Kav: Art Journal, No. 9
Gideon Gechtman talks with Uri Hess and Moshe Ninio
Q: For almost 15 years you’ve been working in a conceptual frame that you call Mausoleum. The separate works that you make are gradually fitted into an expanding ensemble, components of which are exhibited on different occasions. What led you to adopt a closed, existing model of this kind?
A: This framework is my answer to the impossible situation that has come about in conceptual art. After an initial stage of excitement, conceptual art entered a crisis – I believe because it was unable to create an alternative framework to the traditional media which it rejected. The solution of the installation, a kind of presentational ensemble, was unsatisfactory and didn’t catch on as a genre form, a style. This was especially evident in the local situation, which is the only relevant one for me. There was something mechanical in the manner of work of what at the time was called the “conceptual artist”: you worked on a subject, you arrived at a certain summation which you presented, and you went on to another subject, with the principle becoming the main thing and innovation being grasped as a value. The work Exposure, which I showed at the Yodfat Gallery in 1973 is an example of this kind of work, and I had nowhere to go on from there. The thing which already occupied me then – memory, eternalizing, staging, together with the desire for a work which grows organically without pauses, led me to the structure of Mausoleum, to kind of ensemble which do know about from history and which introduces the dimension of time, of a succession, into the installation. There’s no need to take this title too literally. It’s a title that was created for purposes of work.
Q: What is this ensemble composed of, how is it made?
A: The ensemble is in a process of becoming. I don’t have a picture of how it will look in its final state, if there will be such a “final” state. Everything I’ve exhibited so far is “interim states”. The exhibition at Naomi Giveon Gallery was a first attempt to present a particular combination from among the elements that had accumulated until then. After this came the exhibition at the Kibbutz Gallery. I see both of these as drafts for the exhibition that followed, which was a more developed and precise phase, Preparation for a Mausoleum, at the Artist’s workshop in Jerusalem. In each of these exhibitions I put together different combinations, and examined various possibilities among the existing components in relation to the given spaces. Some of the works originate in the work Exposure but not one of the components of Exposure was transferred directly as it was to the new ensemble. Works like Beds, Yotam , the Valves group, Urine, all originated from that early work. The changes introduced into them were intended to take them out of the specific context of Exposure and to integrate them formally into the new combination. Other works originated in a continuing series of Bereavement Notices, the earliest of which were pseudo-authentic notices and the last of which was a neon notice. Another group of works deals with various forms of imitation and substitution and yet another is comprised of objects that originate in children’s games. Despite the differences of material I try to preserve an organic growth among the works. There are no leaps: I start with something, make something that relates to it, develop it, make sure there is a connection between the two things, and make another thing which relates to the two previous ones. Everything that I add, despite its visual or stylistic difference, has to combine with everything that was there before it. Of course, as the number of elements increases so does the challenge.
Q: Your works mix a very wide variety of techniques and materials. Their finish is of very high standard, very craftsmanly. Is this a matter of principle?
A: Very much so. I have almost all my works executed by tradesmen. In practice I do some of the work, and have many of the components done by carpenters, molders, signwriters, monument-makers, seamstresses, to some just a few. You could say that the work as a whole gives a certain picture of the quality of work in this country’s central region.
Q: The models you adopt have certain forms of organization, sometimes hierarchical in character. Different things have different importance in the ensemble.
A: I don’t draw only on examples of mausoleums or burial chambers. In the background there are also organizational forms of churches, synagogues, and also of precedent in the history of art: Rodin’s The Gates of Hell as exhibited in Philadelphia and the rooms by Duchamp not far away in the same museum. I can also think of Brancusi’s plan for his Temple of Meditation. At the Naomi Giveon Gallery the exhibition was built like a raising pile, on the model of an Egyptian burial chamber. The show at the Workshop was closer to the organizational forms of religious spaces, church or synagogue, or a combination of both: symmetry, an emphasized central axis, deep perspective, control of the direction of the spectator’s movement. Since the work is constructed, conceptually, as a single ensemble in which all the parts support each other, each component is supposed to be apprehended as necessary even if it isn’t central. Within the ensemble some combinations are more united and others less so. The ensemble as shown at the Workshops will collapse if we take out the Test-tubes of Urine and Neon Notice. Some of the objects explicitly have only one function: to mediate between more central components. But they are still important components in the composition.
Q: The central components in the ensemble are objects on the borderline between possibly functional objects and images that can only be used mentally. The Cart, the Beds or Queue look ostensibly like things borrowed wholly from the real world. They could possibly even serve their “original” function.
A: All the objects that comprise the Mausoleun are made after real referents or by a hybrid fusion of several sources. For example, the wooden structure in which the test-tubes stand is not a copy of any piece of furniture but a fusion of several functions: a synagogue bench/shelf, the platform where the torah is read, a prayer-stand, a lecture’s podium. In the same way Queue is a combination of elements of the apparatus we all know from banks and elements which in many synagogues decorates the barrier around the prayer platform. Here the elements are newly made. What the tree-dimensional objects have in common, as distinct from the two- dimensional works, is that in principle it is possible to take most of them out of their artistic isolation and place them among objects outside without their revealing themselves immediately as art objects. They are likely to get the benefit of the doubt, to “delude” for some time. I’d say that these are things which have one foot in the “world” and one foot outside it, but in a different sense to the ready-made. First of all they aren’t ready-mades because they are one-of-a-kind objects made by hand, sometimes with a lot of hard work, and secondly because they can’t be thrown back into the world. They can’t “take part” in it. They speak of things similar to themselves by the same means out of which the original things themselves are made or in similar materials. The correspondence between them and them and the originals is partial. The disparity between the original thing itself and itself and its new representation is what interests me. The process of reproduction of reproduction, the making anew, also in the sense of sexual reproduction, in the same sense that a child is a reproduction or a hybrid. This is why I weave the “story” of my son, Yotam, into the work. Since my son is living through a history very similar to my own I have a sense of sharing a common fate with him. He brings back to me difficult experiences I’ve had. I’m in the position of observing a similar struggle, from the side.
Q: Can one extract separate components from the ensemble and relate to them individually?
A: Some of them, yes. Works like Beds, Ark-Curtain with Two Nelsons or Queue can exist in their own right, but Mausoleum cannot exist without them. At a more ordinary level, of course, even works that can stand-alone are liable to lose a considerable part of their meaning outside the context or without the radiation of the other works. This is true for all art in general and I of course strive to push this to an extreme.
Q: Your functional use of various techniques, crafts, media, has parallels to your similar use of adopted styles. It’s not like quotation, or tribute, but somehow parasitic. You ride upon existing styles and harness them to your needs. If before you said that at a certain level the Mausoleum covers a broad range of crafts prevalent in the region where you live, on a higher level one could see it as a mausoleum of styles, a graveyard of the styles through which art has passed since the late 50’s, a mini-museum that uses substitutes.
A: I the ensemble as a whole there is an ambition to project a certain summation of data at every level of relating: at the level of the craft work itself, at the level of style, and of course at the biographic level. I select a style that that fits the subject. For each work I choose its style just as I choose its particular medium. The works are not uniform and there is no fixed style and that is why the conceptual framework is so important. I work with styles, not in them. This could be connected to the background in which I crystallized as an artist, the London of the 60’s and especially American currents like Minimalism and Pop. In 1962 in London I found very intensive activity in a broad range of styles: beside Minimalism and Pop you could see hard-edge paintings, English paintings and sculpture, and a little later, Conceptualism. Everything happened together. You must remember that I came to London from a place where the Lyric Abstract held absolute sway. I recall that at the time the response of Pop to the rift between abstract art and the public did not satisfy me, it seemed too simple, all right for America. The objects of Minimalist art looked to me then like works with a ritualistic character, which came about because, among other things, of the new methods of exhibiting being developed then: you take an object and intensify its presence by positioning it dramatically in the exhibition space, by means of focussed lighting…
Q: From the moment it appeared, Minimalism was accused of theatricality, a theatricality which in many cases was sneaked in to replace narrativity.
A: Although this contradicted the original principles of some of the Minimalists, it’s what actually happened in practice. It was really evident in the works of Robert Morris. This theatricality really captivated me, I have to admit, and I made several works in this direction during the 60’s. the structure of space, the structure of an object, the relation between them, these were things that attracted me. I was interested then in things like symmetry, centering, hanging on a wall, questions about the status of the work of art, the staging of objects, the relation between the artist and the object he makes or produces. In the concepts of that time, if you wanted to redefine the medium of sculpture or painting you had to attain a new control of the components you were making and of the specific means of each medium. Only after you had defined what the characteristics of the specific medium were, what its material qualities were, and had sifted out all foreign elements, all surpluses, would you come and use what remained in a controlled manner. In order not to fall into non-clarity you had to limit the possibilities of making something, and then limit them again, and again, down to the bare essentials, and to treat them and them alone, without getting swept away, without losing control. In Minimalist sculpture the complexity of the structure itself had to speak for itself. If you try to focus on three-dimensionality, which is essential to sculpture, everything else will be an addition, a decoration. It’s possible that this austere manner of thinking also arose out of the confused conditions of that period. Artists were looking for something to grasp at.
Q: You came back to Israel in 1971. Why did you come back?
A: When I came back I met Yona Fisher and showed him material I’d brought. He put me in touch with several artists I didn’t know, who were working here in similar ways, among them Micha Ullman and Avital Geva. Then Avital began the Metzer project. He invited some artists to do works in the open near his Kibbutz, Ein Shemer. I didn’t do a thing. I felt there was nothing for me to do there. I live in Rishon Letzion, at that time in an apartment house, in a dense urban environment I had nothing to look for there and pretty early in the piece it began looking like a scouts’ game to me. I saw it as a quest for the exotic, and the exotic is not something to be found in the places where I go.
Q: In the background there was Danzinger, the inspiration of Danzinger, the “Canaanite” fantasy.
A: Danzinger was there in the background. Since I was not actually involved in the activities of this group, I can’t speak about how great his influence was in practice. I met him once in Haifa when he was doing the Nesher project. It interested me very much, but no more than that.
Q: Your coming back here, where we have, in the best of cases, application of principles from outside, and it worse cases the adoption of what happens here on the surface, must have been very difficult.
A: Looking back on it, yes. But my feeling was that what matters isn’t how you understanding the thing that comes from outside but what you do with it. It doesn’t matter that there are wrong interpretations and it also doesn’t matter if you don’t understand the principles, what’s important is that you make something new, right for you, right for here. The influence from the outside can serves as a background on which something completely new, and local, can grow. And I really did feel, until 1976, that there was a certain dynamics at work here that had some potential to it. At the same time it become much clearer to me that my place is not Tel Aviv, nor the Galilee, but Rishon Letzion. That is my environment, here I find my raw materials. It’s Israel, the embodiment of the Zionist ideal, if you like three rooms for a family of four living on 3,000 NS a month. The blending of the exiles. Of course you could say it isn’t much of a fulfillment, but that’s already a matter of opinion.
Q: On the one hand you speak of a continuing and necessary connection with the art being produced outside, and on the other hand you speak of work that is almost anthropological in nature.
A: We aren’t disconnected from what happens outside even if it comes to us in the form of fragments of styles. Things pass through all the time and some get registered. The styles produced in the west aren’t produced by chance. They’re produced as responses to very complex life structures, and though these things may get here somewhat late, they get here. The technology, the consumerism, the fashions, the home culture, the leisure culture – they all arrive here. Rishon too is the import of a way of life in its local possibility. Provinciality is a special situation and the question is what do you do with this kind of situation.
Q: You mentioned Brancusi’s temple plan as a source of inspiration. Danziger too related to Brancusi and to the plan, as Mordechai Omer has shown. Danziger worked within Brancusi’s spiritual, holistic model. Your relation to it is more formal, I would say, even subversive in certain senses.
A: It’s not one-sided. There is a subversive side but there’s also the side of exaltation – in the original sense. Brancusi drew elements of design from Rumanian folk art, took things out of their cultural contexts and by reworking and relocating them endowed them with spiritual qualities they didn’t have before. His most revolutionary step, conceptually, found expression in the elimination of the base of the sculpture, an act which obliged him to find new forms for the sculptural object to distinguish it from the other objects present in the same space. He solved this by creating an ensemble of objects that relate to each other without any of them losing its independence while together creating an environment and in the final analysis a single life work. This is true of the design for the temple, of the incomplete sculptural ensemble in Rumania, and also of the reconstruction of his studio as it is exhibited in Paris. Ensemble thinking and reliance on folk design are very important to me, and here another factor comes in: the way Brancusi’s method of designing and polishing made a complete cycle and returned to the “low” culture, folk culture, to the design of decorative objects, to Kitsch. These are the kinds of objects that I too take as a starting-point.
Q: Is Queue an example of this kind of work?
A: Yes, but not only because of the polished finish. Here we also have elements of incitement and of exaltation that are linked to the act of changing the status of ordinary objects that are similar. The queue stands in the bank are made in a certain way: they has a broad base that stabilizes them. They’re nickel-plated. You can lean on them. All these are things related to the social function they has to fulfil. The objects that I made, their bases aren’t proportional to the crowns at the top, they’re made wholly of brass, a very vulnerable material, easily scratched. They can fulfil their function only ostensibly.
Q: The process you describe is also one of camouflage, disguise, pretence: in the objects that emphasize the contrast between the material mass and the coating, or in works that present the transference of qualities from one sphere to another, from one material to another, hybrids of form.
A: I explicitly make hybrids of things, of functions, of characteristics. As in the case of Queue, or the Carts group. In cart, for example, I take a children’s plaything that was popular when I was a child, one they used to make by themselves, and I reconstruct it. Then I make another cart based on the first wooden one, but more “glorified” in form, with a certain change of proportions. This cart served me as a model which I then cast in marble substitute, and this already is a different cart. The little Cart, the gilded one, represents another phase in this process. Every phase, and now, after 13 years, there are four, is more artificial, more synthetic and more materially homogenous. The last Cart of the series is already reproducible, closer to a toy or a decorative object, which is to say an image. The first two Carts could still be used in their original function, as play vehicles, even though that might have looked quite macabre. In all of my works you will find a transition from functional necessity towards syntheticity and artificiality through unification and decorativeness, an increasing process of moving away from “life”, in that sense in which only childhood is “life”. At the same time this resembles the attempt to convey lived experience, which is a process of synthesizing events. The artistic product is an isolated one. As such it is perhaps purer but also more synthetic and barren, and this is what I want to emphasize.
Q: And there is the Brushes group which is part of a group of works where you make use of hair.
A: My use of hair began as early as 1969, in the work Heads. In the order to mold the original model from which all the distorted reproductions were cast, I shaved my head for the first time. I repeated this act at a performance which accompanied the exhibition of the work two years later. In 1974, when I staged a reconstruction of the preparation for an operation, for the work Exposure, I shaved all my body-hair. This time I already kept the hair. The experience of shaving was a very strong one, each time. I was amazed to discover to what extant the hair, especially the hair of the head, is connected to our self-image, how much shaving it arouses humiliation, punishment, negation of the personality. Later, as a transformation of these works, I did two groups of works with brushes. One of them belongs to the groups of works of substitution and imitation, and some of them are made of horse-hair, vegetable hair mixed from all these. The second group, which is connected to the Mausoleum, is made of human hair – mine, my wife’s, and my two sons’. Beyond the clear context of consciousness of the Holocaust, the hair here is conceived of as something changing, temporary, surplus, is presented here as one of the only things that remain. Like teeth and bones, hair, as non-organic material, has a high survival potential. This perhaps has a similarity to works of art.
Q: Conventions of beauty are generally borrowed from “low” culture, making something look like more than it is. These are things that are very noticeable in your works.
A: I photograph a situation. The beautifying of an object, decoration, indicates a certain status. Decoration has a function that is not connected to necessity: it fulfils a certain need. Of course marble-like Formica, for example, is a substitute for a more reputable material, one that is more expensive and harder to work. Marble can be quarried in particular places. Formica can be made anywhere. It is easy to manipulate and of course it’s adopted by people who can’t afford marble, or in a culture of short-cuts. I can tell you that when I started working with imitation-marble Formica 14 years ago I had no difficulty getting it in Israel. Today that’s no longer possible. Which is to say that in this brief time certain norms have changed here, tastes have changed, and more people can afford the real thing or a substitute of a different grade – cast marble or artificial marble.
Q: Formica, nevertheless, is kind of on the edge of a specific culture of painting, the end of the way of creating increasing degrees of illusion. Painting has served as a laboratory in which the natural has increasingly turned into an image, an occupation concerned with the transformation of the natural into the image, through all the modes of representation we know since the Renaissance.
A: I definitely see the relation between Formica and Marble as being like the relation between landscape painting and the landscape itself: in the same elusive way in which landscape painting has a certain similarity to the landscape, so Formica as an image has a representational relation to natural material. This of course points to much broader, universal, phenomenon of substitution, imitation and synthesizing.
Q: At the center of your work there is an image of a substitution, the metal valve implanted as a heart-regulator, in this case a substitute for the organic. In your works it is enlarged to the size of a crown, and appears in various contexts as an end, a title, and a cork. What arises is a question about value: when do you relate to the substitute or imitation critically, with suspicion, and when are you willing to accept it?
A: As I said, I photograph a certain situation, I simply photograph a certain situation. I have nothing against someone who uses Formica instead of marble as long as he knows what he’s doing. That is to say, when you know that you’re creating an illusion, you’re liberated from it. And I’m speaking of illusion in the broad sense. I think that someone who paints knows he’s creating an illusion. When we speak of art we speak of an extreme situation, because the function of the artistic product is not clear. It’s true that the distinction between artificial and natural, like the distinction between truth and lie, involves a value judgment, but when I try to examine it today it’s hard for me to substantiate it. Our consciousness is built on it but it’s becoming more lacking in sense. Not long ago I visited a plant nursery. Today they’re improving plants so that they’ll look better than they do naturally. You give them special treatment, radiations, special foods, you mix species so that today there are new species of synthesized plants which look different to plants that have not undergone this process. On the other hand you have a vast and rapidly expanding industry producing artificial decorative plants, and you can place the two products side by side and have difficulties deciding which is the “true” one. That is to say, from two different directions, the biological and the technological, artificial products are being produced which you cannot always immediately distinguish between. So where’s the artificial and where’s the true? Where’s the representation and where’s the represented?
Text translated from the Hebrew by Richard Flantz