Roi Alter | Galleria – Haaretz | 31.1.19

Gideon Gechtman, 1942-2008 | Retrospective exhibition at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, 2013

Last Edition

Gideon Gechtman talks with Uri Hess and Moshe Ninio

Encounter with the Horror of Death

Passage International No.3

On the Beach






A cycle of works by Gideon Gechtman , 1999

Herzliya Museum of art, January-February 2000
Rehovot Municipal Art Gallery, May-June 2000
Mishkan Le'Omanut, Museum of art, Ein Harod, September-October 2000

Elegy, ready-made


As Walter Benjamin tells us in his lamentation of the gradual waning of experience, in the modern era death (and dying) has been removed from the perceptual world of the living, from the public sphere of the (bourgeois) community, through its increased isolation by means of hygienic and social procedures – to the point that the very thought of death has declined in omnipresence and vividness. Gideon Gechtman's works- by now a life work-confronts us (at its peaks, such as the present set-up) with that which we would rather evade.

From a certain point in time, death – the very experience of facing death – was posed as a source of authority underlying Gechtman's work, through re- activation of the notion of eternity (what is left of it, as a term). The current set – up is already a stage- like modeling of an experience endured, of the after-death – the death of someone who was crucially significant to his life as well as to his artistic work – by means of what is left: the indirect testimony, the waste, the remains, the secular relic.
The possible persistence of memory, and thus the very ability to experience the work beyond the formal context, assume the existence of a community possessing prior knowledge (a community which Gechtman indeed activated, for real, when raising funds for his son's medical treatment) – or a late, belated, belief in the ability to reconstitute a community based on shared experience (which is no longer the common experience which Zionist agenda, for instance, sought to engender, one of whose articulation is contained within `Yad Labanim`, the memorial room for fallen soldiers located on the other side of the wall).

Gechtman's work – whose components are to consolidate in the course of time into a total work of art – comprises concentric systems of formal hybridizations based on a metaphorical adoption of prevalent concepts from the field of genetics – reproducing-mutation-evolution – and their activation through the attributes of a local material culture (or to be more exact, through the surface embodying the ersatz-culture of the lower- middle class suburbia). Alongside the engagement with the material culture there lies the biographical artery – the axis of personal and familial fate, an institution which is the ultimate embodiment of reproduction and transformation relation- intersecting, in different modes, the chain of reproductions and mutations comprising the world of objects which is the material culture. At the thematic focal point of these concentric circles lies Gechtman's own body – an everyman whose heart contains an object without which he has no life – and next to it, from a certain moment on, the accompanying figure of his son Yotam – a reproduction both fine and flawed. The current cycle of works is a farewell, parting with the son as a life partner, and, in a sense, as the object and the primary, privileged addressee of his work as a whole.
In terms of artistic fate – and Gechtman operates within a framework where art is already in quotation marks – his works manifests a cross-breeding between the making of that which is still sculptural (in the traditional sense, in terms of the use of material, formal values, and the presence of the work-sculpture in the private or public sphere), and a pragmatic functioning in the manner of post-Duchampian kind of artist. Gechtman's typical artistic practice takes place in the twilight zone in-between sculpture shifted or fallen into the world of objects, the world of design and commodities, and a (ready-made) object pushed into situations of sculptural-like allegories. In most cases, it is still not an absolute objects materialized, for instance, in American art, which operates in reference to a quintessentially object-oriented culture. One of the causes of this “fall” lies in the world of material-substitutes which Gechtman – from the outset of his career – has been employing in an informed, yet never Camay or cute manner. Unlike natural (original) materials – material substitutes, embodying a partition, no longer allow processes of transfiguration, but only the immediacy inherent in production which eradicates the temporal dimension, like an industrial product, one directed for the gaze.

In this fall into the world of objects (and into the dimension of invitality and finality inherent in it), Gechtman's work partakes, as the echo speech of someone who is located at the margins, in the comprehensive process of modernist art's collapse into the theatrical – a state of affairs in which it has been immersed since the 1960s; one underlied by three modes of artistic production formulated during that decade in American art: Pop, Minimalism and Conceptualism. Gechtman's artistic œuvre was, from the outset, marked by quasi-popular hybridization and modification of aesthetic codes, devised at the “center” by these three trends, as well as by concurrent differentiated cases (such as Richard Artschwager, Robert Morris , and Marcel Broodthaers; Joseph Beuys is particularly significant withregard to structuring art as a personal myth in relation to an omnipresent horizon of death) – codes such as the use of hackneyed images derived from mass culture; repeated-modified application of serial models (and their violation or mutation); and reliance on quasi-research-minded modes of presentation and on work coefficients founded on non-visual models.

This possible historical unfolding of a discussion of Gechtman's work is not aimed at reconstructing its historical origins, but rather at indicating a principle nucleus of a work which may at times appear all-too-obvious – work concerned with exemplifying, by the means of a province-based individual, processes of constant cross-breeding, reproduction and mutation of cultural codes; processes occurring away from the code's “original” place of emergence. Within this context, we are concerned with modification of artistic codes – code fragments, to be more precise – that arrive, in gradually intensifying degrees of meditation, from a center where they emerge in their quintessentiality. In their transition to the periphery – in this case, to the Israeli lunar culture (a culture whose industrious documentor in photography may be Gilad Ophir) – they undergo a process of enfeeblement, and are fused to render electric hybridic combination. The pseudo-aesthetic characteristics (for we are concerned with adopted aesthetics originating in the “surface” of the lower-middle class, in its local sense) of Gechtman's work, with their inarticulateness or awkwardness , are derived from “lunar reflexivity” concerning his location here, in the shikum (public housing project), in the orient.

It is this paradoxical alertness to a collective state of sleep or numbness that produces the more radical aspect of his work, which may be dubbed “radical mediocrity”: a principle choice of averageness, possibly for the sake of survival; an act performed out of a servile acceptance of limitation, of weighing average beliefs and taste-conventions; an act which refuses to contain, as a defense against mauvais-foi, a potential of revelation (bliss).the `anywayish` reliance on Christian manifestation and emotional patterns – the figure of the Orant in the exhibition Exposure, the iconography of Deposition, and the polyptych structure of the works in the current cycle may also be perceived as derived from the same position.

The work Exposure presented as an exhibition in 1975 was a key event in Gechtman's oeuvre. In this total work – one of the first installation works presented in Israel – he installed a pseudo-documentary cycle of staged photographs, like a morality play of secular salvation modeled on a familiar iconographical formula of early Christian art. The installation , so the story goes, laconically presented a deconstructed process of marching toward a possible death and over coming it, albeit temporarily, through external intervention in the form of an object (a valve) implanted in Gechtman's heart. This key event was perceived as a gateway to a new awareness of subject-object relations and to a new type of hybridic existence of a person whose most charged organ – as far as the cliche goes – had become mechanized. The work also marked the early crystallization of the ongoing dialogue in his work between two antiseptic institutions, the hospital and the artistic space (the gallery, the museum)- two types of spaces which share several features: detachment, whiteness, silence(required there, and called for here), sterility. The current work, Yoyam, is already the story of a bitter defeat, taking place within the same kind of site – a hospital – which is no longer presented as a place of transformation (and redemption, as it were), but rather as one of disappearance.

Two years after Exposure (and the publication of a Self-Obituary which accompanied its closing) Gechtman embarked on an enterprise of composing a boundless, multi-organ work, appearing within a pseudo- conceptual framework entitled Mausoleum – a framework which gradually admits previously executed works as well. In a large-scale array, which thus far has not been exhibited in full ,entire bodies of work and discrete pieces are incorporated in diverse modes and manners. The objects themselves- at once banal and ritualistic, all deprived of potential depth or quality – rely (in terns of their means of production and mode of manifestation) upon craftsmanship and small industry, like those found in lower-middle class neighborhood-suburban “institutions”: the bank, the synagogue, the beauty parlor, the cemetery. Compounds extracted from the total array are exhibited in various contexts, at times transfigured. The constantly cumulating components of Mausoleum indicate a gradual process of shifting the early conceptual position by reinforcing the object category, a category of action congruent with that which had triggered many of the work: a labor of lamenting the loss of childhood (the realm of experience), the disintegration of sensation, the disappearance of layers of meaning, of quality, of value. The current work may be read as a real work of mourning masquerading as an artistic manifestation.

Gechtman's works – the objects produced for him by craftsmen – lack the power to be appealing. Their morphology is elementary, almost didactic. Many of them demonstrate a process of reification, a product of the hybridization acts, the most (aesthetically) conspicuous of which is the cross-breeding between two ostensibly unbridgeable positions: Constantin Brancusi's auratic practices (shaping and refining pristine materials), and Marcel Duchamp's tactics of impractice (illustrative-semantic-indicative modes of representation). Both positions, with their common point of departure (Eros, in one way or another: tactile-optical in one case, optical-semantic in the other), are brought here to a state of cul-de-sac and finality in relation to a horizon of petrifaction, inertia, decomposition (on the level of culture).

The group of Carts – perhaps the most pivotal within the comprehensive work array – maintains a clear ironic affinity to the modes of matter transformation and refinement developed by Brancusi; to the metamorphoses of a motif from one material realization to the next, where each materialization is tantamount to a leap forward in term of the sublimation of matter through its refinement. In Gechtman's case, the metamorphosis of the group of Carts – illustrating a metamorphosis from childhood to mourning (the first is improvised the way children devise things to play with, the second is already coated with marble-patterned formica, and the subsequent ones are made of unrefined synthetic marble cast with increasing degrees of bluntness) – leads, by way of inversion, the more condensed it becomes, to a growing discordance with regard to the original event. This discordance culminates in the near scream of the last Cart (including in the current cycle of works), that has reddened in color, covering the impression it was made in a single, undifferentiated flux of color-matter that had congealed. In the current group of works, the use of the ready-made – beauty parlor equipment acting as hospital equipment whose authoritative qualities it wishes to imitate – is polarized to its original application by Duchamp as a means for opening up, liberating the unconscious through an unplanned and indifferent encounter with a mass-produced object. Here, as in many other cases (possibly the majority of post-Duchamp instances), the ready made formula serves a theatrical set-up; its products become objects devoid of a revelatory potential, props on a stage of death.

As Gechtman once asserted, the principal motivation for starting this work process stemmed from a desire (of someone whose continued existence in permanently doubted) to convey to his son a certain “heritage” about his father through the sphere of objects by which he has been shaped. A decade after Exposure – at the beginning of his transition from the conceptual research-like period to a period of preoccupation with reification – Gechtman mounted an exhibition revolving around a large photograph of Yotam, his eldest son, still a little boy at the time, lying in his sick-bed. This image came to reinforce the shared fate between father and son, between the origin and the reproduction. The current array forms the dramatic, albeit restrained as always, culmination of Gechtman's œuvre. It was executed during the past year, during and after Yotam's death. The labor of lamenting Yotam is performed through the works, which frame an absence (every detail within them, and all of them together, as an installation), presenting a world that has at once been depleted of life, a place which is all 'after' and 'without'.

The current array is to be woven into Mausoleum, into which the work Exposure was likewise incorporated last year, when reconstructed with its accompanying soundtrack – an amplified recording of the artificial valve's beating. The soundtrack accompanying the present cycle of works – which wold form an additional sound accompanying Mausoleum – is that of rhythmical hammer beating in a videotape documenting an act of crushing and milling the letters spelling out the son's name into dust. The pathos, to the degree it is present in the work, resides in the urge (of someone who is outside the scope of faith) to create a set-up touching upon the symbolic; and this symbolic situation, more than being an alternative rite of passage, may signify a secular model of solidarity, of shared fate, under historical circumstances where the father-artist has at his disposal but heap of scraps with which to improvise: some recollections of modernistic sculpture, a cliché or two of secularized religiosity, a degenerate ready-made, plastic fruits, a museum.


Moshe Ninio

Contact Us

Skip to content