Gal Weinstein, born 1970, has engaged for years in presentations of landscape – familiar landscapes that he transformed into concept and myth. From a distance, the large-scale works in his HulaValley series resemble monochrome drawings of magnified swamp vegetation, but a closer look revealsthat steel wool has been glued onto a support to create these images.Weinstein based the pictureson photographs in Peter Merom’s1960 photo essay The Death of the Lake, which documented the final days of the Hula marshland in the north of the country. The lake and surrounding swamp were drained in the fifties to create agricultural land, in what proved to be a misguided political and ideological government decision that wrought ecological havoc; years later, the Hula was artificially reflooded to create a lake and nature preserve. In the 1960s,Merom’s album of photographs could be found in almost every home in Israel.
Weinstein’s monumental works were not made by intuitive, passionate gestures of painting, but through the painstaking and unromantic process of gluing one steel wool strand after another onto plywood. This creates a gap between the reality of water and reeds, faithfully reproduced as captured in historical photographs, and the way in which the “drawings” were produced. Weinstein was not relating to the physical reality of the marsh, but to its appearance in the ideologicallycharged photographs from the fifties. Like a sort of Russian nesting doll, the familiar historical image is contained in another more contemporary image, adding complexity to a perception of reality that had assumed mythical status. And indeed, the Hula landscape is well-known only through technological and ideological filters, through Merom’s photographs which in effect edited the landscape in black and white. Weinstein’s own experience of the Hula was never authentic: he had seen it from the window of his father’s car (his father was a water engineer) and in Merom’s pictures. Neither he nor anyone who knew the lake from the photographs had actually touched its waters, which were dried up and then restored in part through human action. And so it makes sense that Weinstein depicts the Hula in a contrived, labor-intensive act involving man-made materials. Weinstein is a modernist because he addressesthe question of representing reality, but he is also a postmodernist because he only believes in a mediated reality.
Some of Weinstein’s other major works deal with two sites of historic significance for the pioneering phase of the Zionist enterprise: the JezreelValley and Nahalal. Zionism’s early aspirations to subjugate nature and turn the Jezreel Valley (like the Hula swamp) into fertile fields were not only pragmatic, with a strong political and educational agenda, they also had a cosmicmoral dimension – the triumph of good over evil, progress over disease and helplessness, civilization over neglect, culture over natural wildness, West over East. And perhaps most of all – the triumph of the active, productiveNew Jew over that bitter enemy, the Old Jew of the Diaspora. The JezreelValley, which had lain fallow and even given way to malaria-infested swampland over the centuries, was successfully restored by the pioneers to the breadbasket of biblical renown. “The Valley,” as it was known, was seen asa veritable utopia, a dream come true,loadedwith spiritual energy.Poets extolled it in sacred terms; Shin Shalom called it the “Holy of Holies” and Uri Zvi Greenberg drew an analogy to tefillin, the phylacteries placed on the forehead and arm during morning prayers: “Jerusalem is the tefillin for the head; The Valley is the tefillin for the arm.”
The JezreelValley was “created” in Weinstein’s installation out of mundane pieces of inexpensive synthetic wall-to-wall carpeting, a cost-effective product of industrial know-how, easy to install and change. A resilient material on which wear-and-tear, the signs of time – to say nothing of memory traces of real life – leave no mark. The installation looked like a jigsaw puzzle, turning one of Zionism’s most momentous achievements into a giant children’s game, of the kind that can be broken up and put back together at any time.
As with the Hula series, in Jezreel Valley, the relationship between actual reality and the artwork, created through various bodily and technological processes, has particular relevance for the work of Gal Weinstein and many of his contemporaries. In the 1950s, Israeli artists known as “the moderns” regarded theartwork art as set of forms that were nearly independent of visible reality; their almost abstract paintings were inspired by observing reality without copying it on the canvas. In the 1960s, modernist artists used parts of actual reality (through collage or assemblage), to create a new and autonomous work that was distinct from unprocessed reality.In the 1970s, artists chose between eitherseeing the art action as a physical or political intervention in reality orrenouncing the direct connection to reality while declaring that the subject of art was in fact the negation of this connection. In the 1980s, the difficultyin connecting art to reality was called the “crisis of representation” and artists explored, probed, and mined this crisis in search of a solution, seeking ways in which reality could be part of their art without recourse to traditional means of representation.
From this perspective, Weinstein’s work can be understood as an attempt to translate the real into a parallel reality, with some features shared by the work of art and by reality, but withmany others very different. This kind of translation could not have been undertaken without awareness of the crisis of representation; however, unlike the melancholy that characterized early 1980sattempts in painting to deal with this crisis, Weinstein’s approach has an ironic self-awareness. His installation relies on principles of artistic theory, but its execution draws on areas such as carpet-laying and carpentry.
Weinstein’s workunderscores a question that has always troubled artists: what status does the artistic image have, what is its relationship to the source, to the reality it ostensibly depicts? His JezreelValley is certainly not the valley itself, though it resembles the valley somewhat when seen from a distance. But the viewer’s position immediately banishes this resemblance, since treading on a carpet is completely unlike walking through an actual field. The viewer steps on an image and becomes aware of the disparity between the graphic-rational experience and the emotional or physical experience. Weinstein’s choice of materials therefore plays a key role – like Siamese twins, image and material areinseparable; the one cannot be without the other.
One of the JezreelValley’s most important Zionist achievements was Nahalal, the firstmoshav (cooperative village), founded in 1921 and designed by a leading architect of the Yishuv, Richard Kauffman. Nahalal took the form of a sun with “rays” emanating from the center, but these unnaturally straight linesrepresentedthe conquest of nature,the success of the pioneering socialist vision that underlay Zionism. Nahalal was a sort of human laboratory for producingthe new type of Jew; military hero and political personality Moshe Dayan was just one of the important New Jews raised and educated there. This was the Israeli landscape at its best and most idealistic – a landscape icon. As with his Jezreel Valley, Weinstein remade Nahalal in synthetic carpeting purchased at stores in south Tel Aviv (the antithesis of the ideal pioneer landscape). He used mediocre mundane material to create a surface without depth, a cover with nothing underneath, a transition from living entity to artistic support.His choice of material belittled the Nahalal myth while critiquing its commercialization as part of a packaged utopian dream “sold” by the Zionist establishment. Weinstein’s subversive attitude is seen in works byother artists who have recently challenged Israeli mythology, so to speak pulling the rug out from under the last century’s utopias.