Head to Head / Artist Yaacov Agam, Is Your Fountain Still Suited to Dizengoff Square?

The Tel Aviv municipality will soon carry out a survey to decide the fate of Dizengoff Square. Residents of the city and business owners adjacent to the square will be asked their opinions whether the plaza, which sits above the street should be renovated, or whether it should be brought back to street level, as it originally was.

Tomer Appelbaum

If residents vote to turn back time, it is not clear what will become of the Fire and Water Fountain - a creation of Yaacov Agam which was placed there in 1986 and has become one of the symbols of the city.

Yaacov Agam, what do you think of the municipality's decision to hold this survey?

The public cannot decide on matters like that. It does not always have the perspective. I don't think that a passerby can decide about so important a matter on a living artery of the city. It's not that I'm against the participation of the public, on the contrary, in every work of mine I always include the public. I am the only artist that in every creation of his allows the public to touch the creation and to change it. But in artistic matters, as one of the most important architects in the world, Frank Lloyd Wright said to me, "never listen to your clients at any price, do not allow them to detract from what they see now; you see further ahead." When he built the Guggenheim, he did not get approval. The approval was given 15 years after he died. It became a household name, one of the most beautiful museums in the world. Had they listened to public opinion, there would not have been a Guggenheim Museum.

When the Eiffel Tower was built, the public demonstrated in the streets of Paris to get this ugly thing removed from the city. Imagine Paris without the Eiffel Tower. [Mayor Shlomo Lahat] said at the time that the fountain would be the symbol of Tel Aviv. And despite the criticism, in a book of Tel Aviv you see the fountain and the wall I created for the Dan Hotel, because they are beautiful. What is there to show the Tel Aviv public from the point of view of artistic creation in the public space? Instead of making small pictures to hang on walls, I made a lot of public monuments which the public can enjoy. They don't need to go to a museum.

What should be done at Dizengoff Square to bring it back to its heyday?

Like every living thing, it requires changes, it needs to be improved and made more friendly. And especially to hold performances there - to bring the fountain back to life and hold cultural events there. Since I made the fountain 20 years ago or more, there has not been one cultural event there. The fountain is like a piano, like an instrument that can be operated by all sorts of software.

What caused the square to lose its importance? A lack of maintenance and neglect. Below the square, everything is dilapidated. There are signs with advertisements around. No flowers and nothing delightful. There are all kinds of ways to make this place more pleasant, to beautify it, to bring greenery there, instead of sitting in the blazing sun on a bench with nothing to protect you. It was the same in Times Square in New York where there were all kinds of rough types and drugs and prostitution and it was cleaned up quickly. It has to be improved. Instead of discussing how to pull it down or hurting the square, they should ask the public for opinions about how to improve the square.

Is your fountain still suited to Dizengoff Square? Perhaps it has had its day?

I think it hits the spot. It's not just suited, it's great. When I go through Dizengoff sometimes and see all the colors above in the air, floating, it is a beautiful sight. It is a drop of beauty in the surroundings. It is colorful, attractive, suited to the circle, with water that flows. You can't stop fire and also not water that is flowing. The Hebrew words "esh" (fire ) and "mayim" (water ) together are "shamayim" (heavens ). I gave artistic expression to this Jewish idea. It contains all the colors of the rainbow that are moving around and that is our covenant with the Creator. They move and don't move. They change and don't change. That is a concrete and living expression of a certain cultural value, of a worldview.

Don't you see a need for innovations, or changes?

I want it to be more accessible to the public so that the public will be able to operate it by itself. At present the fountain operates at certain hours. But if a tourist comes and goes through the city, not during the right hours, he won't see it. He must be able to use a credit card, to chose between some 20 or 30 songs and be able to operate it for five or 10 minutes. I wanted to make the software accessible, so that students can create all kinds of programs from their homes on the fountain, and even to show them on Facebook. All over the world, not just in Israel. I proposed this to the city and the city told me "My role according to the court is to renovate and not to add."

What will you do if the city decides to move the fountain to another place as part of bringing the square back down to street level?

It is a matter for the court to decide if the contract is valid or not. It is a matter of keeping the law. I signed a contract with them that it would stand there forever and that they wouldn't move it from there, and I requested also that there would be maintenance, which was not done, and it turned into a wreck. I worked on it for years, to put the fire and water together from the same source. This did not exist anywhere else in the world. The success was amazing. If there is a decision, not merely the consideration of the public but of a public of experts, that it would be best for the city, for the traffic, to take it down, then the fountain has to go down [to street level].

What do you think about the attitude toward public art in Israel?

There is no awareness of it. Art is one of the most important things from a moral, educational and public point of view. The people who decide public opinion need to know that art is a form of life. We have a great deal of aggressiveness and hatred, and art softens this. We need art in the public space, not in the museums and not in the collections of rich people. The fountain belongs to the public, not to me. I gave it. Don't destroy it, that would be a shame.