'You don't see that I'm walking in the air'
It's the best and worst of times for conceptual artist Gideon Gechtman, who is showing in three exhibitions simultaneously - and who heads off to Germany in a few days for last-ditch, experimental heart surgery.
Gideon Gechtman's exhibition "Dead Line" opens this Saturday at Beit Kanner in Rishon Letzion. Three days later the artist will fly to Frankfurt for experimental surgery. In the operation, which will be performed before an international conference of angioplasty surgeons and also be broadcast live in Europe and the United States, an international expert will try to seal off a leak in a valve in Gechtman's heart. The surgery follows the four open-heart operations Gechtman has had over the years, a valve replacement during the course of which his aorta was damaged (about 6 years ago), and another surgical attempt to repair the leak that occurred about three years ago and ended in heart failure.
"The state of my health has deteriorated considerably during the past year, as if I have reached the end of the road," says Gechtman, who is 64.
Is that how you feel?
"No, that's what the doctors are telling me. They are saying to me, 'Listen, nothing can done with you. We can replace a valve and make a repair, but we can't open your chest any more. An operation like that in your condition is a death sentence.' My doctor, Dr. Hirsch, said that this operation is the only option. The chances that it will succeed are small. If they can repair the leak in the valve in a significant way, it will improve my quality of life. If they don't succeed, I will have to learn to live with the situation I'm in."
"I have edema in my legs, I have severe insufficiency, my body is accumulating fluids, in the evening I can barely walk, I have no air and it is getting worse. But I can read and listen to music.
"It's surprising what situations a person can become accustomed to. During the past half year I have been more active than I was during the previous 20 years. I am now showing three exhibitions at once: one at the Petah Tikva Museum, another at the gallery at Oranim and now this exhibition. I am running around as though there were no tomorrow, and at the same time I am acting as though I am going to live forever. This is a paradoxical situation that for me is an existential one."
Weapon of the weak
It is possible that all these medical and physical descriptions, which are liable to sound like an invasion of privacy, would be irrelevant if this weren't about Gechtman, whose work has been nourished by these biographical elements since the 1970s. Starting with the legendary exhibition "Exposure," in which he showed the preparations for his first cardiac surgery (elements of which have continued to appear in various incarnations in his work: a miniaturized hospital bed, a metal valve, body hair); through his exhibition "Yotam," in memory of his youngest son, who died of a blood disorder in 1998; to the current show.
Although his body is absent from it, the palpability of death and existential bodily fear are very much present. In the space Gechtman has positioned missiles, silvery and painted over with the colors of the Palestinian flag. Some of them lie on the ground and some stand ready on the launch pad. Ostensibly, it is an open moment, before the launch of the rocket, but it also contains within it the knowledge of the inevitable future strike.
There is no safe place
The analogy between the moments of fear prior to a launch and the moments of anxiety before the operation is clear. However, Gechtman also creates a rather surprising analogy between both the improvised missile and Israeli art, and the Palestinian terrorist and the local artist. "The cost of producing a Qassam is around NIS 400, a tiny sum when compared to the Arrow missile, each of which costs about $1 million or more," he says. "The Qassam rocket is the weapon of the weak and it is remarkably effective. The need to find solutions produces answers. They can't contend with us with tanks and planes. What is left to them? A pipe with explosives that barely hits the target. "This also applies to the Israeli artist's means of production. I can't compete with an artist like Matthew Barney, who gets a million dollars for producing a work. I need to create a work with NIS 20,000, and even this is a sum that only a coddled and well-connected artist gets. I'm not like Rafi Lavie, who bent before the reality and made art with meager, cheap materials. I'm the opposite; I try to fight the reality, defeat it and succeed in relatively costly productions, despite the conditions. I work at a very slow pace, two or three works a year. When I do them, I want them to look like a million dollars. The Israeli artist, like the Palestinian terrorist, has to be a cagey bastard, to create effective art that is of value with a meager budget."
But what is really more important to Gechtman than anything else is perhaps immortality. His own immortality through his works. Much has already been written about "Gechtman's Mausoleum," the umbrella title for a personal perpetuation project he began in the 1970s that includes the aggregate of his work. The next stage in the perpetuation is the building of packaging for his works. This decision, he relates, was born in the wake of an incident he had with the Israel Museum.
"About three years ago the phone rang. It was a conservator from the museum, who told me that one of my works, a kind of small bench made of polyester, had broken," he relates. "He told me that they didn't know what materials it was made from, and asked me to repair it. I repaired it and I also drove it back to the museum. About a year and a half ago, before a display of the work in the exhibition 'Mini Israel' that Larry Abramson curated, I got another call from the same conservator. The work had broken again and it had to be repaired. I asked him whether he thought that I was going to live forever, and I suggested giving him instructions. This didn't help. I repaired it, but this time I decided that I would also prepare a crate to protect it, made to its dimensions. This time too, just like the first time, no one called to thank me, to ask how much the repair cost, nothing.
"Not long ago I met Amitai Mendelson, the Israel Museum's curator of Israeli art. I asked him how I was to understand this attitude. It turns out that he didn't even know that the work had broken, that I had repaired it, that I had added a crate. I realized that even the museum, which I had seen as a safe repository for the preservation of works, is not a safe place. I need to worry about the works even after I die. How? I will build compact, easily movable and thrifty packaging for my works. In the end they will become a part of the works."
Do it yourself
In an exhibition scheduled for the end of the year at the art center in Ein Harod, Gechtman will show the Qassams in new packaging and with a user's guide. The guide will include precise instructions on how to realize his works, a bit like Gal Weinstein's artist's book, which came out about two years ago in the "Omanut La'am" series and included precise instructions for executing his pieces. "At the moment, this is just a pilot, which is funded by Mifal Hapayis," the national lottery, says Gechtman. "Ultimately I hope to issue about 2,000 such guides that will be distributed to major libraries throughout the world and anyone will be able to create for himself a Gechtman of his own. Of course there is also an economic and political position here that comes out against the trade in art."
The current exhibition at Beit Kanner is a continuation of an exhibition of the same name that Gechtman showed about a half-year ago at the Petah Tikva Museum on the occasion of his winning a prize for his life's work from the Culture Ministry. At that time, three unpainted Qassams were shown. This time colors, launchers and crates were added. Further developments will be shown in the continuation exhibition at Ein Harod. The development and change are characteristic of Gechtman's work. Only in the end is it possible to understand the contents in depth, to piece together the whole. This kind of work requires a retrospective look, and it is surprising to think that until now Gechtman, a very esteemed artist, has not had a retrospective exhibition.
"Why haven't I been given a retrospective exhibition until now? In the past there was talk of a large exhibition at the Israel Museum, but the funds for it weren't found," says Gechtman somewhat dismissively. "There is something abut my work that is blunt, almost anti-canonical, relative to what is happening here in Israel. All of Israeli art is tailored to the Tel Aviv bourgeoisie. Everyone who sits on the exhibition-and-acquisitions committees represents this bourgeoisie. They like pictures. What can't be hung in the living room and doesn't suit its dimensions isn't art. The museums hardly buy installations. They can't deal with them and maintain them, although this is one of the most profitable media in contemporary art.
"The Israel Musuem purchases works from young artists who have just completed their studies. From me, to this day they have purchased just one work, the one that broke. How is it possible that the colorful death notices, which are considered canonical, are with me at home? How come they haven't been snapped up yet? I don't understand this.
"Sara Breitberg [the art critic and curator] has always said of me that I am an excellent artist, but she doesn't have a context for me. I don't screw into any thesis. Not to the meagerness of material, not anything. And I don't understand what she is talking about. Is there no art in the world? What about the international context?"
Chosen by Hockney and Bacon
And indeed, internationalism has characterized Gechtman's work from the outset. When the local version of conceptual art was evolving in Israel in the 1960s, Gechtman was a young and promising student at a London art college. He lived contemporary art in real time. There are those who say that had he remained abroad after completing his studies he would already be internationally renowned. "I had a promising start there," he confirms. "I was a star at the school and I was chosen for every exhibition of young artists. I remember that they opened a new gallery and they asked all the colleges in London to submit works. The jury included, among others, David Hockney and Francis Bacon. They chose five artists and I was one of them."
Was it longing that brought you back here?
"First of all, I never felt at home in England. I always felt like a stranger and I enjoyed being an alien who is not committed to anything. Then I married an Israeli woman" - Batsheva Zeisler - "who suffered greatly there and wanted to go back. In the end I missed my roots. I wanted to be involved. From an anarchist, I became a Zionist."
Do you have regrets?
"I couldn't have developed the way I have if I were living anywhere else. I think about the project that I did in the 1970s, when I painted death notices for myself. What significance would this have had in London? I'm not talking about how this is a uniquely Israeli format that doesn't exist anywhere else in the world. But supposing that it did exist in England, whom would it have moved at all? Here I live in a small city, Rishon Letzion, I am married to the daughter of the city engineer [Shaul Zeisler], a Pole from Krakow, and people said to him, 'What happened to your son-in-law? Has he lost his marbles?' Teachers came from Bezalel and asked, 'Have you gone crazy? You've scared everyone.' The reaction from the environment gives meaning to the work.
"This is also the case with the link to my life story that can be found in the works. Who in London cares that I was an external child living on a kibbutz? I say that what I have done here - and it makes no difference what the future holds for the work - is an artistic achievement that could not have happened in any other place. I have no regrets. It could be that in England I would have become Anish Kapoor, but who cares?"
Perhaps the history of art.
"I am not a megalomaniac but I do feel that there are artists who tower above others. That they aren't just good - they're gigantic. I feel closer to them. All kinds of Anish Kapoors don't interest me. My model is Brancusi, Marcel Duchamp. I want to be important, to create significant works. Everyone talks about abroad, and I feel that from here I have what to offer. My works have a connection to everything that is happening in the world, be it body art, conceptual art, the mixture of the documentary and the staged, the interdisciplinary. In this way I am making my unique contribution to art, and if I am lucky, this will be discovered, too. With respect to local esteem, I can't complain, I am not bitter.
"I used to have a recurring dream that I was in a room full of people and that I was walking in the air, 30 centimeters above the floor, and no one was looking at me. I say, 'Hey guys, I'm walking in the air,' and no one reacts. This feeling is always with me: 'You don't see, you don't see that I am walking in the air.' I hate mediocrity. One day they are going to discover a serious artist here."