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RCA Photography Graduate, Michal Bar-Or on being a Saatchi New Sensations Finalist and her New Commission

13 September 2013 – Royal College of Art Photography graduate Michal Bar-Or is one of four graduate fine art finalists commissioned to produce work for The Saatchi Gallery’s annual New Sensations exhibition next month.

Cave, Michal Bar-Or
Cave, Michal Bar-Or

Along with Glenn Kennedy, Glasgow School of Art; Rosie O'Grady, Glasgow School of Art and Jack Stanton from Oxford University, The Ruskin College, Michal will create a piece for the show, and work with Channel 4 to make a short film about her work. Michal follows in the footsteps of fellow Photography alumnus, Jonny Briggs, who won the New Sensations prize in 2011. Here, we talk to her about her work and the RCA, her recent win and her upcoming commission for New Sensations.

Tell us about your time at the RCA. What sort of topics did you explore?

'I was studying on the Photography programme at the RCA until June this year. Relocating from Israel-Palestine to London and studying at the RCA had a huge influence over my research and on my artistic practice. My practice beforehand, which was based on direct photography, was made in and about this sensitive land that I call home. Suddenly my subject matter was far away. I was trying to search for traces, for places in which I can find evidences of my homeland within London.

London was the capital of the British mandate in Palestine – Eretz Israel. This city contains a huge amount of documents from and about my home land, hidden between different archives and museums. Those documents are, however, very different from the ones you can find in Israel or Palestine.

The work I did while at the RCA was with archival photographs. The archive allowed me to look at the first European attempts to transform the notion of the land by creating evidential links between the physical landscape and the Bible. This transformation still affects the reality and the politics of the region today. Archaeology was one of the tools for this transformation, as it created material evidence that could transform the biblical stories into historical facts.

For my final project, I created a group of works that function together as an installation. In each work I used different conceptual and material approaches to challenge, disrupt and intervene with those past archeological documents to rethink our notion of the land and our relationship to it. The works continually challenge the validity of what we perceive as objective historical documentation.

The work reflects upon my own identity. It exposes the dual relationship I have with my motherland as both a daughter of colonialists (Zionists), and as a native. I don't know any other home.'

How did you get selected for New Sensations?

'During the final show I received an email from a director at The Saatchi Gallery inviting me to apply for New Sensations (I believe each of the students got that email). The application was relatively short. You have to submit an application form, images of five works from the final show, a short artist statement and description of future project that you will work on if you are selected as finalist. A month later, I was told I was part of the long list, and after a couple of weeks, I got an excited email about being one of the finalists.'

What does being a finalist mean to you?

'It means a great deal – that I have the opportunity to create new work that will be shown under fixed deadline. A bursary means that I have the backup to photograph wherever I want, and with more self-confidence.'

You've been commissioned to create a new piece for the show next month. What's the brief?

'I wish to create a small photographic installation that will question the connections between archeology and eugenics. I followed Sir Flinders Petrie, the father of modern archaeology, and a follower of eugenics theories. Petrie died in 1942 in Jerusalem, where he is buried. He donated his head to the Royal Society of Surgeons in London. In the time of war, the head got lost for a few decades.

I start with a focus on the threefold relationship between the photograph, the object, and the physical body, looking at how fragile the borders between those three are, and how the categories that separate one kind of pottery from the other can easily transform into human beings. How similar are the tools for measuring pottery and for measuring heads? I question our presumptions concerning the archaeological-historical object and its value as past evident, the nature of museum presentations, our understanding of how information is organised, and what our motivations are.

The new commission is very much connected to the work I did at the RCA, and is a result of the same route of thought. Both deal with our perceptions around knowledge and history. Both use archaeology as a theme and both are based on archival research.'

Who do you most admire from among the other finalists, and why?

'I absolutely love Rosie O'Grady’s Camellemac. I think it’s a smart and funny piece that takes into consideration the politics of past and present art and art education. By simply re-enacting an historical miner event, which she discovered about in the school’s archives, the work plays with the time and space of the art academy, and reflects on our perception of the place.'

The annual New Sensations exhibition, which launched in 2007 to find and support the most imaginative and talented artists graduating in the UK, will feature the work of 20 young artists.

Twenty graduates from BA and MA programmes across the UK and the Republic of Ireland were chosen by judges artists Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin; Nick Hackworth, founder of Paradise Row; Ossian Ward, formerly visual arts editor of Time Out and now at the Lisson Gallery; Tabitha Jackson, Commissioning Editor, Arts, Channel 4; and Rebecca Wilson, Chief Curator, Saatchi Online and Director, Saatchi Gallery.

The New Sensations UK 2013 exhibition will open from 12 October at B1, Victoria House, Bloomsbury, London WC1.