Perfect Vision

In Israel, artist Ram Katzir is mainly remembered as the one who dared to adapt Nazi propaganda for a children's coloring book. But in the Netherlands, where he lives and works, he made his reputation as a designer of environmentally friendly public squares and parks

Dakia Karpel
Dalia Karpel
Dakia Karpel
Dalia Karpel

For more than a decade, Ram Katzir has been living and working in Amsterdam. Two weeks ago, he returned, albeit temporarily, to Herzliya, the city where he grew up. He left behind in Amsterdam his two big motorcycles, locked his studio and came back to his hometown at the invitation of the municipal museum, for the purpose of creating two projects that will permanently reside in the city. One is an installation that will be placed in the museum's courtyard and the other is a four-meter-high stone statue that will be placed in a square near the beach.

The two projects will make Katzir, 36, a presence in the city even after he leaves it and returns to Holland. "My contribution to the city of the statue `There' is like the closing of a circle," he says. "In 1995, the chief curator of the Herzliya Museum, Dalia Levin, was the first one to purchase a work of art from me. It was the `Installation for Library,' a child's desk with a chair and a coloring book on it. Levin was the first one who believed in me."

The installation that Katzir is currently offering the museum is called "Tracing Future." It is a giant drawing of two hands - one is holding a pencil and extending the lifeline of the other hand. The piece was etched into the floor of the museum's open, 120-square meter courtyard and the slits were filled with lead. The drawing can only be seen in full from the air. "The work relates to the present and the future," says Katzir. "The drawing isn't finished because the lifeline is stopped in the middle. The index finger of the flat hand also isn't completed and I invite the viewer to be aware of the fact that our decisions and actions will shape us."

The second work is called "There." It's a statue made of quartz, concrete and resin, and was first exhibited at the Museum van Loon in Amsterdam in 2000. Last week, "There" was installed in Kikar Hanassi, next to Medinat Hayehudim Street in Herzliya Pituah, on the road that leads to the sea. Not far from there is the home of Katzir's father and stepmother, and Katzir's little sister (from his father's second marriage). It is one of the prettiest squares in Herzliya and the installation of the statue there was also Levin's initiative. The cost of construction, about 50,000 euros, was split between the artist and the museum. Katzir then donated the statue as a gift and the municipality paid to have it brought here and installed in the square. "I donated the statue because I grew up not far from the place where it was installed, on Hanassi Street," says Katzir. "And for a long time I've wanted to do something in Israel that will remain here even if I'm not physically living here."

The statue is of a boy perched on his grandfather's shoulders and the two of them appear to be gazing toward the horizon (in Herzliya, they face the sea), but when you try to really look at their faces, you discover that they are actually facing in another direction. The discovery is unsettling at first, until you realize that from whatever angle you look at it, the statue has no front, and the grandfather and grandson actually have no facial features. "The statue expresses a sort of nostalgia for the security that a child feels on his grandfather's shoulders," Katzir explains. "It's an image that arouses a sense of identification, but you also identify with the gap that's created here between the old man and the boy. The Greeks saw the future as something that comes from behind and I love that metaphor. And the statue is also like a picture. Its perspective remains the same. I'm interested in the subjectivity of the viewpoint. I like to play with the prejudices of vision, taking inspiration from the writings of authors like Swift and Calvino, who build a whole world and then as soon as you feel comfortable in it, they make it disintegrate."

Another turn around the square heightens the perception that the grandfather does not really have a head and that the boy he is carrying on his shoulders is really a continuation or perhaps a replacement of his head. "The statue is the antithesis of the Mona Lisa, which looks at you no matter what angle or place you're standing in," he notes.

Coloring in the Holocaust

Katzir has also recently published a catalog/book in English entitled "Growing Down" that contains a selection of his works from the early part of his career in Europe, from 1992 until today. The book, which was produced in Rotterdam, is his fourth. His first book, entitled "A Book Called Six," was his first art project to win acclaim; in it, he asked six artists of different nationalities to write their own stories to go with the same photograph. The project, written in English, French, Dutch, Arabic, Hebrew and Yiddish, won the Sandberg Prize (the Amsterdam Art Prize for the Visual Arts category).

Following the award, Katzir was invited to show his works in a gallery in Utrecht, which was the start of his journey toward his best-known work, "Within the Line." During his first visit to the gallery, Katzir heard from one of the women who worked there that the offices of the NSB (the Dutch national socialist movement), were located in the same building. The movement had published an anti-Semitic newspaper called Volk und Vaterland and supplied the Nazi occupiers with lists of Jews during World War II.

Katzir began learning about the life of Anne Frank and discovered that there had been a factory that made yellow patches in the same area. "I decided to do a work that would give expression to the ugly feeling I had in that building, a feeling of something sickly sweet that's hiding something dark and rotten," he says. "I did research at Yad Vashem and in archives in Berlin and I collected photographs from the period of the war that looked very innocent when you took them out of their context," he continues. "Hitler patting a little girl, Hitler feeding a fawn, children saluting with outstretched arms in imitation of their teacher, Goebbels reading a story to his daughters and so on. To this day, I believe that in every time and place, prejudice is a consequence of faulty education."

He prepared a coloring book that included details from about 13 photographs from the period of the Third Reich that he had enlarged and turned into black-and-white drawings. This handling of the photos introduced changes in the images and ostensibly invited the viewer to give them a new interpretation. Only on the last page of the booklet were the original photographs presented, along with information about their origin.

Like every Israeli child, Katzir was also brought up on images of the Holocaust of European Jewry. "When I looked into it and found out a little bit about what had happened in the area where I live in Amsterdam, I discovered that deportations were carried out from the market where I buy my jeans. Transports of Jews also left from the Amsterdam flea market. It shook me up. When I lived in Israel, I felt secular, but when I moved to Europe I grasped that my identity is Jewish and Israeli. The Holocaust defies comprehension in every sense, both ideologically and in terms of its organization, especially since as Jews we can assimilate and contribute to society anywhere."

The exhibit opened on May 5, 1996, the day that Holland celebrates its liberation from Nazi occupation. "I thought I would use the coloring books that have Nazi and fascist motifs as a metaphor. I said: People will color in the booklets and only at the end will they discover what they were really coloring, and that way they'll get an idea of this process that's called propaganda and brainwashing. Filling an image with color means filling it with content."

At the exhibition, he installed two picnic tables - a small one for kids and another one so large that an adult sitting there to work would feel like a kid. Today he says that he did not totally know what he was doing and was not sure where it would all lead. "I was a kid, I was just 24, and I hadn't planned the project with a feeling of knowledge and confidence. I had no way of knowing what the visitors' reaction would be - if they would sit down to color in the booklets or if the whole thing would remain in the symbolic realm. It was an intuitive project that was connected to the frustration and anger I felt toward a building that I loved so much, whose sweetness was like a time bomb wrapped in caramel."

And what happened?

"People started coloring in the pictures and giving them their own individual contexts. Some turned the Aryan family into a family of blacks. The group of students giving the raised-arm salute became fans of the Ajax soccer team who are nicknamed `The Jews' and wave Israeli flags at games. Some people colored the Nazi soldiers pink and made them gay. Someone colored a page in the booklet and added in writing: `Why did I do this?' The fact that there was an open platform here so that people could express themselves on this loaded subject created a more important layer than is found in an ordinary art exhibit."

The exhibit toured Eastern Europe for two and a half years; it was shown in Krakow, Vilna, Berlin and Zurich, and workshops for youths were held along with it. Katzir thought it would be a good idea to give the Israeli audience - the victim's side - a chance to experience the exhibit, too.

When the exhibit came to Israel, it sparked an uproar. "Within the Line" was shown at the Israel Museum in 1997 (curated by Suzanne Landau) in the Billy Rose Pavilion, which was transformed into a train car. The exhibit attracted harsh protests from Holocaust survivors and the debate over it even reached the Knesset. Today Katzir says that the source of the scandal was an article in Yedioth Ahronoth that depicted the coloring book as an item that could be purchased in the museum's gift shop. "I became an enemy of the people. How ironic. I'd made a tactical decision that the exhibit would not be shown in any Jewish museum, even though there were requests, like from the Jewish Museum in New York, for instance. I felt that the element of surprise was the critical thing for this installation - the fact that you come into a world that seems very sweet and after you color it in, you realize what you've done.

"As soon as the article in Yedioth took the booklet out of its context and quoted me as someone who compares the Holocaust to what goes on in the territories, which I didn't say, a whole public outcry erupted and there were MKs and others, like Tommy Lapid, who opposed the exhibit before it even opened. So-called art experts came out against it before they'd seen it, and there was a discussion in the Knesset over whether it should be held. But the director of the Israel Museum, James Snyder, decided to present it and eventually to extend the time it was there.

"At age 25, I became a public enemy because as soon as you utter the word `Holocaust' in Israel, it's like you spilled a bottle of ink on the table. There were people who said that they didn't want to take part in `Katzir's circus.' In response, we decided to set up a book that would enable visitors to express their attitude toward the exhibit. Some people wrote very harsh invective and there were also survivors who wrote to say thank you from the bottom of their hearts."

When the installation went back overseas, it seemed to be properly understood again. Its last stop was Berlin, in the same building where the Wannsee Conference was held (on January 20, 1942, senior German officials met to discuss ways to implement the "Final Solution" for the extermination of the Jews), in the presence of the curators from the different countries; and the Museum of Modern Art in New York presented it in 2001 as part of its "Open Ends" exhibit.

Living in two homes

Ram Katzir was born in 1969 to Rachel and Eli Katzir, who lived in Kiryat Ono. Rachel was born in China and as a child, Katzir used to receive birthday presents from his relatives there. His mother's parents came to Palestine in the 1930s and owned a Lincoln limousine (which was later sold to Moshe Sharett) and an impressive art collection. "Then they discovered that it was just sand and more sand here and that Tel Aviv wasn't the Paris of the Middle East. Till the day she died, my grandmother always asked - How could they have promised her that it was like Paris here and why didn't they go from China to New York?"

Rachel, who was the spokesperson for the Export Institute, married Eli Katzir, an engineer and they had two children, Ram and his older sister, who is now a chef. When Katzir was nine, the family moved to Herzliya Pituah, to a neighborhood where the houses were surrounded by walls "and I didn't have the same freedom anymore like I did in Kiryat Ono. But I discovered the sea."

When he was 12, his parents divorced. "My mother left the house and we stayed with my father," says Katzir. "I remember that one day I came home and I saw that some of the paintings weren't hanging on the walls anymore. My parents were friendly with artists like Uri Lifschitz and Menashe Kadishman and others and they appreciated good art, so for me art is also somehow associated with home and a sense of belonging."

His parents' divorce was hard on him at first, but as time passed, it also brought certain advantages. "I grew up in two houses that were very different and it was a good lesson for life, that there's not just one way to live. My father's house was open and you could have the whole soccer team over and everyone could sleep on the living room floor. At my mother's it was different and you had to coordinate beforehand. If someone broke something in my father's house, he didn't say anything. My mother was more careful and neater. The insight at a young age that there's no one single truth or only one good way was very useful. From a young age, I had two fathers and two mothers with whom I got along great."

Katzir's mother lived with her husband in Amsterdam and when Ram was 14, he went to live there for a while and also learned Dutch. He returned to Israel to finish high school, at the Rishonim school in Herzliya, in the theater track (he had always been drawn to theater) and also became a kind of local champion of BMX bike riding. Until the army, he and his friends made good money from doing stunt bike shows.

He did his army service as an illustrator at the instruction center in Gelilot and frequently drew the image of a soldier in various combat situations. In the evenings, he studied graphic design at the Technion extension in Tel Aviv because he thought he would go into advertising. But after he was given an assignment to design an ad for Coca Cola he decided that it was not for him and left school. In 1990, he returned to Amsterdam and began studying animation at the Rietveld Academy and two years later he won a scholarship to Cooper Union in New York, where he studied sculpture and photography with artist Hans Haacke.

In New York he also worked as an assistant to Israeli artist Yehoshua Neustein and lived in his studio. Later on he moved to London, where he designed scenery and costumes for the theater. His final project at the Rietveld Academy was "A Book Called Six," which, as noted, launched his European career. His studio in Amsterdam is located in a building that was formerly a school, in an area called De Pijp (The Pipe), and he says it looks more like an architects' office. Most of the work he does today qualify as "public art," that is, parks or plazas that are simultaneously works of art and public spaces. He prepares the models in his studio, using the computer as one of his design tools.

A project takes him from three to five years to complete. "There's a process of the initial research and design and then there are countless meetings of building committees and safety committees. Right now I'm working on five or six commissioned projects. I have no time."

Have you become a mass production operation?

"I don't think so. I'm trying not to get too big. I'm usually invited to take part in tenders and I choose what to do. When the city of Groningen commissioned a work from me, for instance, I could choose where it would be located."

"Soft Spot" is a square in Groningen that he planned two years ago. It covers a space of 166 square meters. It is constructed out of old tires whose springy rubber was reworked. "The square wasn't planned only as a meeting place for the residents, it's a work that you walk on. If I think about art as a place in which people meet and which is energetic - that's how art began at the dawn of history, with wall paintings - I see it as a challenge that art competes with traffic signals and bushes or with ads for thong underwear. It challenges me to do effective art without the protective aura of the museum that defines it as important."

How do you define yourself?

"I'm an artist who draws in space. All of my works come from drawing. If you look at the careers of artists, there's usually a track in which first you present in a group show and then later you have a solo show. I started with a solo show in museums. That's how it turned out in wake of the coloring book project. By the way, I've got 3,000 colored-in booklets and also the furniture and lamps from six countries. I refused to sell the parts of this installation, which are now in storage in Amsterdam. It was for practical reasons that I decided to work on miniatures, or on public projects, what people call `public art.'"

He is currently working on a public sculpture for the Dutch city of Nijmegen, which will celebrate its 2,000th anniversary next year. Situated near the German border, the city is the oldest in Holland, originating as a strategic base for the Roman army. Katzir's studio won a 200,000 euro tender for the job. The planned monument is a sundial made of granite and bronze and rising to a height of about 10 meters. It is actually a working clock, "which moves slowly as if carrying the weight of the past and the shadow of history, and all of the square is part of the sculpture," he explains. "We did calculations on the computer about the exact location of the sundial and the floor is made from 48 tiles, so we get a time range of 12 hours through all four seasons of the year."

All of which goes to show, for one thing, that Katzir is making quite a nice living from art. Nowadays, a small sculpture of his sells for about 20,000 euros. No gallery represents him; he does everything from his studio and says it is important to him to stay small. He hires people by the project - architects who are landscape designers, and an assistant who paints in oil for him - but he really does not like things to get crowded. He does not even have a secretary. "I know from people who got big and became like their own production plant that it comes with a price. It pays financially, but it's not worth it in terms of creative freedom. I sometimes work 17 hours a day, but to me, success is a personal thing, like being happy with what you've got. A lot of anger and frustration in the world comes from the fact that people want to be somewhere other than where they are. I'm happy where I am and it has nothing to do with prizes and external acclaim. For every project that comes out, there were five that didn't, but I will say that the projects that were realized were more pleasant than the failures."

Single and searching for a pilot

He tries to get to Israel two or three times a year, but he has no plans to move back here permanently. "It would be stupid to close down shop in Holland, particularly now that, for the first time in my life, I'm at a point where I can turn down offers. But I dream of working in Israel. I'm so connected to it. I prefer to sit on a plastic chair and eat hummus than to go to any fancy restaurant that got a high rating in the Michelin guide. I've been to a lot of big concerts - Bjork, Beck, Prince - but the show by Shotei Hanevua thrilled me more. The texts of their songs, the warmth of the audience. I purchased several photographs of Tel Aviv by photographer Ilya Rabinovich and someone laughed at me and said that I must really be homesick. Otherwise why would I go so crazy over pictures of streets in Tel Aviv."

The biggest thing he has treated himself to are the two monster-size motorcycles he bought. "I had a happy childhood but my father would never let me have a motorcycle because I used to come back all bloody from riding a bike on the ramps. Now I have two, a Honda CB-600 and a Yamaha SRX6 - classic motorcycles that were very hot in the `80s. It's not a feeling of macho-ness, but you do get a feeling of supreme freedom. I like the danger and I enjoy myself on special motorcycle paths. There's something amazing when you go into a curve at high speed and everything - the trees and the whole view, is smeared into one color. You become aware of how fleeting your life is. One mistake and you're gone. Nothing makes me feel more alive."

The other thing that makes him feel alive is not around at the moment. For five years, he was in a relationship with a young British woman, an anthropologist, and just before they were about to buy a home together, a good friend of his - Adam Lau, "who was the most organized and well-planned person in his lifetime, died of a heart attack a month after he got married. All of a sudden, I realized that I wasn't fully comfortable with the decision to buy a house and I took the motorcycle and went to Greece for three months. When I came back, I understood that my British girlfriend and I weren't in the same place. She wanted a family and I'm pretty much married to my work.

"Since then, I had another relationship with an Israeli woman, which ended. A friend of mine said that I need to find a female combat pilot for a wife so she'll be able to stand the pace. I heard that more girls are signing up for pilot training, so I'm optimistic."

Meanwhile, he has completed the "Amnestree" project - a monument to human rights that stands at the Maarsen train station in Holland. It is made of a tree that grew imprisoned in a gleaming metal cage. Over time, branches of the tree "try" to break out of the cage, and when a person approaches the tree, his approach is reflected in the metal frame. "A lot of my works deal with growth. `Amnestree' is an organic sculpture that changes with the seasons of the year, and like the hand that writes the lifeline and the statue of the grandfather and grandson, they express continuity and growth." n



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