Let it be noted from the start, that Gal Weinstein’s intervention in the Israeli Pavilion in Venice begins with the pavilion itself. This building, completed in 1952, was designed by Zeev Rechter, one of Israel’s most famous modernist architects.1 An initial query about the construction of an Israeli pavilion had already been submitted to the mayor of Venice in 1946, under the British Mandate.2 Three years following the establishment of the State of Israel in May 1948, it became possible to officially appoint an architect for the Biennale project. Born in the Ukraine, Rechter had immigrated to Palestine in 1919, and then studied architecture in Paris from
1929 to 1932. There, he was strongly influenced by his teacher Le Corbusier, whose ideas about modern architecture were geared toward meeting the requirements of a new society governed by the criteria of usefulness, functionality and efficiency. By using industrially manufactured components and reinforced concrete, Le Corbusier achieved a new modern language of forms that corresponded to the technical developments of the era and rejected ornamentation. Rechter’s close relationship with his mentor is evident in the pavilion, whose floor plan follows the trapezoidal outline of the provided plot of land. In this block-shaped building, which is devoid of decorative elements, the only interruption is the entrance, accentuated by two columns and a glass front. The white concrete facade that runs along the main path does not touch the ground – it seems to float until one reaches the supporting columns at the entrance. The pavilion’s interior is divided into three levels, and the intermediate level can be observed from the top floor. Without a doubt, at the time of its construction this national pavilion was already seen as an important symbolic project, as the newly founded Israeli state faced the challenge of uniting its heterogeneous population into a national community.3 The
construction of a national pavilion participated in establishing this new identity, based on an awareness “that construction and architecture do not just make usable space, but are also largely responsible for producing a homeland.”4
In a broad sense, the construction of the Israeli national pavilion also paid tribute to the Zionist vision as articulated, for instance, by the Austro-Hungarian writer and journalist Theodor Herzl. The author of the book The Jewish State: An Attempt at a Modern Solution of the Jewish Question (1896) and the novel Old New Land (1902) not only advocated the founding of an independent state for the Jewish people, but also promoted a state that “pursued the newest and, in his opinion, most brilliant contemporary developments in culture, technology and science.”5 Herzl envisioned a Jewish state defined by modern culture and modern architecture: “We shall not dwell in mud huts: we shall build new more beautiful and more modern houses.”6 He was equally confident that “the natural conformation of the land will rouse the ingenuity of our young architects whose ideas have not yet been cramped by routine.”7 The architectural incorporation of the realities of the landscape and of locality, as repeatedly called for in later cultural-political visions, was thus already being contemplated at the turn of the 20th century.
The pre-state Zionist enterprise was mainly focused on establishing small agricultural settlements. Following the state’s foundation, the search for possible housing solutions for a growing population resulted in modern, experimental approaches to settlement policy and to residential building design, which continue to impact social life and architecture in Israel to this day. As architectural historian Michael Levin writes, the modern movement in the first half of the 20th century combined two utopias: that of the Industrial Revolution, and that of garden cities.8 In both pre- and post-independence Israel, the garden city model proposed by the British planner and social scientist Ebenezer Howard, which interlinked concepts of urban development and social reform, served as a particularly important example.9 Howard envisaged residential towns that would be located in rural areas, and which would accommodate both factories and cultural establishments. One essential aspect of this model was that the land in such garden cities was to be community owned, thus ensuring the equal distribution of agricultural products and capital yield. The ideals of social justice were echoed in the conception of rural forms of settlement organized as cooperatives. The settlement Nahalal, established in 1921 and planned by Richard Kauffmann on the basis of Ebenezer Howard’s garden city model, was the prototype for the Israeli moshav, or cooperative agricultural community.
As the historian of architecture and art Ita Heinze-Greenberg writes in outlining the developments of that era, “The Zionist ideal of agricultural work and the rural lifestyle not only leads to the construction of agricultural settlements in Palestine, but also influences the conceptual planning of settlements near cities and of urban extensions.”10 Tel Aviv is considered to be the most prominent extension of the garden city concept. As Levin notes, “Within a very short period, various forms of agricultural and modern settlements were formed, from the kibbutz and the kvutza through the communal moshav, neighborhoods and garden cities that were built
on the basis of ideas formulated throughout the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, and developed in the avant-garde schools such as the Bauhaus, which strove to find planning and design solutions for this new spirit. Rural and urban settlements from Nahalal to Tel Aviv served as laboratories for implementing the modern planning principles and ambitious and unique social ideas.”11 Following
the foundation of the state, the forms of urbanism and architecture developed in the first decades of the 20th century came to be respected as representative characteristics of the young state, and were repeatedly brought up in connection with the question of an independent Israeli style.12
In his design for the highly symbolic pavilion in Venice, Rechter followed upon modern architecture’s promise to reflect the new Israeli society. However, when entering the building, visitors to this year’s Biennale experience a journey into the past: the timeless modernity of the exterior clashes with the effect of the interior
space, whose floor and walls seem to be covered with mold. On the pavilion’s interior, Weinstein has radically undermined the notion of a society’s awakening and of a new beginning associated with modern architecture. Patches and trails of green, yellow and brown-hued mold extend throughout the entire space. Weinstein uses bronze and steel wool, materials typical of his oeuvre, to lead the visitors into a seemingly organic floor piece – a physically and mentally engrossing “painting” that can be walked on. Sprayed with various liquids such as Diet Coke and vinegar, the bronze and steel-wool surface undergoes chemical and chromatic changes, generating the mold effect that Weinstein seeks. At the center of the floor, one can notice the pale
traces of the Nahalal settlement’s outlines. The mold cultures are thus growing over a picture of Israel’s first moshav, questioning the validity of historical settlement ideals today. A wall with ornamental patterns reminiscent of 19th-century décor also emphasizes associations with a bygone world and with impermanence, contrasting the former ideal with today’s reality.
Made of colored felt and steel wool, the landscape featured on the end wall comes from a 1970s picture book about biblical locations in Israel. Moon over Ayalon Valley (2017), as this wall piece is called, not only draws the gaze into a historical landscape, but also brings to mind the passage from the Bible that tells of Joshua’s victory over the kings of the Amorites. Joshua asks God for help with his command: “Sun, stand still at Gibeon, and moon in the valley of Ayalon!” (Joshua 10:13–14). In Weinstein’s view, this text, which goes on to describe Israel’s victory with God’s assistance (“for the Lord fought for Israel”), represents his country’s contemporary settlement policy, which, to no small extent, justifies the seizure of land by referring to selected biblical passages. “This miracle where the powers of religious belief won over the powers of physics may be interpreted as expressing a concept of reality that swings between megalomania and denial, based on an
unwavering belief in the impossible.”13
The next floor breaks away from the illusionistic world on the ground floor: approximately one ton of black coffee, water, and sugar fills flat Polyurethane containers that make up the floor piece Jezreel Valley in the Dark (2017). The work’s formal concept is based on a photograph of Weinstein’s floor installation Jezreel Valley, which he produced in 2002 by combining numerous differently colored carpet samples. As he notes, “it refers to both the mythological Israeli landscape which is part of the collective memory of early Zionism, as well as to my most widely recognized earlier work, blurring the distinction between a personal biography and a collective national identity.”14 Whereas the earlier work referred back to an aerial photograph of the valley, the idea of “working the land” is foremost in this latest material interpretation. What is cultivated here, on a small
scale, is something that otherwise has no right to exist (even in the art world): real mold. For this installation, the artist has become an agricultural worker, concerned with the growth of the cultures he has bred. In this context, Weinstein uses the term “passive agriculture,” since once they have been created, his cultures need no further help: their growth is indirectly influenced by external factors, such as Venice’s climate conditions and the pavilion’s visitors (via micro particles and body heat).15 The odor emanating from this mold installation spreads throughout the entire pavilion as a disturbing olfactory accompaniment.
The top floor is dominated by a sculpture representing the clouds of fire and smoke from a missile that has just been fired. The missile itself is no longer visible, but its diagonal trail of smoke cuts through the space as a cloudscape made of felt and Acrilan.16 Its title, El Al, not only describes the moment of blast-off, but also refers to the route taken by the exhibition’s visitors, who remember the faded, mold-peppered picture of Nahalal on the ground floor.17 The trail of smoke from a fired missile hangs over the aerial view of the pioneer settlement (Jezreel Valley in the Dark), which was once sustained by cooperative ideals and by promises of freedom and equality. It takes the visitor back into a present-day world characterized by armed conflicts and existential anxieties.
The manual implementation and deceptively genuine appearance of the installation as a whole18 appeal to the observers’ haptic perception. Weinstein tells of situations in which the materiality of his works has been tested by means of touching – as in the biblical story about the incredulity of St. Thomas. Thomas inserts his finger into Jesus’ wound to assess the gap between reality and imagination. Is the wound proof of reality, or merely of a perfect illusion? The answer to this question depends solely on whether one considers Jesus to be real or fictitious. “What is so beautiful and profound about this story,” says Weinstein, “is that if the wound is real, Jesus must be flesh and blood (and thus was not resurrected and is not ‘real’ in the sense of faith). And if it is fake, then it is proof that Jesus is not flesh and blood, and is truly the son of God). This is the essence of the experience I am trying to communicate – the unresolved doubt concerning the difference between the physical and the imagined.”19 Such an interest in paradoxes extends throughout Weinstein’s artwork. He scrutinizes not only the historically, symbolically and mythologically charged nature of images, but also
the emergence and allocation of meaning.
Weinstein has deliberately selected mold as a motif that triggers rejection and revulsion. With this motif, of all things, he thematizes the blurring of reality and illusion, and unhinges the perception of symbolically charged images. The emotional reaction that can be provoked by his installation as a whole rebounds on the recipients as an individual reflection, confronting them with personal associations pertaining to death, destruction, deconstruction, fears, and the impermanence of existence. Weinstein further extends the thematic scope of his work with clouds of smoke – ephemeral, briefly visible indications of an act of war that will cause pain and suffering. His oscillating oeuvre, riddled with paradoxes, is about crumbling ideals and visions, unkept promises, and a melancholy desire for new images of hope.
1 Zeev Rechter’s son Yaakov and the Brazilian-born architect David Resnick, who had trained under Oscar Niemeyer, also worked on the pavilion project at Rechter’s office.
2 Britain’s handover of the Mandate to the UN at the end of 1947, and the decision to divide Palestine into an Arab state and a Jewish state, cleared the way for Israeli statehood.
3 This population consisted of the pre-state Zionist community as well as new immigrants from various countries, who came from a range of different cultural, religious, and socio-economic backgrounds. See Anna Minta, Israel bauen: Architektur, Städtebau und Denkmalpolitik nach der Staatsgründung 1948 [Building Israel: Architecture, Urban Development and Monument Policy after the Founding of the State in 1948], Frankfurt am Main, Dietrich Reimer Verlag, 2004, p. 13.
4 Ibid., p. 398.
5 Ita Heinze-Greenberg, Europe in Palestine: The Architects of the Zionist Project 1902–1923, ETH Zurich: GTA Verlag, 2011, p. 29.
6 Theodor Herzl, The Jewish State, quoted in Heinze-Greenberg, p. 21.
8 Michael Levin, “The Modern Movement in Israel,” in Docomomo Journal 40, March 2009, p 36.
9 Ebenezer Howard’s book To-Morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform was published in 1898. The second edition, in 1902, bore the title Garden Cities of To-Morrow.
10 Heinze-Greenberg, p. 73.
11 Levin, p. 36.
12 Levin describes the selfperception of Israeli city residents at the time as follows: “The city’s residents saw New York before their eyes as a model of modernism and dynamism to which the new city they were building strove to be similar.” Ibid, p. 38.
13 Gal Weinstein, quoted in his proposal for the Venice Biennale.
15 Gal Weinstein in an interview with the author, December 5, 2016.
16 One important piece that preceded this work is Fire Tire (2010), an installation of burning tires made of wax and Acrilan. It was displayed as part of the 2011 solo exhibition that I curated at Kunsthaus Baselland in Muttenz, Basel.
17 The expression El Al, which means “upwards” in Hebrew, is also the name of Israel’s national airline.
18 Due to time constraints and financial considerations, all works apart from the floor piece Jezreel Valley in the Dark and El Al were prefabricated in Tel Aviv and then transported to Venice
19 Gal Weinstein in an interview with the author, December 5, 2016.