In the beginning were the windows. The high, broad glass windows of the Art Gallery at the University of Haifa; 14.5m wide and 3.20m high, divided into nine panels that cause longitudinal striation, overlooking the spectacular landscape of Haifa Bay. Glass screens, intermittently transparent and opaque, which form the rear wall of a gallery, and by their very existence, as windows onto the landscape, are forever embroiled in latent rivalry with the art presented in the space which they delimit. This window wall, with its unique dimensions, inspired Gal Weinstein to create Site-Seeing – black PVC panels that make up a gigantic flat image of a geological section of the Negev. Wavy strips of geometrical signs – lines and dots – the arbitrary, yet accepted signs intended to mark the earth’s age strata. The section was extracted from a book of the country’s geological sections found in Weinstein’s library. Its neighbors on the shelf are, for example, ‘Geomorphology: the External Structure of Relief’; ‘The Earth: Quick Terminology’ (A Thematic Visual Dictionary); ‘Atlas of Israel,’ a book about earthquakes. These and other books are replete with maps, diagrams and graphs. The sections and sketches appearing in them describe the world through various prisms: earth strata, deposits, sediments, temperatures, joints, and faults – a wide range of information that ultimately gathers to form visual depictions; spectacularly beautiful, one might add. For the professional reader (geologist, geographer), these are meaningful signs; the layman (an artist, for instance) finds himself facing a foreign language book, impressed by the colors of the sediment maps (light pastels), fascinated by the professional definitions of natural phenomena – ostensibly dull, yet ever-so-poetic (desert striation, dust crusts, stalactitic crusts, ice caps…), noticing the autonomy of the signs and their independence of what they signify.
The black-and-white section of the Negev is among the graver and less luring pages in these books. Its appearance is scientific, but the multiplicity of sign combinations may also dazzle; a closer look reveals in them a comics-like Pop-art quality. All of a sudden the eye notices the similarity to Roy Lichtenstein’s paintings, with the lines and dots. As in Lichtenstein’s case, the image’s clarity is but an illusion. The paradox of visibility contained in the paintings – the more clearly the figures are depicted, with sharper contours, the more anonymous and hidden they are – also applies to the geological section of the Negev, affixed to the Gallery window: ostensibly lucid and matter-of-fact, the product of research, but in fact – a hybrid landscape of contradiction in terms (Negev and Haifa), an image that screens the referenced site.
What we see? How we see? Sections of Seeing
In terms of Gal Weinstein’s artistic chronology, the window work takes its place alongside (or, in fact, above) the monumental floor pieces at the Kibbutz Art Gallery, Tel Aviv (Close to the Ground, 1999), Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art (Valley of Jezreel, 2002), and the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion for Contemporary Art, Tel Aviv (Huleh Valley, 2005). These three installations were attempts (both heroic and pathetic) to realize gazes at a landscape in matter, via visual mediations and clichés. Close to the Ground was a type of red tile roof that lay on the gallery’s floor; Valley of Jezreel consisted of a thousand pieces of synthetic materials which formed a colorful landscape fabric, as seen from a bird’s-eye view; the soil of the Huleh Valley was made of MDF boards with a cleaved surface, which covered the museum floor, on which viewers walked. Like those large-scale installations, Site-Seeing also clings to the exhibition space in which it is featured, marking its boundaries, and at the same time polluting its neutrality, as an exhibition space, with a synthetic presence of artificial nature (synthetic materials are always accompanied by a fear of toxicity).
In other respects, from the perspective of the fascination with scientific representations, the window piece here accumulates as yet another layer in the work mound of Tsunami and Kho Phi Phi and Examples of Fractures – both from 2006, works that directly employed diagrams or graphs of natural phenomena. Tsunami (first presented in the exhibition ‘Mini Israel’ at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem) was based on a diagram published in the press following the deadly tsunami in the Indian Ocean in December 2004. The two-dimensional diagram transformed into a three-dimensional object: a tall, brown lump of MDF soil, with four green plastic palm trees on it, and the momentous tsunami covering it, made of purplish-blue Plexiglas. An awkward object in the colors of a dreamy holiday on an island, and at the same time – a monstrous enlargement of the horror. Similar to the way in which the press diagram embodies an attempt to control the natural forces through our knowledge about them (with arrows and explanations, and a detailing of the wave frequency and length) – a pathetic attempt, of course, for the tsunami, which took the lives of thousands, proved how unpredictable the Elements can be – so the Plexiglas object towers complacently in the museum with its exaggerated azure color, sweet and detached. Examples of Fraction (which debuted at the Ticho House, Jerusalem) was an enlarged model of a geological section depicting an earthquake, made of multiple layers of industrial wood. The strata were terraced at different heights, like an all-too-explicit didactic illustration for the expression and the phenomenon of “shaking earth,” with Astroturf spread on the topmost stratum. The horizontal earth strips resembled shattered bottles filled with colorful sand, and the general view was splendidly artificial. A golfer made of wax stood on one of these fragmented surfaces, about to strike the ball. His inevitable failure (ensured by the fragmentation of the surfaces) lent the work its elusive quality along the range between a visual joke and a rueful tribute to the human endeavors to overcome nature against all odds. Great silence and concentration above the surface (the moment before the strike), and total violation of all order underground (the earthquake).
The golfer on the green prompts another reading section in Site-Seeing; let us call it the section of the human figure. In the window piece at the University of Haifa these are Lilliputian figures of a boy and a girl, located in the section’s upper left-hand side, on the edge of the ridge. The figures were extracted from a warning sign, and are therefore as schematic as possible, and yet unsettling: “Caution – children crossing…” The patterned nature of the image (as always, Weinstein uses an existing image) reinforces the artificiality of the black landscape section, presenting the instrumental existence of the children as mere scale-markers. At the same time, the figures’ tiny dimensions and the conditioning of dangerous circumstances elicit near-panic: the two hold hands, marching away. The dangers posed by an urban road join associations of no-less than Caspar David Friedrich’s landscape paintings, with their small human figures facing a powerful Nature. The scientific appearance is interrupted. It is substituted by real dread (and romance).
In any event, human beings and nature do not merge in Weinstein’s works. They maintain relations of penetration, domination, swallowing, terror, unlike the reciprocal relations between man, industry, and landscape arising, for example, from the prints of a seasoned artist such as Jacob Pins. Pins’s series of woodcuts and linocutsp. 26 from 1969 is presented in the exhibition as a reference, a part of the site-seeing route outlined in the gallery in order to shed light on Weinstein’s Site-Seeing. Formally, the similarity might be deceptive: the black-and-white prints echo the coloration of the section and the confidence of its black lines. As prints, they contain a certain dimension of mechanicality. Like Site-Seeing, they also observe Haifa’s landscapes. But in terms of atmosphere, ethos, and the underlying motivation, Pins represents another world: a robust worker on a ship, the picturesque Haifa Port at the foot of the mountain, the impressive Dagon granaries, a ramified system of pipes; power which is not necessarily destructive. In the late 1960s Pins still observes all these with admiration, faith, and hope – man, industry, landscape.
Ori Reisman, a unique landscape painter in Israeli art, represents a quintessential oppositionary reference to Weinstein’s work: Mountain-Woman (Hills in the Negev) is a painting of a landscape, a woman, and their symbiosis. The painting is the only color patch in the exhibition – yellow-ocher, azure. Its radiant presence presents another, romantic and erotic gaze at the landscape. The woman is nature, the mountain is a woman’s body, the landscape curves are bodily curves, and the landscape orientation is a panoramic format. Reisman’s Negev Hills are soft and organic; they contain no pretension or intention to describe the landscape as it is, but rather as it is translated through the painter’s mental and emotional landscapes. The velvet quality of oil-on-canvas never seemed softer than when confronted with the black PVC, a material whose makeup one would rather not know.
Weinstein arrived at the black PVC after working many years with a line of man-made materials: steel wool, linoleum, plastic, silicon, MDF, etc. He first used it to create an enlarged image of his fingerprint. A PVC fingerprint is a combination of opposites of the type characterizing Weinstein’s works: the quintessential identification mark of each of us is realized in a prosaic, industrial material. The ultimate proof of uniqueness, and a material fit-for-any-product, from flip-flop soles to giant packaging. The use of PVC elucidates the far-fetchedness of the self-portrait ostensibly embodied in the fingerprint – which is, in fact, but a factual identification devoid of intimacy, an abstract form that says nothing about the finger’s owner. Black PVC also served Weinstein in Tremors, a large-scale wall piece created for the Huarte Contemporary Art Center in Spain (2007) – a graphic section consisting of a cross between an earthquake and the Thailand tsunami, stretched
across a 40-meter wall. Between the private fingerprint and sections of natural phenomena, Weinstein’s unique man-nature-culture version takes shape: constant leakage between private and synthetic, between nature and an illusion of nature – a stain of black paint spreading on the wall like a fluid ink stain, disastrous yet self-controlled. The chaos and order of the world, and their embodiment in an elegant, script-like section, which is at once graceless industrial PVC and a great drama of life and nature.
Earth, waves, earthquakes, landscapes, and surface. Is Gal Weinstein a landscape artist? Most of his works indeed address images of landscape and nature, but in contrast to the painter or photographer who goes into the great outdoors – to nature, into the landscape – Weinstein usually finds his sources of inspiration in the library: in art books, books of science, newspapers. He peruses them, extracting visual images that have already undergone some kind of processing, landscapes which someone observed before him, sights which in one way or another have already been experienced, conquered, fixed or classified; never a virginal sight, always an image devoid of the romance of originality. In his studio library, alongside art books, considerable room is preserved, as aforesaid, for books concerned with the bequest of knowledge: various atlases, popular science books, DIY guides, and encyclopedias of flora and fauna. He purchases the books with the distinct knowledge that one day he will use them; he is attracted to their poetical-scientific aesthetics as well as to the type of information they contain. These books and atlases embody the human attempt to contain knowledge about the world, to decipher and fathom it; they embody the pride for overcoming nature through its exploration and comprehension, and by formulating the process in the clean, abstract graphic means at our disposal.
In the window piece Site-Seeing, the image is a consensual visual scheme, the outcome of knowledge and learning. The section landscape embodied in it is an internal landscape, a view of the bowels of the earth, generally unseen. At the same time, unlike Weinstein’s previous works which dealt with mediated, processed, far-removed sights and landscapes, this time the work inevitably contains a view of a real landscape, the landscape seen through the window itself. By its very location on the window, the work points at the landscape, while screening it from the viewer’s eyes. The result is a hybrid landscape, a cross between the schematic, wavy section of the Negev and the Haifa Bay scenery; a black section suspended on the gallery window, and the landscape of the Bay seen through the window, a breathtaking landscape which is, in fact, an eerie combination of beauty and pollution. Chemical fumes and industrial smog are blended with the blue of the sea. In addition to all these, as if to spite, the black cross-section is a section of the Negev. Not that the spectator recognizes the Negev, but still – had he known of a congruity between the landscape and its graphic signs, this knowledge could have created conditions for harmony. The viewing experience summons something else: not only is the viewer unable to decipher the section, but he also learns that he is facing two places, two incongruent reference points. Their link is a spiteful one: not Haifa, but the Negev; the south is affixed to north-facing windows. The sight is composed from the operation of a drill into the depth (the section) and a panoramic view seen through the camera lens.
Weinstein’s floor pieces corresponded with iconic floor works, such as Walter De Maria’s Earth Room and The Broken Kilometer, two pieces featured in the exhibition spaces of the DIA Art Foundation in New York since 1979. The window piece here appropriates for itself a history of window pieces, works which by their very essence, share a preoccupation with seeing and the gaze. Marcel Duchamp is undoubtedly the most distinctive modern artist as far as window pieces go: The Large Glass (1915-1923), Fresh Widow (1920), La bagarre d’Austerlitz (1921). These works, which introduce the window as a surface on and within which the work takes place, challenged in the early 20th century what appeared to be one of the most fundamental characteristics of Western landscape painting since the Renaissance, and in fact – since Alberti, in his treatise ‘On Painting’ (1436), formulated the affinity between painting and the window: “I inscribe a quadrangle of right angels, as large as I wish, which is considered to be an open window through which I see what I want to paint.”1 The perception of painting, and especially landscape painting, became anchored as a gaze through the window. Duchamp endeavored to emphasize the ending of the illusory project in painting via a defiant presentation of the window itself: in The Large Glass he painted on glass, in Fresh Widow he blacked out the glass panes of the small French window with black leather. The windows were meant not to see through, but rather to be seen for themselves. Somewhat like Fresh Widow, Weinstein uses the window itself, blackening and blocking it. Duchamp sealed the panes completely, generating an erotic meaning through the wordplay of “fresh widow” and “French window.” Weinstein’s games belong in the culturalsemiotic field: he blackens the window with signs of one landscape that obstructs another, and at the same time – leaves peeping slits through which to view it. A similar act of presentation-concealment occurred in the installation at the San Francisco Art Institute (2001) – a screen made of silicon in decorative patterns, and a drawing in steel wool on the gallery window. The duality of visibility-invisibility was supplemented by the presence of the ornamental pattern, traditionally linked with artistic directions contrary to the illusory representation of landscape-seenthrough-the-window.
The local dynasty of window works is exalted by Michael Gross’s lyricalascetic shutters and window works. As a painter – Gross’s point of departure in many of his paintings was the landscape, translated to a minimalist, at times abstract image; as a sculptor – he encapsulated the experience of observation of nature by presenting the observing object itself – a shutter or a window. Its closed or semi-closed louvers form a discussion of seeing and concealment, while generating a formal and rhythmic presence of recurring elements. An abstract construction and a reflection on observation.
Tsibi Geva’s series of shutters from 1993 consisted of plastic louvers painted black and white. The series was called Blindsp. 30, a title which spans, in the tradition of Duchamp’s puns, both ‘shutters’ and ‘sightless,’ once again preserving the tension between seeing (outward) and shutting one’s eyes in the sense of inner vision. The closed shutters, which became a coloring surface with painterly qualities, contained a painful dimension of unwillingness to see, introversion, mourning, introspection. In the Israeli reality, it seems that shutter-closing is always, inter alia, a metaphor for man’s condition vis-à-vis a political reality which he chooses either to see or not to see.
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Is Gal Weinstein a landscape painter, then? As a child, Weinstein used to join his father in his travels throughout the country as part of his work as a water engineer. Recalling these travels today, what seems to have been etched in his memory most of all, or, at least, what infiltrated his works most of all, is the word combination “water engineer” itself. When you think about it, water engineer sounds almost like an oxymoron, a figure of speech comprising contradictory terms of the type that draws Weinstein’s attention, like the terms “depth classification” or “bedrock effects” or “sand accumulations as surface” – all drawn from atlases and books about our planet in which he revels. An inkling of the spirit typifying the far-fetched combination of “water” and “engineer” indeed exists in many of his ostensibly “scientific” works, and certainly in the window piece at the University of Haifa: the section, which purports to contain knowledge about the world, vis-à-vis the infinite amorphousness of the world itself, the university itself, as an institute that represents the bequest of knowledge and enlightenment, and self irony in view of the artistic process, which strives to domesticate, or engineer, nature.