Gal Weinstein’s project Huleh Valley extends over two floors at the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion for Contemporary Art—the entrance floor and the first floor. The exhibition, whose preparation took approximately one year, was made-to-measure specifically for this site.
The project is based on images appropriated from Peter Merom’s well-known, historical album of photographs, The Death of the Lake (1960).1 The book, which produced some of the visual images that have acquired a mythological status in the Zionist narrative of the State of Israel (valley, land and swamp; some of them themes previously explored by Weinstein in his works), was highly popular in the 1960s and adorned the bookcases in many homes. Merom documented in black-and-white photographs the state of Lake Huleh in the course of its draining, begun soon after the establishment of the State, from 1951 onward, and the attempt to transform some 15,000 acres of the lake’s floor into land fit for agricultural cultivation.
This ambitious engineering project was accompanied by slogans pertaining to reclamation of the land, construction and progress, a la “Where nature was, there shall culture be,” paraphrasing the formula underlying psychoanalysis’s civilizatory project: Wo Es war, Soll Ich werden (“Where id was, there shall ego be”). That psychoanalytic project was likened by Freud himself to the draining of a lake—Zuider Zee in Holland—which concluded the very same year (1932) his essay was written: “It is a work of culture—not unlike the draining of the Zuider Zee.”2
Eventually, however, the Israeli enterprise of Lake Huleh’s draining turned out to be a failure which interfered with the area’s natural balance, and in 1993 Huleh’s reclamation was set in motion, including flooding a part of the dried area.3 In retrospect, Merom’s photographs depict not only the destruction of the landscape and nature and the gradually disappearing beauty, but also the end of the age of innocence of the modernist Zionist enterprise. Weinstein “re-executed” some of the book’s images, albeit not in photography but in reliefs made of steel wool and MDF flooring. In Weinstein’s work, the appropriated images of the dying lake serve as metaphors for current feelings of termination, calamity and destruction.
The first part of the exhibition, on the entrance level, is based on a photograph of cracked earth: a large-scale installation reconstructing an experience of nature and open expanses within a closed space. It consists of MDF boards that have undergone processes of scraping and chiseling and simulate red soil in their material use. The work process—partly computerized, partly manual—was carried out by sketching and incising the image, which originated in a detailed map, into each board separately.
The second part of the exhibition includes large wall pieces executed in a slow, meticulous, and equally Sisyphean process whereby steel wool—a material that usually hides under the kitchen sink with household detergents—was pasted onto wooden panels. These works reconstruct six photographs from Merom’s book on a large scale: three photographs of water vegetation in the living lake before the draining process began, and three photographs of the dying lake in the course of its draining. The latter, seemingly gestural “paintings,” evoke ironic associations with the spontaneous splashing, dripping and scribbling of mid-20th-century male heroic Abstract Expressionism, whereas the “paintings” of water vegetation may recall the beginnings of modernism and Claude Monet’s Water Lilies.
The works are at once concrete and illusive, embedding a subversive element: the large floor piece, which brings a segment of the “desert” nature into the gallery and alludes to major Earth Art works of the 1960s and 1970s, is an artificial, disruptive imitation of the latter, while the glorious, virtuoso wall pieces, teeming with vegetation and water, are a deformed, perverse imitation of Merom’s small black-and-white photographs. To a large extent, the exhibition explores local history, the grand national projects with their hindrances and characteristic upheavals, as well as their artistic documentation, through the perspectives of contemporary art. It draws an analogy between the historical-political—Zionism and post-Zionism—and the historical-artistic—modernism and postmodernism.
Reconsideration of Merom’s album in the wake of Weinstein’s project reveals that what had been perceived in the historical consciousness as a celebration of the beauty of gradually disappearing nature on the one hand, and as popular, nostalgic aesthetics on the other, is also characterized by a solid political-aesthetic pattern deeply rooted in European culture. The Hebrew title of the book, Song of the Dying Lake, linking poetry, nature and death, attests to the poetic fascination with dying nature. In fact, the culturally prevalent formula woman = nature is quintessentially manifested in Merom’s text, as revealed from the very first pages: “We pledged ourselves to it unconditionally, loving it in its placid moments, in its stormy hours, always. Monotony was unknown, the face of the lake changed as often as the day itself. […] Our oars penetrated the secrets of the cane, the sedge, the reeds” (p. 6). Bearing these words in mind, one may, in fact, substitute the title of Merom’s book with the title Song of the Dying Woman. The aesthetics of purity, beauty, and harmonious perfection characterizing Merom’s compositions, obeys Edgar Allan Poe’s famous dictum from 1846: “The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetic subject in the world.”
In her book Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic (where Poe is also cited), Elisabeth Bronfen maintains that “death and femininity are culturally positioned as the two central enigmas of western discourse… [representing] that which is inexpressible, inscrutable, unmanageable, horrible; that which cannot be faced directly but must be controlled by virtue of social laws and art”.4 Substituting the woman for nature introduces the photographs of the dying lake—bearing the feminine name Huleh—as a male project combining nostalgia, protectiveness, pain, and passion. The eroticization of the dead woman is reinforced by her voice—the swan song at the final operatic scene in which she is dying, a song that enhances her inhuman dimensions.
In his Reflections on Nazism: An Essay on Kitsch and Death, Saul Friedländer includes, under the definition of kitsch, the nostalgia for virginal, mysterious nature and a mythical innocence that represents the beginning of the world, as a yearning for an archaic utopia in the midst of the modern world. Friedländer notes that “one of the characteristics of kitsch is precisely the neutralization of ‘extreme situations,’ particularly death, by turning them into some sentimental idyll.”5 One may say that in this opera Huleh dies and is reborn in three acts: the saga of draining and revival; the documentary album of photographs; and finally, Weinstein’s extensive art work.
Lake Huleh’s gender personification is revealed by the title of Merom’s book in yet another manner: the dying lake is nature morte, namely still life, a genre whose gender identity has been historically described and characterized as feminine, in Norman Bryson’s book Looking at the Overlooked, for instance.6 Peter Merom documented not Huleh’s enterprise of occupation-draining, but rather what it threatened to annihilate. Paradoxically, however, the documentation of the soon to disappear nature — in Merom’s dramatic, stylized photography7 — also transformed nature into culture.
Gal Weinstein’s Huley Valley—neither a lake nor dying—which produces an illusion of the book’s images by means of wood and iron scraps, deconstructs the aesthetic eroticism of Merom’s photographs. Even in the era of appropriation, professional execution of earlier images in plastic art, namely a medium which does not presuppose more than a single rendition—an original—at a place where there is no built-in gap (as in music) between the original (score) and its renditions, is necessarily linked to the problematics of the original work. The latter’s identity is undermined by the very presence of an identical otherness. Whether a mechanical replication, as in Sherry Levine’s works (or Pierre Menard in Borges’s story), or a deception, as in Vik Muniz’s prints which resemble the original, yet were produced by photographing a different object—the doppelganger elicits discontent.
This basic discontent is supplemented here by ironic overtones due to the great divergence from the original. Weinstein does not present photographs but rather objects, reliefs, which more than they resemble Merom’s photographs, appear, even in terms of scale, like the objects photographed by Merom: the cracked earth and the lake’s vegetation. Weinstein’s objects strive to represent a 1:1 scale and may be considered in terms of trompe l’oeil, or as dioramas without partitions between the exhibits and the audience. The dimensions and the deception generate sublime, spectacular qualities and associations to some paradigmatic models of modern art. The discordant, bristly materials, however, enable the viewer to consider “dying as a commodity.” How long would it take for the viewer, walking on the hard MDF lumps of earth, to smile or grin?
- Peter Merom,The Death of theLake, trans. M. Benaya (Tel Aviv: Davar Press, 1960).
Merom photographed Lake Huleh mainly in the first draining phase, between 1954 and 1955. In 1957 he went to Pariswhere he produced black-and-white prints of these photographs. During that period he negotiated with a Swiss publisher to issue the album abroad, but the book would eventually be published only in Israel, several years later. The aforesaid prints were sent to the Tel Aviv Museum and presented in the exhibition The Death of the Lake: Photographs from the Flora and Fauna in Lake Huleh that opened in August 1957—almost fifty years before the opening of Weinstein’s exhibition in the very same venue.
- Sigmund Freud, “Anxiety and Instinctual Life,” in Freud,New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, trans. James Strachey (London: Penguin, 1991), p.112.
- On the politics of theLake’s draining, see Dan Rabinowitz, “Nature is also Denied the Right of Return,”Haaretz, 15 July 1993 [Hebrew].
- Elisabeth Bronfen,Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic(Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992), p. 255.
- Saul Friedländer,Reflections of Nazism: An Essay on Kitsch and Death,trans. Thomas Weyr (New York: Harper and Row, 1984), p. 27.
- Norman Bryson,Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990).
- Merom felt that inThe Death of the Lakehe succeeded in capturing “pure nature […] an un-staged, non-artificial abstract combined with a composition of nature. […] I reached purity and perfection, for what else can one strive?” In: “Elegy of a Metal Cupboard: Guy Raz Interviews Peter Merom,” Studio Art Magazine 113 (May 2000), special issue: On the History of Local Israeli Photography, guest editor: Guy Raz, p. 77 [Hebrew].