On castoff mattresses in public space
An essay inspired by photographs
Outside. Castoff. Mattress
I have never seen anyone discarding a mattress in the street. We never see the person who comes out of his house with a mattress and dumps it in the street. We also never see who picks them up. They are just there, until they are not. Leaning against a tree or a wall or simply lying there. Sometimes they slide off the sidewalk into the road. There is no room for them in the trash cans. No trash can can contain a mattress. Public space is their trash can until they are taken away. Sometimes we see sanitation workers pulling a mattress together and struggling to shove it into their truck.
The mattresses discarded in public space brutally and mercilessly signify the basic right to shelter. People and their personal belongings (refugees, the homeless, or people evicted from their homes) are thrown out into the street and abandoned in public space. Always present among the piled belongings is a mattress. A mattress is the modest personal space in our home on which each and every one of us lays down to gather strength. None of us, unless we are homeless, unless we are refugees, sleeps outside in the street. When an object is dumped in the street, when a person or an entire family is thrown out into the street, they have no shelter. Anyone who has never experienced the absence of a roof over their heads has probably never given any thought to the basic right of every human being to shelter.
That is why this metaphor of exposure – a home without walls in public space – was the metaphor that inspired the Tents Protest in the summer of 2011.
This photograph, taken on July 14, 2011, documents the apartment Dafni Leef spread out on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv as a metaphor. Careful observation of the photograph reveals the metaphor of an apartment in public space – without walls, without a roof; everything is exposed to the open air.
In public space our body is our shelter. But our shelter, namely our body, needs a shelter too. Therefore, we need a shelter comprising four walls; where I depart from public space and can lay my body down. Only there, between four walls, do we allow ourselves to release body and emotions, even let ourselves collapse, gather strength and go out into the world once again. Our home is the shelter we leave and to which we return. For us to achieve self-autonomy, to maintain a life of physical and conscious liberty and dignity, each and every one of us is entitled to a roof-shelter-home. And in this home, it is the mattress on which we lay our body down. Not tossed down, laid down.
In stark contrast to the sheltering, containing, and protecting roof and walls, anything thrown out into the street – people and objects alike – does not contain and is not contained; it remains unprotected, abandoned, intentionally neglected, and consequently cast off and crushed.
And in the city streets, in public, as well as in unrecognized settlements, castoff mattresses are a symbol of the urban natural disaster of living without shelter. What has this natural disaster to do with the insensitive moniker “street dweller”? The following is an excerpt from Adam Baruch’s column Shishi (Friday) published on 11.01.2002:
‘Euphemistic Language: “Street Dwellers”. Until yesterday they were called homeless, but just recently official bodies (municipal, governmental) have started calling them “street dwellers”. Why? To disguise, to soften, to blur: as if Israeli society is divided lawfully, consciously, and as a method into housing project dwellers, private home dwellers, penthouse dwellers, and street dwellers. In other words, by means of the cynical “street dwellers” the street has become a natural component of the housing system in Israel.’
The man in Jeff Wall’s photograph, Citizen, has chosen to lie down and sleep on the grass. He is not cast off. The same applies to the couples in the photographs of Ernst Hess and Ralph Morse (which appeared in 1955 in The Family of Man exhibition) who chose to sprawl on the grass. And when they choose to, they will get up and leave. Jeff Wall called his photograph Citizen, not The Citizen. A man sleeping on the grass in a public park. “Citizen” indicates a particular citizen and the idea of “citizen”, including the civil right to sleep in a public area. The rights of the individual in public space and modes of conduct in the “public domain” are set forth in the law.
The African refugee in the photograph by Abir Sultan is cast off in the sun, unconscious with exhaustion, long since sliding off the lawn onto the sidewalk. No shade shelters him either. It is him for himself.
A House with a Mattress. A Photograph with a Mattress. A Mattress in the Street as a Metonymy for Homelessness
A sketch of the walls of a house indicates the shape of the mattress intended to occupy it. A room has four walls. The rectangle of the mattress in the rectangle of the photograph resembles the rectangle of the mattress in the rectangle of the room.
House, mattress, photograph – these are shapes formulated by culture to benefit a cultural practice. “Rectangle” is a shape that cannot be found in nature. Man defines-derives it from the space around him. A rectangle, in contrast with a circle for example, defines what is top and what is bottom, what is right and what is left. A circle does not have a basis according to which a direction can be dictated. Culture dictates frames in order to act within and without them. The photographic frame determines frames for things, and from the esthetics of the frame emerges the ethic within it.
See also Red House, the painting by Arie Aroch. On the red roof of the house viewed from above lies a figure. Hence the house looks like a mattress. Inscribed under the roof, without punctuation or question marks are the words: ‘How are things at home how are the people how do they live’. A sentence that presents an ironic contradiction to the castoff mattress outside. So how’s life you ask? ‘There is no plan. We live. Period.’ The light washing over the painting is the light of the sun at midday. A triangular strip of dark paint over the rectangle of the roof resembles a cast shadow attesting to the height of whatever it is under the rectangle of the roof, namely the walls of the house, not a mattress. Gideon Ofrat writes that the painting is a kind of postcard from Aroch expressing his yearning for Israel, and also alludes to his paintings of red mailboxes. A reading of the painting indicates that home is that very personal place, that place we yearn to return to, where we can finally rest. And at home, the place on which we will rest is the mattress.
In 2012, as part of the annual photojournalism exhibition, “Local Testimony”, Moran Shoub curated the subject exhibition “Castoffs”. The exhibition text served as the basis for this essay.
 The metaphor of exposure – a home without walls in public space – which inspired the Tents Protest in the summer of 2011, predicted something of the individual’s sacrifice of personal space. It predicted exposed privacy. Mattresses filled the boulevards and, in turn, people fell asleep on them.
 The first story in the Hebrew collection of short stories by Raymond Carver, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, is about an anonymous man who arranges the contents of his home in his yard exactly as they were arranged inside it. He puts everything up for sale, and then sells it all at half price – as long as someone takes it, buys it, no matter for how much. As the first in a collection of short stories, the story symbolizes, among other things, the author’s act of exposure in public space. However it is not a dramatic exposure, but rather laconic, surrendering, despairing.
 Ariella Azoulay, A Civil State of Emergency, Artforum, December 2011.
 At one time, a group of homeless men used to gather on the lawn near the beach in Jaffa. There was a small dog with them, and they stayed there for most of the day. At the time I used to walk with my dog on the same lawn, and I would see them from a distance. One Saturday, the lawn filled with vacationers. Groups of people sat around eating, playing, relaxing. That group of homeless men was swallowed up among the vacationers for the glory of equality.
 1960. Oil on canvas and gold leaf, 60×50 cm (the proportions of a mattress). On the back of the painting Arie Aroch wrote the words “Red House”, and hence its name
 From the film Life According to Agfa, Assi Dayan, 1992
 Gideon Ofrat, Art is a Letter, in his blog Gideon Ofrat’s Warehouse: https://gideonofrat.wordpress.com/2010/12/14/%D7%90%D7%9E%D7%A0%D7%95%D7%AA-%D7%94%D7%99%D7%90-%D7%9E%D7%9B%D7%AA%D7%91/