| || ||Returning to the Scene of the Crime / Mordechai Omer |
Huleh Valley - solo show catalogue
curated by Ellen Ginton, 2005
"It is a mistake to think," maintains Gilles Deleuze, "that the painter works on a white surface. The figurative belief follows from this mistake. If the painter were before a white surface, he – or she – could reproduce on it an external object functioning as a model. But such is not the case. The painter has many things in his head, or around him, or in his studio. Now everything he has in his head or around him is already in the canvas, more or less virtually, more or less actually, before he begins his work. They are all present in the canvas as so many images, actual or virtual, so that the painter does not have to cover a blank surface, but rather would have to empty it out, clear it, clean it. He does not paint in order to reproduce on the canvas an object functioning as a model; he paints on images that are already there, in order to produce a canvas whose functioning will reverse the relations between model and copy. In short, what we have to define are all these 'givens' [données] that are on the canvas before the painter's work begins, and determine, among these givens, which are an obstacle, which are a help, or even the effects of a preparatory work."1
Deleuze introduces these insights in his book on Francis Bacon, in the chapter entitled "The Painting before Painting…," discussing the relationship between photography and painting in this great artist's work. "In the first place," Deleuze goes on to say, "there are figurative givens. Figuration exists, it is a fact, and it is even a prerequisite of painting. We are besieged by photographs that are illustrations, by newspapers that are narrations, by cinema-images, by television-images. There are psychic clichés just as there are physical clichés – ready-made perceptions, memories, phantasms. There is a very important experience here for the painter: a whole category of things that could be termed 'clichés' already fills the canvas, before the beginning."2
Fifty years after the sights of the "dying lake" of the Huleh Valley were taken by Peter Merom (1954-55), Gal Weinstein returned to these photographs, using them as a point of departure for a series of large-scale wall paintings and a huge floor relief that covered the entire entrance level of the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion for Contemporary Art in his exhibition "Huleh Valley" to which this catalogue is dedicated.
Weinstein's embracing of Merom's photographs is not only a landmark in his own artistic path; it reintroduces the discourse pertaining to the unrestrained and fascinating affinity between art and "nationalism," between "photography" and "nature." The national decision made in the early 1950s to drain Lake Huleh was one of the most daring measures taken by the State against "nature," against the "place." The belief that a swamp could be turned into fertile agricultural land and the legitimization to upset the ecological balance for the sake of realizing an ideological Zionist vision were accompanied by glorifying slogans such as "flowering of the desert" (as the title of an exhibition intended to indicate the State's achievements during its first decade, held at Binyanei HaUma – The Jerusalem Convention Center). From the perspective of time, however, the Huleh project left an indelible stain on the narrative of the Zionist enterprise. It soon turned out that the draining of Lake Huleh was an ecological hazard, the unforgivable exploitation of nature's givens, and in the early 1990s it was decided to restore part of the Lake's drained area.
In his six large-scale paintings (each 620x315 cm) Weinstein revisits Merom's lyrical black-and-white photographs as "givens" (the photographs were first exhibited in 1957 in the exhibition "The Song of the Dying Lake" at the Tel Aviv Museum); to be precise, Weinstein returns not to the photographs themselves, but rather to their reproductions, which have faded and yellowed over the years within the album The Death of the Lake (Davar Press, 1960. See pp. 27-28). The works are far from being enlarged reproductions; Weinstein surprises the viewer with the vast surface of these paintings, which are covered with metallic gray steel wool glued onto the white panels as uncanny, obsessive drawing gestures. The elegy for the Lake's flora and fauna, "the last dialogue between me and him – the lake," as Merom notes in his introductory words to the album, have transformed in Weinstein's work into an estranged, alienated landscape whose metallic character renders the viewer a wanderer who has lost his way in a sphere at once repugnant and magical.
At first glance, the floor at the entrance level appears as though it were fissured red soil whose cracks attest to prolonged aridity – "the earth, cracked and split with drying, cried out" (Merom 1960, p. 128); as you step on this scorched "earth," however, the synthetic feel of the industrial material from which it was sculpted is enhanced – MDF boards made of sawdust that has virtually lost its woody identity. The material's treatment, as indicated by the sculptural-carpentered processing of the MDF boards, embodies a contradiction, an oscillation between advantage and disadvantage, between ideal and reality, regarding the limits of the material; it stands in stark contrast to the 1970s earth works, such as Walter de Maria's Earth Room, 1977, whose artistic language was anchored in direct use of and faithfulness to the material.
One also senses regret in assertions made in the 1950s by the Huleh fishermen: "We knew about the plans to turn the lake into dry land, to bury swamp-borne malaria in the dried-out clods of the recovered soil. From time to time someone would come and survey the place, measure something, and disappear as suddenly as he appeared. But nothing changed. It seemed as though things would always be the same. For would life be possible otherwise, without all this?" (Merom 1960, p. 78). Such self-flagellation is entirely absent in Weinstein's early 21st-century project, which brings to mind what Roland Barthes terms "the scandal of horror" that replaces the "horror itself." Barthes attempts to distinguish between shock images which leave a profound impression and those that fail to shock "precisely because the photographer has too generously substituted himself for us in the formation of his subject: he has almost always overconstructed the horror he is proposing, adding to the fact, by contrasts or parallels, the intentional language of horror […]. Now, none of these photographs, all too skillful, touches us. This is because, as we look at them, we are in each case dispossessed of our judgment: someone has shuddered for us, reflected for us, judged for us; the photographer has left us nothing – except a simple right of intellectual acquiescence: we are linked to these images only by a technical interest; overindicated by the artist himself, for us they have no history; we can no longer invent our own reception of this synthetic nourishment, already perfectly assimilated by its creator."3
As opposed to these "false" artists, Barthes introduces another type of expression which essentially enables to "give these signs at least the ambiguity, the delay of a density." It is precisely such manifestations that can, according to Barthes, trigger the desired "shock" in the viewer: "These images astonish because, at first glance they seem alien, almost calm, inferior to their legend: they are visually diminished, dispossessed of that numen which the painters would not have failed to add to them (and rightly, since they were making paintings). Deprived both of its song and its explanation, the naturalness of these images compels the spectator to a violent interrogation, commits him to a judgment which he must elaborate himself without being encumbered by the demiurgic presence of the photographer. Here we are indeed concerned with that critical catharsis Brecht demands, and no longer, as in the case of painting, with an emotive purgation: thus perhaps we can rediscover the two categories of the epic and the tragic. The literal photograph introduces us to the scandal of horror, not to horror itself."4 In the installation Huleh Valley Weinstein succeeded in liberating his version of the images from their dependence on the literariness of the photographer on whom he relies; he has succeeded in granting an experience which compels the "spectator to a violent interrogation, […] to a judgment which he must elaborate himself."
The discussion of Weinstein's "cracked earth" necessitates a reference to Menashe Kadishman who dedicated some of his pivotal works in the mid-1970s to this motif. Kadishman's cracked earth is associated with the landscapes of the Sinai Desert which he surveyed by jeep during the Sinai Campaign (1956), crossing wadis whose floors were cracked by aridity. In a series of works from the early 1970s, exhibited in his solo exhibition at Museum Haus Lange in Krefeld, Germany, Kadishman first alluded to the sight of cracked earth: on an enlarged photograph of fissured soil (probably taken by his friend, Ya'acov Agor) which was placed on the Museum's floor, Kadishman put a glass plate at whose center he cut out a circular shape, exposing the photograph underneath. The cutout opening in the glass focused the viewer's eye on the tension created between the cracks in the earth – produced by nature – and the incision of the glass made by the artist. Kadishman used the same enlarged photograph in another work as well, but instead of the glass, he placed lumps of red loam on the photograph, once again juxtaposing a piece of nature with a photographic image.
A direct sequel of these works are Kadishman's series of prints created upon his return from England. These series likewise employed the same photograph of cracked earth, yet Kadishman managed to revive the negative and lend it powerful coloration and theatrical wealth by means of a screenprint or a photo-etching. In many of these prints he used coarse sand instead of pigment, literally returning the photograph back to the soil, as it were.
In 1961, one year after the publication of The Death of the Lake, another album of photographs by Peter Merom came out – The Root (also published by Davar). The album includes a text in verse by Haim Guri; the text and the photographs unfold the "wanderings" of a root plucked from cracked, arid earth, becoming the victim of natural forces – "the blind force," as Guri puts it – or used by men for everyday domestic needs. Guri's poem begins with an attempt to define "the root's story":
The root's story is not an allegory.
The root's story will begin with once upon a time there was
Once upon a time there was rain,
far and strong.
There was high tide.
The root's story is the story of the brown waters.
The root's story is the story of the blind force.
The story of the uprooted.
The story of drifting.
The story of wanderings.
The root's personification, its description as a dismembered man who wants to "reach at all costs" but does not know "where," generates the drama of the encounter between the root and its surroundings:
He hastens his steps!
He is a man!
He is a headless man!
He is a one-armed man.
He wants to reach at all costs –
Where, in God's name?
His shadow lags behind him. Where is his shadow?
In the first round he was subdued by the water.
Now, he refuses to surrender to the sun, to the silence,
to the cracked earth.
The struggle depicted between the metaphorical figure and nature is engulfed by an air of romanticism which dominates the root's journey and is accompanied by a yearning to unite with the essence and reach "silence," the sublime:
And this is his returning shadow,
Drawing the story of regret on the parched earth.
Once upon a time there was earth.
Once upon a time there were waters.
Behold the earth has returned
And the waters have gone away.
Soon the root will learn to find his modest place
within the extensive time.
Soon he will be wise.
Soon he will be silent and forgiving.
Surprisingly, without justification, Haim Guri recounts the root's end. His approach stems largely from the ideological climate of the 1950s in Israel, which glorified, without guilt, nature's subjection to the "reclamation of the desert" envisioned by the renewing society which believed that it could change the primordial laws of nature.
A barefooted woman will walk on the cracked earth
and approach him.
Carrying him on her back, she will return home.
At nightfall there will be light and warmth.
The smell of bread.
Smoke will rise.
Then there will be rain,
Then a new story will begin.
In the emptied space whose floor is "cracked earth" it is hard to picture a "barefooted woman," and even harder to expect that "at nightfall there will be light and warmth." The industrial materials from which this "earth" is made create a barrier, excluding the viewer from the sphere of innocence of the "eternal return" and nature's cyclicality. The emptiness marked by the gallery's floor denies the viewer any foothold in the imaginary panoramic landscape that has long lost its status as a "given" in nature.
1. Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation , trans. Daniel W. Smith (London & New York: Continuum, 2002), pp. 86-87.
Deleuze's use of the term données brings to mind Marcel Duchamp's masterpiece, Etant donnés (1946-66). Regarding the use of a photographic element, one ought to mention the classicist landscape photograph that Duchamp installed as a backdrop for the dioramic structure of the piece, and the flickering light directed at the waterfall in the photograph (for a discussion of this aspect, see: Mordechai Omer, "Courbet, Duchamp, and Picasso – In the Eyes of the Beholder: Between Eye-Witnessing and Explorations into the Mysteries of Nakedness," Studio 53, May-June 1994, pp. 53-59 [Hebrew])
2. Deleuze 2002, p. 87.
3. Roland Barthes, The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies, trans. Richard Howard (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997), pp. 71-72.
4. Barthes 1997, p. 73.