Sculptor and Painter Dani Karavan Still Hopes to Finish One Monumental Project

Karavan, Israel Prize laureate and father of three, moved to Paris to work on "Axe Majeur," a project spread out over three kilometers, with an island, a lake and a bridge. At 83, he's not sure if it will be complete during his lifetime.

You live mostly in Paris these days, don’t you?

Yes, and I enjoy it very much. I didn’t think I would like living there. I went because of the project; otherwise the idea would never have come up.

We are talking about “Axe Majeur,” the “central axis” − a project in which you have been engaged for 33 years that is not yet complete.

That’s not surprising, because it’s a huge work − three kilometers long − and it’s also dependent on financing and political decisions.

Three kilometers, 12 “stations,” an island, a bridge, a lake, a 36-meter-high
observation tower. Something modest.

Something very small, yes. I think it might be one of the largest works of sculpture started in the 20th century.

You’ve been working on it for more than three decades, but you don’t know if ... I will live to see it completed.

I wonder what it feels like to see a work of this scale taking shape and form.

The working process is fascinating and exciting, because you have doubts along the way. You see it being built, and at certain moments you think it’s a catastrophe and at other moments you think it’s marvelous. And then suddenly it looks wrong to you, because something more was suddenly added, and then you have to hold yourself back and not change it. You have to keep going with your project to the end − the greatest danger is panicking at a certain point and starting to change things.

And what do you feel when a project is completed?

I used to look at every work and say: “failure.” But that’s rarely the case these days. I have greater confidence in myself. I have been working on big projects for years, and I see the way they “live” over time. I was just in the Knesset and saw the wall I did there in the 1960s; it still holds up. So that gives me a little confidence. Still, the doubt is always there. As soon as I stop having doubts, I’ll close the studio and go to the beach.

Sounds like a good plan.

Yes, though I don’t do it.

You will turn 83 this year.

I will be 83 on December 7. I fight it, I say no, it’s not yet. But it’s written that I was born in 1930, so by next January 1, I’ll already supposedly be 84. In all the previous years I didn’t care. Now I am constantly turning back: Until December 7, I say, I am not yet 83.

Why? Are you afraid to be 83?

No, not at all. I feel wonderful at this age. I don’t long for any other age.

Are you disturbed by the betrayal of the body?

I am privileged: I don’t feel the betrayal of the body. I walk a lot better than many young people; they can’t keep up with me. I like to walk fast, I have plenty of energy, I don’t feel my age so much. But I see many of my friends bent over because of it.

Is this is a good period for you?

It’s a rough period, both because of the political situation and because I am occupied with thoughts about how my works will be dealt with, the establishment’s attitude toward them, the uncertainty about their fate when I will no longer be here.

That really is disturbing. We all think about what we will leave behind. In your case it’s actually clear, but it is causing you distress instead of relief.

Yes. The works will remain, but what will become of them? Every day I have to protect one of my projects somewhere in the world. Do you understand? There will be no one to protect them. I’m like someone who leaves his children, bids them farewell, and goes.

Is the public’s embrace important to you? The feedback?

Of course.

I am distinguishing between the embrace of the public and that of the
establishment.

The public’s embrace is more important to me; I have no interest in the establishment.

It looks as though the establishment mainly riles you.

Very much so, and it happens during the working process, too. At first they are very nice, like a love story. Afterward all I think about is divorce. But the main story really is the public. When I work in the public space, it’s for the public. With the public’s money.

You feel a sense of responsibility.

Of course. I don’t flatter the public; I never think about what people will like. I do what I please, what I think suits the place. I don’t do anything before I have a place; I don’t have works for which I look for a location. There are artists who look for a place − with me it’s a place that looks for an artist. I come to a place and try to understand it, I ask it things: I come to a place and I ask the place if I can create a certain form, use certain materials. The place says yes or no.

In the past you declared that you will not work in the territories.

Never. I also try not to go there. I don’t cross a border without my ID being checked. For me the borders of 1967 are the borders. Palestine is there, Israel is here.

And in an interview two years ago you stated that you would not be ready to work with the Knesset and the government.

With this government? Certainly not.

At the time, you were referring to the previous government.

It makes no difference, it’s the same thing. It’s worse now.

You think so?

Much worse.

Why do you say that?

Because what we have now is a settlers’ government. It will lead us to perdition. There will be an Arab majority here, we will be a minority, we will live under foreign rule, with limited rights, like the Palestinians have today.

So you think everything will be reversed?

Of course. Not now, not in my lifetime, but maybe in my great-grandchildren’s time. This cancer will eat away at us little by little. The settlers are the greatest anti-Zionists.

You’re pessimistic.

I will tell you something: I have never endured such a difficult period in my life as now, because of the political situation.

What do you mean by a period − how long?

The past year. After the elections. I had hoped to see a turnabout, I had hoped to see different politics. But it’s the same politics, only smarmier.

It’s called the “new politics.”

Yes, smarmier and more self-satisfied. Words fail me. It just disgusts me, this government.

What did you think about Yair Lapid’s success?

I was very happy when he was elected and I’m very disappointed now, because of everything he’s doing. In the end, what’s important today is to reach an agreement [with the Palestinians] − to divide the country into two states. To let them live their life as they wish and the way they wish. They deserve it. And until he [Lapid] acknowledges that and does everything to make it happen, he’s an
accomplice to a crime.

I supposed the alliance he forged with Naftali Bennett makes his stand clear.

That’s what I say, that’s my disappointment in him. Bennett wasn’t so open at first, either. He wouldn’t have made his “pain in the ass” comment [about the Palestinians] back then. He is baring his teeth. If Lapid didn’t know it before, he’s not a politician; and if he did know it, he’s a bad politician. In fact, in both cases he’s a bad politician. It’s a pity.

Did you vote for him?

No.

But you held out hopes for him.

I will tell you one thing: This is a hard year for me, because I see how our Zionist dream is ending before my eyes. I have been thinking a lot lately about the place into which I caused my daughters to be born, and where they gave birth to my grandchildren − what kind of a place is it? You know, everyone wants to escape from here. Parents want their children to emigrate. Is this why we came here? It’s very hard for me. I walk about with a terrible unease. I have a sense of impending doom.

This government is like the story of the destruction of the Second Temple. A handful of extremists wrecked the prospect ... People lived here and they preserved our culture, they built in the same way our forefathers did, the earth terraces, the buildings, everything. We have erased, or are erasing our very own culture.

Most artists flinch from crossing the line between art and politics. I see that you are not one of them.

I do not flinch.

At what price?

Possibly I created a certain antagonism toward me among certain circles in the art world. Those who flinch, fine; it’s their right.

Can you be flexible, or do you stick to principles?

I stick to principles, and sometimes it costs me dearly.

Such as?

For example, in the Cultural Square project [in Tel Aviv, connecting Chen and Rothschild boulevards]; I had very serious problems with the contractors and suppliers who executed the work. I insisted that they follow my instructions to the letter. I wanted the spaces between the tiles, which are called grout joints, to be as straight as a ruler. But they weren’t. The whole time I told them that it’s unacceptable. They said to let them keep going, let them go on, and they will fix it afterward. When they got to the end they said it couldn’t be fixed. I told them: No, you will fix it from the beginning. They removed most of the tiling and did it in straighter lines. I am still not happy, it is not completely the way I want it.

You are not an easy person to work with.

I’m a very difficult person to work with. There are even some contractors who say, “With Karavan? We need more money.’ Afterward, with the Ackerstein tiles in Habima Square, and please quote me on this, do you hear?...

Of course.

... where I was convinced they would do good work − they said it was their flag − awful stains appeared. I showed them it to and said, “You call this a flag of some kind? This is a rag.” They replaced 1,500 tiles. There is no compromise here.

And it wasn’t the first time for you.

In Cologne I had a rail line that was laid crooked. I told them: It’s not straight. They argued. I told them, “It’s not straight. Please bring a surveying instrument and you will see.” It was off by 3 millimeters. I told them, “You will straighten it. Who notices it? I do.” Now I think: What is that madness? What is this madness? What’s so important? Three millimeters?

How do you understand it?

Why do people like my work? Because they feel good with it. Because it’s calm, because the forms are quiet.

Because it’s harmonious.

Not only harmonious, also quiet. There is nothing messy. The forms connect correctly with one another, in peace and harmony. The moment you have things that don’t mesh with one another, it’s like in life, you feel discomfort.

When you come to someone’s home and your hosts fight all the time, you don’t feel comfortable and you leave. Materials fight, too. It’s not true that they don’t fight. Place them wrongly, they fight. They want to exist quietly, they want to live in peace.

Is money important to you? Is it of interest to you?

Not in the least. On the contrary. I come from kibbutz, also from a family which suffered hardship, even though my father was the landscape architect of Tel Aviv. I grew up amid hardship. We were three families living together in one small house, with a shared kitchen and shower. Every evening, my bed was taken out from behind the kitchen door and unfolded, so I would have a place to sleep. I didn’t have a corner or a place of my own, and that wasn’t a problem for me. I had everything. I didn’t need a thing.

Do you still have ambitions, things you dream of doing?

I have one dream, but I don’t think I will be able to fulfill it. It’s strange that it’s a dream: to be in New York with my wife for a few months. Just to be there and not work.

Why can’t you fulfill it?

Because of the commitments I undertake. I can’t take a vacation of three or four months, and go off somewhere and cut myself off. I also have to keep dealing with the ongoing matters, my daily battle to preserve the work and to cope with problems I have in existing work.

So you don’t feel free to do it, even though technically you could?

Right.

And when you imagine those months in New York, what do they look like?

I would just go to museums, concerts and operas, and meet with friends − meeting with friends is one of the things I find most enjoyable.

Who are your friends?

Do you want names?

Yes, why not?

My friends are Zvi Dekel, a landscape architect, with whom I grew up, and together we founded Kibbutz Harel in 1948, during the first truce; Yaakov Agmon [a theater figure], a childhood friend from the youth movement; [the painter] Menashe Kadishman. I don’t want to mention names, because in the end I will leave out someone. I really have many wonderful friends. Yoram Kaniuk, who was among us, and many more like him, who were with us and now are gone.

What do you still look forward to?

A change in the political atmosphere in this country.

Do you have hopes?

Yes, that people will wake up. I have a nephew, Boaz, my sister’s son, who settled in Neveh Shalom [a Jewish-Arab community]. His son served in the army, even though that wasn’t so easy there, in terms of the other residents. And his son was killed in the helicopter disaster [in February 1977, when two Israel Air Force helicopters carrying soldiers collided in midair]. Boaz was interviewed on the radio some time ago by Yaakov Agmon. At the end, after he talked pessimistically about everything, he said, “I am optimistic.” How so, Yaakov asked him. He replied, “Look, in the end there will be peace; it’s out of the question that there will not be peace. And we get closer to it every day.”

Is that your feeling, too?

I truly try to feel like that.

Daniel Reiter