Gal Weinstein’s series of works entitled Huleh Valley – Emek Hajula in Hebrew – are a comment, footnote, homage and playful wink towards a photography book by Peter Merom, published in 1960. When looking at the large works from afar, they maintain landscape appearances of water, reeds, birds in flight. In closer inspection, the images disintegrate and turn into what they really are, bristles of steel wool on wooden panels.
The Huleh Lake used to be a mosquito-infested, swampy marsh, which symbolized, since the beginning of Zionist settlement in Eretz Israel, the forces of nature against which the pioneering settlers had to stand. In the fifties, following the formation of the state, the lake was dried out.
Peter Merom was at the time a member of a nearby kibbutz, and while working as a fisherman, he documented with his camera the last years prior to the drying out. His photographs were gathered into a book poetically entitled Song of a Dying Lake, which became a must-own item in every Israeli household: Merom’s photographs weren’t just a reminder of the heroic project, but also an expression of all that was portrayed in those days as artistic and “beautiful”.
Gal Weinstein’s interest in Hula Valley stems from the mythological nature of both the lake and the book accompanying it. His attraction is to the photograph’s canonical status in the collective Israeli archive of images, and he typically arrives at the image at a stage when it is emptied of content and to the myth when it is already a cliché. The lake drying project garnered at the time the pathos of conquest of wasteland, elimination of disease and subjugation of nature. Knowing today that drying the lake was an ecological error provides Weinstein’s project with the necessary shift, the “unnatural” touch in regards to nature. The lake has been re-flooded in recent years and the enormous effort invested in drying it was replaced by a different, opposing effort, toiling without reason, and the analogy to the work of art makes itself present, through each lump of steel wool. It suddenly transpires that rat isn’t any less absurd and baseless than reality – at least the Israeli one.
The steel wool works were part of a large installation erected by Weinstein in Tel Aviv Museum of Art in 2005. The second part of the exhibition was a MDF made soil – manually sculpted and engraved – covering the museum’s floor, and viewers were invited to step over a perfect imitation of dried-out swampland. It is not entirely clear what has ultimately finished Hula Lake off – whether it was the dramatic drying project of the fifties or whether it was its turning into MDF and steel wool, kitchen materials and cheap carpentry installation.
Hula Valley was preceded by another floor project entitled Jezreel Valley (Emek Izrael in Hebrew). In 2001, Weinstein covered the floor of the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art with hundreds of pieces of cheap carpet. The mosaic of patches, in shades of green and brown, joined the bird’s eye-view upon fields and trails, a sort of archetypal landscape postcard of Yizrael Valley, which is one of the most mythical symbols of pioneering Zionist settlement.
Besides rummaging through Israeli myths, Weinstein’s works engage in obvious dialogue with land artists such as Robert Smithson and Walter de Maria; the steel wool paintings’ winking nod towards Jackson’s Pollock colour splash paintings and the way in which they became common aesthetics, is apparent as well. But the heart of the project is the Israeli image and the way by which Israeli landscape is perceived thorough its artistic representations.
One can sense Weinstein’s genuine affection towards those old-naïve representations, at the same time recognizing their vacuity. He treats them with dedication and toil, sticking one piece of steel wool to another, transferring the photographed images of the Hula Valley into gigantic pictorial landscapes. The Hula Lake is painted with a cleaning and scrubbing material, the water birds and reeds are bristly steel wool, nature in its entirety is fictitious and artificial. The only thing one can stick to is the invented representation. And the more one troubles over it, the more it gets appropriated from the real to become imaginary and fantastical. The Hula Valleyas the Israeli version of Las Vegas.