Karavan- Yuval Tebol
Karavan. “In war you have to be a hero. In culture you have to be a nonconformist.” Photo by Yuval Tebol
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The fire in the Carmel Forest reminded Dani Karavan of a sculpture he created a few years ago for a city in Nara Prefecture, near Kyoto in Japan. The sculpture was designed in such a way that twice a year, at a specific hour, sunbeams crossing it hit a piece of glass, heat it and ignite a fire. In Israel, says the artist who uses the soil for his canvas and the sun for his paintbrush, both glass and flammable material are scattered unthinkingly about the forests.

The Druze boy with the narghile, if indeed he was responsible for the recent conflagration, is akin in Karavan's eyes to the boy from the Hans Christian Andersen story who exclaimed that the emperor was naked.

"We are a people of wars, a people that prefers fighter planes that shoot and drop bombs over rescue planes that drop water and flame-retardant materials," Karavan declares, in an interview held on the occasion of his 80th birthday, which took place recently.

"We deal with defending ourselves against the threat of Katyusha rockets and leave our land unprotected, its curvaceous hills, its flora and streams," he continues. "If we hadn't lost precious human lives in this fire, who would care that natural treasures went up in flames? For a handful of bleeding hearts, tree huggers and animals - is it worth investing money?"

The Israel Prize laureate (1977, for sculpture ) draws a direct line from the Carmel Forest fiasco to the paved security road that is slated to cut through the Caesarea nature reserve and lead to the private residence of Benjamin Netanyahu. Karavan proposes that the premier visit the Tel Aviv home of Palmach commander Yitzhak Sadeh, to see the modest conditions in which the War of Independence hero lived - in a house that was vacated by a British officer, not the palace of an Arab sheikh. He recommends that Netanyahu peek into Sadeh's little garden, which was designed by Avraham Karavan, Dani's father. He might get to hear the story about how mean-hearted people once tried to burn down Sadeh's lovely garden and humble home.

From there Karavan moves on naturally to the subject of the settlers, who "are turning the landscapes of the biblical land and the culture of the East into the landscapes of cold and snowy Switzerland, and are dispossessing the inhabitants who for years preserved the culture of the ancient Hebrews. The heart cringes at the sight of the felled olive trees, the scorched fields and vista-wounding roads, the apartheid roads."

The flames in the Arab village of Ein Hud this month took Karavan back to bygone times, to the early days of Kibbutz Harel, of which he was one of the founders in 1948, during a lull in the War of Independence. Next door was the Arab village of Beit Jiz, which was abandoned by its inhabitants during that war. Karavan says that the architecture sculpted into the village soil is what gave him the inspiration for his monument to the Negev Brigade, in Be'er Sheva.

"This is a cultural heritage whose roots are in the Hebrew culture of more than 2,000 years ago, and we have not managed to learn from it to this day," Karavan complains. "Only the blind could have razed a village like that on the silly grounds that it was a village of rioters. It was a war, and they were fighting."

Bracing for a storm

In Hebrew it is customary to say about someone who is celebrating his 80th birthday that he has reached gevurot - a biblical term meaning strength, or heroism, in the vernacular. But any hint at "heroism" is alien to the mindset of this Tel Avivian artist. "I don't want to be a cultural hero. In war you have to be a hero," Karavan says. "In culture you have to be a nonconformist."

His nonconformism finds expression in the unique dialogue he conducts with the spirit of man and the environment through the soil and sky, the sand and stone, the metal and cement, the water and fire, the light and darkness, the wind and laser beams.

In 1997, amid the crisis surrounding the construction of the Har Homa neighborhood, on disputed land at the southern edge of Jerusalem, Karavan exhibited at the Museum of Israeli Art in Ramat Gan an olive tree whose roots cried out to heaven, like a cow in a slaughter house. He called the piece "Har Homa" - and braced for a public storm. To his great surprise, and disappointment, the protest had no effect. That experience strengthened his opinion regarding the minimal influence that art has.

"Many of those who opened the gas faucets in the death camps had earlier listened to a concert of Mozart, Bach, Beethoven or Schubert," he says.

Karavan inherited his interest in politics from his mother, and his aesthetic sense from his father, the official landscape architect of Tel Aviv during the state's early decades. The youth movement Hashomer Hatzair helped fashion his worldview and sensitivity to human rights. In elementary school he was considered a problem child; he spent a large part of his time in nature. Back in the 1930s and '40s, few teachers were familiar with the term "learning disability." Tony Halle, the legendary teacher who together with Aharon Berman founded Tichon Hadash High School in Tel Aviv, took the young Karavan under her wing. The War of Independence cut short his senior year of high school.

At age 20, Karavan received his first commission: to build theater sets. The encounter between performing arts and plastic arts drew him toward the group of people who founded the Nahal entertainment troupe in the 1950s and the Batsheva Dance Company in the 1960s. In the 1940s, he studied painting with Avigdor Stematsky and Yehezkel Streichman, both of whom inspire his work to this day. He learned the fresco technique that allows him to draw in public spaces at the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence.

The "Negev Monument" (completed 1968 ) opened up his path across the seas and into the top ranks of environmental sculptors worldwide. When he was in his 30s, Karavan was invited to come to New York to design sets for choreographer and dancer Martha Graham. In the mid-1970s he represented Israel at the Venice Biennale of Visual Arts, in the wake of which he was commissioned to exhibit in the Kassel Documenta 6 (1977) and in Port Belvedere in Florence, followed by the Axe Majeur, built in Cergy-Pontoise, a satellite city of Paris, and what may be the biggest urban sculpture of the 20th century: three kilometers long, with a lake, a bridge and an amphitheater and a lazer beam. Since then he has migrated between his Paris studio and the Tel Aviv alley where his parents' house overlooks a small public garden that modestly bears his father's name.

In addition to the Israel Prize, Karavan has also been awarded an honorary doctorate from the Weizmann Institute of Science, as well as Japan's Praemium Imperiale art prize. More than 100,000 Israelis visited his retrospective exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in 2007-8. His name is on countless sculptures throughout Israel and the world, but is absent from the stone relief on the front wall of the Knesset Plenum, which he sculpted 44 years ago. That was his way of protesting the refusal of the Knesset speaker of the time, Kadish Luz, to let the names of the half-dozen stonemasons who worked with Karavan be engraved alongside his own.

Karavan is still protesting the actions of elected officials. Following the recent, initial passage in the Knesset of the Admissions Committee Bill - a legislative proposal designed to block Arab citizens from moving into certain communities - he joined the demonstration outside Meir Dizengoff's house (the site of Israel's declaration of independence in 1948 ). There, he announced that he is ashamed that his wall at the Knesset is serving as the backdrop for speeches in the style of Meir Kahane. Karavan demanded that the wall be covered to protect it from the disgrace of racist laws that contradict the vision of Theodor Herzl, whose portrait he set into the wall.

"It is written 'The stones of the wall will cry out,'" he says now in fury. "Stones do not cry out, so I cry out."

If the Knesset were to invite you today to sculpt the Knesset plenum hall, would you agree?

Karavan: "I would not do any work in the Knesset, just as I would not work in South Africa under apartheid and in countries that radically disrespect human rights. I turned down an offer to install a sculpture at Jabotinsky House in Tel Aviv. I told the architect that I don't do work for Herut, because I well remember the Betar members who attacked the Hashomer Hatzair building and wounded our counselor.

"I'm not sure I was right. So, on second thought, if they were to propose that I do a piece at the Knesset, I would be of two minds about it. An artist's works are meant for people, not governments. We can accept the work and declare our opposition to the regime."

This Knesset is transient

"This Knesset and government are transient things," he says. "The people are not stupid, and understand that they are being led to an abyss. Until then I will not stop warning against the trend of fascistization that is threatening our existence as a state loyal to the values of democracy and Judaism. The emotional responses to my statement regarding the wall at the Knesset were stronger than the reactions to the many works I have made in Israel and the world, and to all of the prizes and honors I have received. There were many who rudely cursed me, but there were also some who identified with me and with my strength of spirit. I hope that my words trickled a drop of antibiotics down to the virus of racism that is consuming the souls of the defamers."

I guess Minister of Culture Limor Livnat won't be awarding you the Zionist art prize.

"I have always been a Zionist, and so I would never take part in a competition where Livnat and her right-wing government, which are destroying Zionism and the Jewish people along with it, get to decide who is a Zionist. In general, there is a lot of defeatism in prizes of this sort. A work of plastic art is not a manifesto and not a declaration of independence. It deals in forms that can be interpreted in 1,000 ways. I create a piece in accordance with the way I feel. Artists do not make picket signs, but rather creations that appeal to man's feeling and mind.

"At the Biennale in 1976 I showed a white floor bas-relief and asked visitors to walk on it barefoot, to feel free, and then make an effort to squeeze between two walls, the way you have to make an effort to attain peace. Joseph Beuys [the well-known German sculptor who served in the Wehrmacht Luftwaffe and represented Germany at that same Biennale] asked me: 'How is it that you, the chaff in the mush of world culture, build a state and do not take into consideration the rights of the Palestinians?' By the way, he was reluctant to take off his shoes. It turned out he had a hole in his sock."

Seeing as you supported the artists' boycott against the Ariel culture center, I presume that you would not put up a sculpture in its plaza. Surely you are also familiar with those who warn against introducing politics into art.

"I would not do any work beyond the Green Line. That is occupied territory, and don't let them compare the occupation of the territories with the War of Independence, which was a life-and-death war. [Lyricist and poet] Haim Hefer told me that when the battles in Lod were over, his unit sat a group of Arab combatants down next to the police station. The Arabs asked his guys what they intended to do to them. They replied: 'What you would do to us,' and the Arab men burst into tears. With all of the atrocities we perpetrated during the war and in setting up military rule, Israel's Arabs live with us and we combat the trampling of their rights. The Palestinians in the territories have no rights.

"At the Venice Biennale I announced that I was inviting a Palestinian artist to do a piece with me. One Palestinian artist scheduled a meeting with me and didn't show up. I understand him. Ultimately we are the occupier and he is the occupied. If the day should arrive and a Palestinian state invites me - I will happily accept."

How can a man of principles such as yourself, who once swore not to set foot in Germany, work in Nuremberg and Berlin?

"Not only that. When it was decided to sell the ship Shalom to Germany, I threatened that if my painting were not removed from the vessel's main hall I would drown myself in the harbor. At the beginning of the 1990s, when I was invited to build the human rights monument in Nuremberg, my hair bristled at hearing the name of the birthplace of Nazi racial laws. The mayor wanted my work to anchor the human rights committee that would award the annual human rights prize, and suggested that I be on the committee. I thought that was too much. How is it possible for the city of race laws to become the city of human rights?

"However, members of the International Human Rights Association persuaded me that similarly to the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi criminals, this too represented a victory over the Nazis. I created 30 pillars, on each of which I wrote an article from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the languages of peoples the Nazis sought to annihilate, of those who fought against them and of those who lived under discrimination."

Few Israeli artists express political positions.

"The art market is very cruel. You have to prostrate yourself before galleries and sometimes adapt works to suit their taste. I have the privilege of being perhaps one of the few who work by commission for a city, museum or some other entity. I create without dealers, without galleries or collectors. I do not belong to the generation of public relations, and publicity regarding my works derives from the works themselves. I believe in the power of the void; of the emptiness that forms in the distances between bodies and forms.

"During the time-out, in this void, exists all of the tension that generates the beauty and the excitement. At the center of my work, above all else, is man, his viewpoint and his connection to the environment. Everything is created for his sake."