thick black markers outline the new, youthful, and very concealing form they chose for themselves. She called it documentation. In the gallery they thought it was detached from any context. At times, shocking. They refused to exhibit, and I paid another 500 shekels and purchased the plastic surgeon's piece as well. 

After six months of searching I no longer believed there was a chance to find her. Sheffy Bleier. All of a sudden it didn't seem that important to me either. I felt that I had completed ten missing years with two photographs. 

And still, my jigsaw-puzzle was missing only one picture, that of the child. There was a woman, there was pregnancy, there was a postnatal body, there were the fantasies of the postnatal body, and only the child was missing. Two months ago, in an auction in Herzliya, I found him too. It was moist and crowded and it was clear that no artist would show up to see the stall-owners take out their wallets for his works. She wasn't there either. Not physically. The auctioneer wanted an initial bid of 500 shekels for each photograph by Sheffy Bleier. In the first photograph I saw the child's pants, he must have been five. Laundered trousers with little inscriptions in her handwriting next to the trouser-leg; the most trivial washing instructions. There were also some locks of his hair in the sink, and his socks, the child's, were also given a separate photograph, after he had splashed in the mud. In small handwriting next to the sock she wrote that it was supposed to be a summer day, but rain came before she and him made preparations for winter. There was a great deal of happiness in the child's pictures, but there was also a lot of that stuff from which depression is made. I thought that no matter what happened to her in those years, she would never be free of the influence of that substance in whatever she does. I purchased each photograph for 500 shekels and asked the auctioneer if these pictures had a title. "Family Diary, that's how the photographer calls her works." That day I stopped looking for her. 

(From: Studio Art Magazine, no. 77, Nov.-Dec. 1996, pp. 14-17 [Hebrew])
Translation: Daria Kassovsky
Editing: Jon Spector