We begin this correspondence while you are hard at work on your huge 200m2 MDF piece, and on the large-format paintings made with steel wool. The MDF sawdust is still up in the air of the hangar in Mikhmoret, some of the panels are still blank, while in your studio in Tel Aviv the rolls, strands, wisps, even dust particles of steel wool are still scattered on the floor—some of them waiting to be affixed onto the painting of reeds in water, others—sometimes it’s hard to tell which—have perhaps fallen off the sticky surface of the canvas. In other words, this conversation takes place in the “time of matter.” On second thought, though, to be more precise, a large part of the stuff has already turned into an image (a thicket of reeds), and a sculpture (the polygon-fissured dry mud surface), while the rest remains in its raw state, waiting. In a certain sense, then, we are having this conversation on the threshold between image and matter, which, as far as I am concerned, are ideal circumstances for talking about art in general and your art in particular.
I would like to start with matter. First of all, in the current piece, as in most of your previous works, you consistently make use of pre-processed and mass-produced materials. Let’s focus on MDF for a moment: it comes to you in the shape of standard size panels made from wood fibers glued together under pressure. The panels are flat, rigid, lacking any grain or pattern, like a dough gone solid, uniform throughout, both in structure and in color. In this regard, it must be said, it differs from plywood—one of the foundations of the “want of matter” school—which retains the material traces, the “memory,” of the wood of which it is made. In the case of MDF, this memory is completely gone, pulverized down to dust, resulting in a kind of minced wood, akin to the minced stone that the factory in Caesarea uses to build kitchen tops, sinks, etc.
So, on the one hand, MDF still retains some link with the natural material, because, after all, it’s made of wood (which, alongside stone and metal, comprises the holy trinity of the classical materials of sculpture). On the other hand, owing to the complete dissolution of the material’s inner structure, it frees the artist from the need to cope with “sensibilities” of the material, sensibilities that language (“knots” [“eyes” in Hebrew] of wood, “veins” of marble) elevates to the degree of the greatest possible complexity of matter—that of the human body. Vast bodies of practical knowledge of sculpting accumulated over centuries, even millennia, have simply vanished into thin air. A similar process took place in painting where industrial paints thrust aside the oil paint. And many people would argue that the divorce of art from “natural” raw materials turns it into a game of tennis without a net, as Robert Frost scornfully described poetry without rhymes.
And there is one more thing that aligns the MDF and the sculpture of cracked mud made of it: in the early stage of its manufacture, MDF is liquid due to the presence of glue in it; it can be described as liquefied wood turned solid. And this is the material you use to sculpt fissured mud, or clay, whose shape is derived from its being semi-liquid prior to its desiccation. It is as if the action of sculpting repeats, or simulates, the emergence, the manufacturing process, of the raw material of the sculpture itself.
Your description of our conversation as taking place on “the threshold between image and matter” is very apt as a description of a state of “betwixt and between.” The script seems clear cut: a material takes shape as an image, i.e., it moves into a differentiated state. And I ask myself, what does the image do to the material, or, how is the material experienced in its metamorphosis into an image. In this case, the image was there first, but it waited for its imitation by and initiation into the material, so to speak. In Valley of Jezreel the material came first and the image second, it waited, like in a car drive on Shabbat with two cars—each time one waits for the other.
If I understand the analogy drawn by Frost, the issue is constraints: struggling with the dictates of the material. The decision to design it as an image aims at giving birth to something that is certainly not a material, while remaining attuned to its “sensibilities.” It’s like an act of violation, but in a natural manner. And because no existing work methods or traditional knowledge fit my use of these materials, I must invent them. In other words, my working methods simulate the traditional process, except that different materials come into play; concepts such as knowledge and material become part of the questions that the piece itself tries to raise.
In your description of MDF you stressed its anonymity. On the other hand, having performed many trials, I can’t think of any other material that would serve me better to sculpt earth with, a material that “coping with its sensibilities” gives rise to the visibility of something else. I find it interesting that it is precisely the action of imitation that exposes the specificity of the stuff, just as you described its manufacture as analogous to the process of formation of fissured earth. I find it fascinating—to take processes and images related to emergence or formation, in order to transpose them into the realm of manufacture. This practice brings up absurd situations of control, because formation does not occur spontaneously; it is made, produced, and, in the process, turned into surface and appearance.
Another interesting point is that the steel wool too is a kind of “minced matter,” minced steel in this case. Something in these materials lays bare a functional, economic, utilitarian mode of thinking—and I don’t have recycling in mind. Thinking in terms of what can be done with scraps of material. In terms of the manufacturing process it also reminds me of dog food. We all know about the use of MDF in the furniture industry and in kitchen design, as well as its use in art, but usually the way it is put to use derives from its shape—to construct volume. In my current floor piece, I also use its “body,” or, to be more precise, its “flesh.” And I thought that perhaps there is something similar between turning particles of wood refuse into a solid block, a shape, even something functional, if you will, and the attempt to drain a swamp and turn it into “productive” land. I have in mind a transition from something useless, shapeless and indefinable, into something utilitarian, effective and distinct.
When you described the piece you are working on (and I assume you meant your artwork as a whole) in terms of your engagement with production/manufacture of emergence/ formation, i.e., the application of a design and manufacturing program to “natural” processes of formation, your choice of this specific material instantly became clear to me. Because one can describe MDF also as a “digital” wood, a material analogue of image, or, rather, an empty screen made of pixels capable of morphing into any possible image (which is another meaning of “minced” stuff). In other words, a generic wood, specific in the lack of its specificity, like the clay/mud made of mineral dust and water. In other words, MDF itself represents the “manufacture of formation” (although in the broad sense of the word, because after all we are talking about grinding, pulverization).
Strangely, when you mentioned dog food, I thought about the disk of the Jerusalem-based hip-hop and rap band “Hadag Nahash,” called “Local Stuff” and featuring “bamba” on its cover, another edible “minced stuff,” touted in the notorious TV ad as an emblem of Israeliness. And I thought whether it would be correct to say that you are the Israeli artist to consistently employ these kind of materials from the very start, “minced stuff” (steel wool, MDF, PVC, synthetic carpets, felt, linoleum, silicone, etc.)? Which, of course, brings me to the inevitable and insufferable question about local affinities, not to mention your affiliation with Israeli art, or perhaps this kind of question has in your opinion completely lost its meaning in this day and age? Because minced stuff like “bamba” is perhaps very local, but MDF is local everywhere.
And then there is a more “intimate” question, related to the experience of materials in sculpture: can you say that something in you, some “mental posture,” corresponds to this type of materials? Could you point to some deeper layer of feeling or experience, a “corporeal formula,” as Merleau-Ponty put it, which links you intimately as an artist with the materials we are talking about?
My use of “minced stuff” or other compressed materials is not something I plan in advance. The choice of materials in the initial stages of work is liable to be quite intuitive, or be engendered from the image they are supposed to make. In any event, their family tree goes back to industrial materials whose character and features become clearer at later stages, when the relationships get tighter, through a process of trial and error. These materials possess a generalizing quality, a jumble of materials with some arbitrary name like MDF, linoleum, felt, etc. It reminds me of an everyday experience involved in buying a product and trying—by reading the label— to understand what it is made of, its components, as in “30% cotton, 70% polyester,” or finding out that “Milky” (pudding with whipped cream sold in small containers) includes, among other things, pulverized bones. Industry does have a talent for fusing together components that appear to be unblendable into homogeneous stuff. A practical oxymoron.
In some of my works, which do not seem to accord with the deployment of these kind of materials, the details are organized so as to be experienced as particles, or atoms if you will, parallel to their being part of the whole. In Anthem, for example, the image is that of a body of “individuals” which, in response to a song of unification, is shaped into a national, homogeneous unit. In my early piece, Close to the Ground, the same principle is employed in line with the logic of constructing a roof from tiles. Just think about the compound “tiled roof” which links material with image, the whole with its parts. In other words, we not only see it, we also say it. In Udai and Kusai, the image was executed in colored felt, disheveled with a dog brush, a compressed raw material deconstructed and reconfigured as an image of two blown heads. Rationality or consciousness as formless, or en route to formlessness. I am actually speaking here about the whole simultaneously experienced as an aggregate of fragments while its structure remains present, or about skin (the works are surface works all along), which does not exist as a layer over the skeleton, but as a joint presence on the same plane. Think about kebab or hamburger, for example. What is it: a mass, a lump, or a form? The way they are prepared—shaping of minced meat—turns them into something different from steak, which is cut as a well-defined shape. Not to mention the fact that minced meat is considered poorer in quality.
The work process involves decisions such as avoiding working with color or any other additive which would modify the material’s surface. The surface is a presence of the body of the material, a consequence of my direct action upon it or with it, without any external coating. On the other hand, the concrete result is itself an imitation, an illusion of surface. Sometimes it represents something specific and distinct (red bricks, dry earth), which evokes physical associations related to the habitat of skin (hair, fur, flaky skin), while on other occasions additional associations are brought into play, such as a grainy photograph, or a quick drawing, cultural representations of a spontaneous action, which, in fact, have come into being through a work process that is the opposite of the way their appearance emerged in nature. In other words, a conversation about the material used in an artwork often starts off with the kind of things it calls to mind, or is related to associatively, i.e., with things it is not.
How one can lie through the truth (of the material):
Another issue that becomes clear in our correspondence has to do with the paradox inherent in the works that deal with surface, on the one hand, and our dwelling on the body of the materials these works are made of, on the other. Surface as a full body, or: surface, too, has an interior. I think that this structural interiority gives me an illusion of calm, some kind of primary understanding of the way a thing is made, a logic of making which is present in it, the interior is not as hidden. It exists as a material fact accompanied by an explanation. One can say that the interior and the exterior are identical. There is no skin, the form changes as a result of external contact, it’s a material liquid (you referred to this earlier), a material stain. A rather temporary definition.
Another thing I am still concerned with is the striving for reduction, manifested in the attempt to search for a material that would render it tangible or express it. Ultimately, an equation is created in which material appears as an emotional expression, or, as you put it, as an expression of a “mental posture.” The material is not just a support, it also retains its structural specificity
(I hope that the metaphor of minced meat won’t get out of hand, so to speak. We’ve come to talk about steaks, hamburgers, kebabs, it begins to sound like conversations on Independence Day, want of matter vs. meat riches. Perhaps we should start thinking more seriously about the link between meat and sculpture. Which reminds me that the earliest known designed object, from about two million years ago, the so-called Oldowan period, is a very roughly hewn stone which paleontologists claim was used to pound meat with, in other words, to turn it into minced stuff).
Concerning the striving for reduction and the search for the material that would incarnate it, I am reminded of an artwork that was animated by a similar ambition, but represents the polar opposite of the mode of operation, and therefore brings into relief (and I am not speaking metaphorically here) the singularity of your practice and search. I have in mind the work by Giuseppe Penone of the Arte Povera group, whose members were also very much involved with the issue of material and its images. Penone started off with a wooden plank, and in the course of laborious work (which resembles the way you worked over the MDF panels) turned it back into a tree with knots that gradually became branches. This “reverse engineering” can be conceived of as the reversal of “manufacture of formation” you talked about earlier as your aspiration in art. Incidentally, Penone’s piece also demonstrates the irreversible nature of MDF, because it cannot be transformed back into the “natural” tree. It also relates to what you described as “surface as a full body, or: surface, too, has an interior.”
Perhaps this is the right time to bring up the issue you began discussing in your last letter, an issue which in my view is one of the foci of your sculptural thinking: surface vs. interior, or flatness vs. depth, and their relationship with the materials you work with. I would like to quote a short prose poem by the Polish poet, Zbigniew Herbert, which tangibly bears on what you wrote about your attitude to materials:
A wooden cube can be described only from the outside. Therefore we are condemned to perennial ignorance of its essence. Even if we halve it quickly, its interior immediately becomes a wall, and a lightning-quick metamorphosis of mystery into skin takes place.
This is why it is impossible to create a psychology of a stone ball, of an iron weight, of a wooden cube.[Trans. J.M.]
Your materials are very much like that: they have no mystery, no secret (depth or essence), they have only surface/skin. They are “skin-deep.” And now for the surprise: the piece you are working on as we speak, the cracked mud of the Huleh Valley, can be conceived of as an exploration of the depth of the surface, the depth of the fissure. It is as if you insist on furrowing the surface of the material, whose depth coincides with its surface. This is not unlike your “explosion” pieces made of colored ceramic tiles laid on the ground in a two-dimensional configuration (explosion is a three-dimensional phenomenon par excellence, our universe is but an ongoing explosion), or Close to the Ground with its low stepped construction of roof tiles, or the carpet-depth of Valley of Jezreel.
And all this relates, of course, to the issue of ornament and decoration, which recurs in your work, and is very much linked to the dynamics between part and whole. Works that deal with the imagery of explosion (including the exploded heads of Saddam’s sons) are particularly fascinating in this context, not least because of their relation to speed (which Herbert mentions twice in his short poem as a way to reach depth/essence/secret/mystery), and also because the explosion imagery is very close to ornament, and to the connection between violence inflicted on material, on the one hand, and serenity and beauty, on the other. A very problematic and troubling connection, to say the least.
Where does the secret reside? According to legend, there is a site called “interior,” and the secret—as a spatial concept—is lodged deep inside it. And it goes without saying that if the secret is inside, then it is not to be found on the outside (on the surface). Yesterday I saw on the news a story about Viagra. Scientists discovered that taking the pill increases the risk of going blind, in other words, arousal can cause blindness (what a metaphor!). The people interviewed for the story were asked whether restoration of sexual potency was worth the risk. Well, there is the component of risk here and the question of the cause of blindness. When Herbert writes about the impossibility of getting to the interior of the wooden cube because the moment we cut it in half the secret instantly becomes skin, he says:
- The secret is inside;
- The inside is always deep down;
- Depth is a matter of context, but it is always a matter of depth;
- You can never get hold of the secret, because all you can see is only the surface;
- The secret dwells inside as long as we do not see it;
- Ultimately, the “secret” is not a question of matter;
- All of the above.
In other words, Herbert says: it’s a waste of time. And I ask: what do we risk when we search for the secret? The time? Perhaps we would find out that it was never there to begin with? And let’s say we find something, is it blindness, or is it seeing? Think about the moral of the Viagra story: penetration of depth can end up in going blind. There is another possibility, somewhat manipulative, which says that ultimately the interior is also surface and the question is how to expose it, or at least what we thought was a secret.
The question that preoccupies me is this: is it possible to make a flat work by means of material intensity? Can a synthetic material be experienced as warm, poetic, organic, and how would such a sensation be designated? What intrigues me is not so much finding answers, but rather the attempt to blur the boundaries of definitions dealing with these sensations and concepts.
In the seminal article by Sara Breitberg-Semel in the exhibition catalogue The Want of Matter: A Quality in Israeli Art [Tel Aviv Museum, 1986], Raffi Lavie is quoted as saying on his impressions of Aviva Uri’s drawings: “At that point, I just wanted to copy her. In Aviva, I always saw really crazy things. Her line is… ultra-sensitive in its anti-sensitivity…. I think that Aviva, through me and others, managed to move an entire generation of artists, even if it might not be apparent in all the scribbling. Her impact lies in the liberated approach” [p. 174]. I cite this because of the association made between “sensitive line” and “liberated approach.” And again: a sensitive line is one that expresses something “internal” because it is sensitive (interior), and it is also ethical because it is liberated and therefore identified with something called “true.” In fact, I copy a “liberated approach,” while trying to see whether something of me remains there, or to be less dramatic, talk about my work in terms of “spontaneous congestion,” or find out that I always think about interior in terms of surface.
The last point I want to make has to do with the question of ornament or decoration—I prefer the word “decoration,” perhaps because it is more inclusive with regard to a certain aspect of my works; it encompasses ornament, but also curtains, wallpaper, posters that double as wallpaper, carpets, wooden parquets, porcelain dolls, red roof (which in Israel is not just functional), linoleum—these are different coverings and coatings, a kind of architectural attire with a low self-image (“cheap” would be a more exact term).
One of the common denominators of these “decorations” is their anonymity. Landscape in a poster is first of all a landscape of a poster, and only later, if at all, a specific landscape, even though it had to be photographed sometime. This is why it is important to me to work with a specific, concrete landscape, although it remains fixated, at least for me, as a photographic representation of a certain type: that of postcards, photos from an album one buys as a present, or, in other terms, a “must book”—something perceived as a cultural icon, but one whose charged content has been depleted through its countless filters of representation, culture as a distinct consumer product with its nostalgic stickiness. Interestingly, a large part of these images, so closely affined with Israeli identity, appear as (nameless) collective images of other places: the African continent, verdant European landscapes, savanna swamps, the Wild West, and so on. A bit like Maccabi Tel Aviv in basketball: an Israeli brand name, yet made up of foreigners. I point it out not out of cynicism, but in order to underline the fluid nature of identity, mutual leakages between one identity and another (perhaps a bit like steel wool or MDF—arbitrary, minced identities).
One last thing I want to point out is a common feature shared by nostalgia and decoration. Both try to create beauty vis-à-vis something called “reality”: the former by shaping memory, the latter through design of external space. Nostalgia designs the past, decoration designs the wall. Yet both are facades. The rationale for their presence is the need to create something bearable. And just as in design, so in nostalgia: there are simplistic (easily recognizable) ones, and there are more sophisticated ones.
Where does the secret reside, you ask. I remember the feeling that gripped me when I first saw your work Close to the Ground at the Kibbutz Art Gallery. Now, in view of things you’ve said, I can formulate this feeling in the words of the motto appearing in the article “The Want of Matter”: “[For it is] very nigh unto thee.” In the case of the roof, the secret, of course, resides in the space underneath, the attic, but in your work, because the roof rests on the floor, the space of the attic is bound up with that secret, locally mythicized space under the floor tiles, where people used to hide dollars in the days of stringent currency government controls, not to mention the fact that the roof tiles also double as a kind of diagonal floor. So, on the one hand, it is “very nigh unto thee,” and, on the other hand, it is also remote, not only because the roof is brand new (no time for the secrets to gather dust), but also because the roof itself shuts the viewer off—physically and perceptually. In this respect, the work resembles the famous exhibition by Walter de Maria, who filled the entire space of a New York gallery with 140 tons of earth, not to mention the local context, the literal embodiment of the real estate cliché of “close to the ground” [Heb.: tsmud karka = single-family home], or the hopeless flatness embedded in the promise of Swiss existence in the burning aridity of Israel.
What caught my eye in the quote from Raffi Lavie was the word “to copy.” It is the key word in the context of your materials, which are what we would call faux, also in terms of the issue that has just now entered our conversation, the images that you deal with, images that are copies of copies. I want to address this issue through the words of the art critic and poet, David Antin, whom I had the pleasure to listen to during my graduate studies at the University of California at San Diego. Here is what Antin says about Andy Warhol, the master of the bottomless depth of flatness:
In the Warhol canvases, the image can be said to barely exist. On the one hand this is part of his overriding interest in the “deteriorated image,” the consequence of a series of regressions from some initial image of the real world. Here there is actually a series of images of images, beginning from the translation of the light reflectivity of a human face into the precipitation of silver from a photo-sensitive emulsion, this negative image developed, re-photographed into a positive image with reversal of light and shadow, and consequent blurring, further translated by telegraphy, engraved on a plate and printed through a crude screen with low-grade ink on newsprint, and this final blurring and silkscreening in an imposed lilac color on canvas. What is left? The sense that there is something out there one recognizes and yet can’t see. Before the Warhol canvases we are trapped in a ghastly embarrassment. This sense of the arbitrary coloring, the nearly obliterated image and the persistently intrusive feeling. Somewhere in the image there is a proposition. It is unclear.
[Cited in Leo Steinberg, Other Critieria (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), p. 91.]
To return to the metaphor of “meat work,” the final image that emerges from Warhol’s processing resembles a schnitzel that has been struck so many times, it is now closer to the bread crumbs with which we coat it before frying. And here you are, talking about an image, a “cultural icon,” that has been depleted, having passed through “countless cultural filters of representation,” in other words, an image that has deteriorated (and undergone metamorphosis in the process), like the process that Warhol’s images went through. At the risk of simplifying reductionism, in both cases we are talking about the deterioration of the copying process, which originates in some primary image (in your case, an image from a “must” book experienced as a cultural icon, whereas in the case of Warhol, according to Antin, in “some image from the real world,” which is also a cultural icon, though American through and through). In other words, you begin with some original, which is not “original” at all, and following countless copying acts, what remains is some ghost image, in which an unclear proposition is embedded.
I think that the proposition is unclear because the process starts with an image, a processed image, which serves as raw material of art, akin to processed wood, like MDF, which serves as raw material of sculpture. And in this sense it’s not much different from other minced stuff that you use, materials that have been previously processed in the world of manufacture. In other words, this is a given. And, to return to our local context, he who spoke of a person being “the mold of his native landscape” would have probably been seized by severe anxiety had he known how right he was: a person (or his/her soul) is the mold of a mold, the image of an image. As you’ve pointed out: landscape as a postcard, and, in the case of Israel, a mold that itself is but a composite picture, a salad made of many ingredients.
So, what is the proposition lurking “somewhere” in the image? Why “ghastly embarrassment”? Are we talking about an attempt to penetrate all the copies, all the filters, in order to redeem something primary, something real? To peel off all the layers of nostalgia, to perform liposuction on the “must” images in order to touch the dry bones of, I don’t know, “identity”? Or just keep on striking that schnitzel out of defiant desperation? The option of ennui and indifference as proposed by Warhol is obviously irrelevant to Israeli art, and to you in particular. But here you are, toiling on wall works for the current exhibition, their images being copies of photographs from a “cultural must book” by Peter Merom. Perhaps we could start there and then retrace our steps?
I’ll try to address the points you’ve raised by starting with the word “given.” In contrast to the processes of image deterioration occurring through the medium, as described by Antin, it can be said that in my case the image remains. It’s a given, like the material. It can—and often does—change its materiality, its size, its context, but it remains a distinct image, and if it is not distinct, well, that’s how I borrowed it. Often, the images are second-hand, they are “charged” because so much has been said about them. What happens when you say something self-evident? Do you remember the quote from “The Want of Matter” which says that plywood had turned from a support into a statement? I try to choose an image that turned from a statement into a support, not because it is a support in its essence (black square, for example), but because almost everything can be said about it (well, almost everything). If you can say a lot about something, does it charge the image, or, perhaps, the battery keeps running low all the time?
The images in the wall pieces I am working on these days were borrowed from a 1950s book of photographs, photographs that had been taken during the draining of the Huleh swamp. The images themselves are romantic, somber, and sentimental both in their subject matter and in their style. It’s straightforward photography of nature, which lacks a naturalness, which shows itself as a lyrical façade. Four out of the six photographs I selected are of water plants and of reflections, one is of a huge wave, and one of a fire in the field. Because these are photographs characterized by a strong contrast of black-and-white, they reminded me of Action Painting and of “lyrical” drawings. Due to the sharp contrast, the distinction between matter (plants) and reflection is only vaguely discernible. The size of the works was determined by the size of the exhibition space. It was important to me that the pieces would be exhibited as six images, six paintings, and not as one view, a panoramic landscape. I didn’t want to create a reality of total landscape, but a reality that is aware of being a representation.
To clarify my choice of materials in the work, let me begin with a question: how would the work be experienced had it been executed in beads or glitter—materials of a more distinct synthetic appearance that clearly proclaim their status? Materials such as steel wool and MDF are more ambiguous in their domesticated appearance. There is an experiential gap between one’s knowledge of what they are, on the one hand, and their visibility in the works, on the other. The actualization of steel wool as a line, a stain, does not amount to a clear-cut declaration of an ironic, alienated stance; instead it produces doubt in the act of noticing and identifying, in one’s relationship to that stance. The material also manages to produce embarrassment as to what it signifies—a material state (hair, dust), or a medium (drawing, grainy photograph).
Huleh valley is both a specific place and an idea, simultaneously physical and virtual, like a ghostly body that lives within us. “Huleh is Huleh is Huleh,” but it was also appropriated as a symbol of conquest, draining, fertilization and blossoming, acculturation and a national stance. Even the historical-chronological story of the place is told through concepts such as death and revival, draining the site, the failure of the draining project and flooding the place again, this time as a nature reserve. A place resurrected as tamed nature. If you are draining a swamp, are you involved in killing or in reviving (the potential)? And if you failed, did you fail to revive or to kill? And if the place returns as a “nature reserve,” is it sterilized, dead nature, a surface of nature, an echo of a place, or is it something alive?
I am swamped by the sheer amount of fascinating stuff you wrote about in your last letter, and, to tell the truth, I hardly know where to begin. Actually, I feel like declaring myself a nature reserve of floating thoughts, so, I guess, flooding and draining is a good place to start.
In his dizzying article from 1968 Robert Smithson formulated “The Mud Pool Project,” which “could be thought of as The Mind of Mud, or in later stages, The Mind of Clay”:
- Dig up100 ft. sq. area of earth with a pitchfork.
- Get local fire department to fill the area with water. A fire hose may be used for this purpose.
- The area will be finished when it turns to mud.
- Let it dry under the sun until it turns to clay.
- Repeat process at will.
Smithson’s proposal appears to invest the Huleh project as you described it with an “artistic” dimension, and brings into relief the bizarre nature of the sequence of draining and reflooding, a kind of pendulum that swings between two extremes (perhaps between the “mind of mud” and the “mind of clay”) of the nationalist/bureaucratic thinking about “Israeli” land. It results in a state of uncertainty vis-à-vis nature, and clichés such as “conquest of the desert,” “reclamation of the land,” “draining project” only turn it murky beyond any clarity. And perhaps there, betwixt and between, in the transition phase between the fluid swamp and the solid clay fissured with polygons, dwells the secret, the “depth of the surface”? All of a sudden it occurs to me that your current work, the huge floor piece sculpted in the arid minced swamp of the MDF, amounts to a clarification of the tangled problematics of nature, place, ideology, nationality, art, material and image.
I very much like the inversion you proposed in the relation between “support” and “statement,” i.e., turning a statement into a support, in the context of the images populating your vast paintings. When you talked of an image as a support, I was thinking of a screen, or, in your case, of an image which serves as a screen onto which you project your art, so to speak. An encounter takes place between an external image and something internal, something that assumes shape through painstaking labor. After all, you actually project a photograph (in fact a transparency of a Xerox copy of a reproduction of the original photograph) on a white surface, and only then the projected image becomes a support on which the labor of attaching pieces of steel wool is carried out (a genesis-like state, very much analogous to the state of a clean slate, tabula rasa, of the MDF, which, as we have already described it, is far from being rasa). And here, at that moment, an encounter takes place between image and material. And a pretty abysmal question comes to the fore: What, actually, is an image made of?
Suppose you hear someone say: “In my mind’s eye I see the Valley of Jezreel, the Huleh Valley….” and immediately the question arises: What is this image seen by those ghostly eyes? Certainly not synthetic carpets in various colors (Valley of Jezreel, Herzliya Museum), and obviously not pieces of steel wool affixed onto white surfaces. But, on the other hand, why not? What’s the big difference? With you the image is a given, a starting point, a support, and it is so compressed and charged that practically nothing can be said about it (or, which amounts to the same thing, everything can be said about it), which is why it can be used as a screen/support.
What’s the image made of? The question is so apt that its simplicity sometimes eludes us. It brings atoms into the discussion and signals the right of way to materials that make up the image; it makes possible to understand the transformation of the image from a support into a statement, because it points to the image as made of something specific—stage one: the image, stage two: what it is made of. It appears that the entrance into the work is shorter through the street of the material, a street which later becomes a street of, say, content.
I remember talking about the process of working as road traveling (because of my own work which is based on projection) —movement along a preexisting line/lane, a conductor that does not change, only its surface changes, that which remains on it or within in. What causes the image to emerge are accumulations of material (or its scooping out in the floor) within the preexisting lanes. The projected form is but a container of action, paths of movement. The movement can be slow or fast, dispersed or compressed. How can one introduce variety into the road one travels? Sometimes the same destination can be reached from a different direction.
Sometimes the drawings remind me of a fine fluff of steel wool in blowup, each time in a different physical state. In this context, let me add another question: in what medium does the image take shape? I think that seeing an image with a strong presence of the material it is composed of serves as a visual reminder of several stages of consolidation and breakdown. In other words, it’s not just a visual experience of what the image is made of, but also of how easily it breaks apart—a state of betwixt and between, a pendulum.
Someone once described my works as “fuzzy images.” “Fuzzy” means “blurred,” “indistinct,” but also “wooly,” or “fluffy.” When I think about the dog’s fur, this fuzziness blurs the animal’s contours. A Doberman is less fuzzy than a cocker spaniel. What I am trying to say is that there are two states in which the image is undermined: the state of graininess and that of fuzziness. An interesting encounter takes place between the material (steel wool) and a linear image (an image contradicted by the material), or between a watery, formless image (water, reflections, smoke) whose realization in a solid material also contradicts it. This particular material actualizes itself “naturally” as a line or smoke (natural make-up). Strangely, the substitute seems more natural, it is certainly more physical.
The description “fuzzy image” is very apt; in fact, it is related to the concept of “fuzzy logic” where truth values are not binary (either true or false), but make it possible to talk about “partial truth.” In other words, it is possible to talk about a “gray zone,” which brings us back to the grayness of steel wool and its fuzziness as a material: at one end there are thin filaments that can be seen only with great effort, and under certain lighting conditions they simply dissolve, as it were, and at the other end, steel wool turns almost solid, a dark, compressed roll. One could say that in its full spectrum, unfolding between a “near-white blankness” and a “near-black solid,” a material like steel wool gives its own answer to the question of what the image is made of. And, lest we forget, the image of cracked, dry mud is also fuzzy, with fractures branching off, becoming what you called “veined” (due to the fractal structure of the dried mud), so that the entire surface unravels into an infinity of lines.
Which brings me back to that “ghastly embarrassment” that Antin felt in front of Warhol’s works, and to the “proposition” that dwells “somewhere in the image.” I think it is very much related to the concept of fuzziness in the full spectrum of its meanings. When I visited you in your studio last week, standing in front of the still-unfinished (nearly finished) huge painting, under pale neon light, with pieces of steel wool that I couldn’t tell how they hold on to the painting’s surface, seemingly suspended in the air like insects, and only from a certain angle one can see the thin spiderwebs they are caught in, a painting that in parts looked like made of stubble, an unshaven painting, as it were, with large areas whose whiteness had been rendered an almost invisible shade of gray with thinnest of filaments, while thick lines representing liquid revealed themselves as chains of tangled coils of steel wool, while other, still unrolled coils and dust rolled on the floor, and different versions (transparencies, Xerox copies of varying contrast and graininess) of Merom’s photographs lying around—it was then that I felt that ghastly embarrassment, but also intuited its hiding place, its secret dwelling.
If you remember, on the way back, in your car, I used the word “mirage,” which at that moment I associated with smoke, which appears as an image in one of the paintings. And I quizzed you (the riddle is taken from Jim Jarmusch’s film Smoke): “How much does cigarette smoke weigh?” The answer: weigh a cigarette on precise scales, light it, let it burn down, and weigh the ashes. The difference between the two weights is the weight of the smoke. The weight of smoke, the body of smoke, the ghostly body, the body of image… Only later, on the way back to Jerusalem, I thought about another meaning of the word “mirage”: delusion, deceit, conjurer’s trick—meanings related to the meaning of the word art in German (Kunst). Someone asked me once about the meaning of art work, and I answered that it is not unlike magician’s work: You are spellbound by the magic, while seeing through it, how the trick’s done. Perhaps “ghastly embarrassment” has to do with the simultaneity of the experience.
Of course, there is a whole dimension of our discussion that makes up a large part in the history of modern art: molecularization, or atomization of the image, a process that began with the Impressionists and their concern with reflected light and its dispersion on different surfaces, continuing all the way to our age of pixels. And this is not confined to painting alone: the sculptor Tom Friedman, for example, talks expressly about the ambition to show the “molecular” structure of three-dimensional works (one of his early works is a jigsaw puzzle whose assembled pieces are spaced out, so that each piece is like a molecule of the entire work), even a more “classical” sculptor like Tony Cragg expressed similar sentiments (his early wall pieces of the 1980s consist of multicolored plastic objects).
But here I want to stop and ask you about your current work as a whole, which includes the paintings and the floor piece—a vast surface sculpted as dried mud, a surface which is ground/floor, or perhaps a floor painting. After all, many of your works, almost from the start, seem to hover between three-dimensional painting and two-dimensional sculpture, between relief and wall painting, mosaic/tiling and smooth surfaces, ornament and architecture. For this exhibition you’ve made paintings on the scale of a wall, and sculpture on the scale of a floor. Perhaps, ultimately, you are building a house, and, if so, what kind of house is it?
If I’m building a house, am I building its exterior or the interior? Maybe I’m building a national home? The word “house” invests the aggregate of architectural fragments with meaning, but in hindsight, after the work is done. In analogy to language, there is a letter, then another letter and the question is, will there be a word at the end, a sequence of letters with meaning? Another question: did I have a word in mind beforehand, that is, did I plan to build a house? There is something amusing in the thought of building a house without a plan, without foreknowledge of the house as a resultant entity, and I am not posing this question vis-à-vis each work separately, but with regard to the entire body of my works.
A significant portion of the images in my works is related to exterior views, to covering or enveloping something. The wall or floor pieces are not walls or floors, they are something that covers them up, shields them, something that you see on the wall or on the floor. The wall paintings/tapestries are landscapes borrowed from photo albums, their scale changed, and their materiality transformed into something between hair and fur (materials that cover skin). But this is how they appear to sight, they are not what they appear to be. The floor pieces, which are images of the outside (earth, fields), are transformed into interior surface, i.e., floor. Both the wall and the floor works are images seen in a general perspective. Even the roof was exhibited as an object seen in its totality, from a vantage point outside the house, although a red roof ostensibly serves as a status symbol; in the occupied territories it even indicates nationality. The “Silicone Curtains” are a kind of wall-curtain, a partition, a wall that is also the surface of a material (silicone), which looks like bodily fluids that leaked or were discharged (mucus, semen), or like drops of glass or crystal. Interestingly, the surface of these materials (including steel wool) always brings to mind something else, or, as I have said earlier, something that they are not. “Red Bricks” are types of covering (wallpaper) or envelopes (fence, wall) also meant to indicate status, taste, impression, whereas from up close they look like hair or mold. The image of a dog signifies a kind of security envelope, a trained territorial mark; training is related to knowledge. My artist’s book in the series “Omanut La’am” (“Art for the People”) deals with ways of executing envelopes, coverings and wallpapers via knowledge and working instructions. I had to do these works so that I could explain how to do them, i.e., these are plans that came into being after the work was done.
This quick and compressed overview of various possibilities of seeing is intended to exemplify what I meant by talking about exterior views, or by using the word “envelope.” It’s not a wall, it’s the wall’s sur-face, the floor’s sur-face, the roof’s sur-face—the external construction of the interior. You could say that if I build a house, I do it so that I could make wallpaper for it. According to the stereotypical joke (stereotype is also a word related to external impression) about the three ________ who screw in a light bulb: one holds the light bulb, and the other two turn the socket around. I am interested in what seems like a superfluous effort, a meaningless, arbitrary action. Sculpting earth for a whole year, instead of simply drenching and then draining it.
When I was in 10th grade, I solved a problem in math, and the teacher told me that my way of arriving at the solution was awfully long: “It’s like going to Eilat via Haifa, what for?” My answer: for the road. I am reminded of your concluding sentence in your interview with Gabi Klasmer two-and-a-half years ago: “After all these efforts—research, search, negotiations, engineering and other solutions—all you get is twenty minutes of sheer happiness and photographs.” As well as a light bulb burning at home.
(Gal Weinstein Jerzy Michalowicz, August-September 2005)