Foucault, Philosophy and 'The Inner Grammar of Photography'

Am Deüelle Lüski, 61, is an artist, philosopher and lecturer, and editor of a recently published book of essays.

Ayelett Shani
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Ayelett Shani

You just arrived from Barcelona. What were you doing there?

I opened a solo exhibition [at La Virreina Image Center]. There is a building in the middle of Las Ramblas which was once the home of the king of Peru and afterward became a museum. Part of my artistic activity involves inventing cameras ? inventing instruments that take pictures. In Barcelona I am showing seven such devices and 60 images. It is a very large exhibition and was accompanied by a symposium about my work. People there are very much into the subjects I deal with, especially the occupation. They identify with it.

What do you actually do when you open an exhibition?

First of all, it takes a year or more to prepare it. I was there three times before the opening, to get things ready. And afterward, because I am not an artist who opens many shows abroad, I have to be present there.

What’s the exhibition about?

It has a very clear theme: how to see the world differently from the way we usually see it. That is also the aim of the cameras I build: to show that there are a great many different ways to see the world.

Are you able to see the world like that?

No, because I too am attached to the way our eye has been educated to see the world. But I believe that reality supersedes imagination: Things are far more complex, complicated and rich in terms of the way they look than we see them normally with our simple vision.

Because of our limited perception?

Because of the limited connection between the eye and perception, education. We have learned to perceive the world in a purposeful way, which is useful for a range of mental, economic, educational and psychological processes. Our eye seemingly brushes aside and dispenses with everything that is not related to that purposefulness. I want to restore forms of non-purposeful looking, in which we are able to see the way my cameras are seeing.

Has your observation of objects changed in the wake of your occupation with this subject?

For example, I have a camera that takes 360-degree pictures. Mentally, then, I can look at the room and say, “Wow, this is how it could have looked.” But physically, when I look, it’s not yet here. Of course, it could happen under the influence of drugs, but that’s not really my nature. I am very clean and vegan.

How long have you been a vegan?

Since about the age of 17, with breaks here and there due to health constraints. For almost eight years I lived on one cup of whole rice a day.

What?

I poured water on it and ate it with a spoon. Yes, seven-eight years.

Every day?

Yes.

I would have killed myself.

But I did not kill myself. It was actually very good, until it was claimed that I wasn’t getting all kinds of basic elements, so I started to eat fish a little.

There’s not much joie de vivre in a cup of rice a day, wouldn’t you say?

It has nothing to do with joie de vivre; it has to do with how you want to feel.

Don’t you get pleasure from eating? You were ready to forgo it so easily?

It’s a matter of self-education and discipline, not pleasure.

You educated yourself not to like food?

I had a mother who took care of that. You know, people who came out of the Holocaust and ate the same thing every day and had digestion problems, because their system was ruined at some point because of the camps and the ghettos and the wandering. It gets passed on very quickly by inheritance. But it didn’t pass on to my children. They are able to enjoy food.

And you really cannot?

I can. It’s entirely mental. It’s a matter of decision. It can tempt me if I decide it’s tempting.

In general, anything can tempt you only if you decide that it tempts you?

Yes. In art, too. In the same way, what I do is very unspontaneous. Everything is planned and organized and designed, in stages.

Yes, there seems to be some sort of control thing.

Control? No. It’s a mechanism that thinks things should be subject to reason. It is not control. Reason is not control ? it is a force that organizes things.

Deciding to do everything rationally entails a great deal of control. You don’t yield to impulses, don’t yield to emotion, don’t yield to temptation.

I think we can attribute this to the second-generation [Holocaust] element. I think it’s connected. For example, both my parents were very sick their whole life, so I had to be very much in control in terms of helping them. It’s as though the second generation possesses mechanisms of always being ready to manage things properly. If so, what I do as an artist may be innate.

But my philosophical writing is spontaneous, rich and associative. So it is not always under control. In fact, people say that my writing is too liberated and they don’t understand it ? and I say that understanding is only an option and it’s not so important to me if they don’t understand.

In other words, it’s important for you to have people understand your art but not your texts. On the one hand, there is a desire to preserve everything within orderly frameworks, but on the other there are no limits. How can this contradiction be reconciled?

It cannot be reconciled, nor need it be: It’s part of the interest of a postmodern philosopher, who lives amid contradictions, in a schizoid state and yet learns how to live with that and not be afraid of it. I have my very wild, extreme side, which comes out in my writing and teaching. And I have a very orderly, organized, conceptual side, which is manifested in art.

It’s usually the other way around.

It is usually the other way around ? you’re right. I never thought of that.

One of the amazing elements of your biography is the period you spent in Paris studying. You studied under and with the greatest thinkers of the 20th century: Foucault, Deleuze, Derrida.

I didn’t know who I would meet when I went to France. But as it happened, the greatest philosophers were active in Paris at that time, in the 1970s. I attended the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts. After May 1968 it was a bastion of social organization and demonstrations. We heard Foucault lecture in the morning, and in the evening he would show up and participate in the group that was demonstrating on behalf of homosexuals; the next day he would demonstrate for prostitutes who sought human rights, and the day after that for the Palestinians. It wasn’t just studying under Foucault in terms of what he said, but studying with him what it means to be a philosopher who is truly involved in shaping life.

How revered was he? And how was this manifested?

It wasn’t like it is today, but his lectures were packed. As a personality, when he spoke you felt you were touching God’s thought with your hand. He possessed tremendous intellectual power; you could sense him physically. When he spoke you could hear the mind’s machine working. I met many creative people of genius who truly were the greats of the 20th century, but none was like Foucault in this sense. To sit next to him was like being next to a giant magnet. Yet, in everyday life he was the nicest guy in the world. He would invite you to dinner and talk to you. Absolutely one of the guys.

Did you ever have dinner with him?

Yes. He was a very open person. At one stage we had a group of artists who were working together and he would come to see what we were doing. He was a venerated philosopher to whom the world paid attention, but he was also ready to take an interest in you, in what you were doing, and to respond to it one-on-one.

Why are you not a commercial artist, in your opinion?

I’ve created a sort of antagonism vis-?-vis the art market.

Explain.

My work does not interest collectors, museums or gallerists.

What differentiates a commercial artist from a noncommercial artist?

Art is a profession, like any other. You learn how to create products that people want to buy. You are taught how to be an artist who will be capable of making things that people will want to buy, to use, to collect.

Doesn’t that somewhat contradict the general conception of art?

To think that art is spontaneous, emotional, intuitive or inspired is very old-fashioned. Art is a conversation within culture; you learn how to converse and to create a product that continues the general drift of the conversation. Part of the general conversation concerns the fact that the works are worth money and, above all, in very many cases become excellent investments. Art, when it succeeds, is the most worthwhile investment imaginable. Its value sometimes increases by thousands of percent within a few years. In no other field can such a small investment turn into such huge capital. It’s a desire that tempts a great many people.

But leaving aside the fact that I am modernist and old-fashioned, when you describe an artist like that, an element of utilitarianism enters the picture.

Obviously. And what’s wrong with that?

I find it disgusting.

Yes, because you are a modernist. I teach art, I educate artists and I accept it, and I also see the process by which it happens.

You accept it? Are you that much of a postmodernist?

I don’t like it; I accept the fact that this is where art is today. Art today is part of the big money. And the more movement there is in the market, and the more that art becomes part of the market, the better it gets and the more wonderful artists there are. I see students of mine doing amazing things. And I am not being ironic; I say this wholeheartedly. I am a teacher and I am not successful in being only part of that . It’s a fact. It sounds unpleasant, but there it is. Theoreticians, let’s say, take an interest in me, read articles about me and find books about me. And even though the owners of the most important galleries in Tel Aviv are my good friends ? some of them were even my students ? it [the sale of my art] doesn’t happen. I don’t know why. Maybe something in my work repels them.

Does that make you sad?

It makes me very sad. Clearly. Not being a commercial artist means I do not live from art, and being something of an outsider in academia means I don’t have a regular position. It’s only now that I have gotten a regular halftime position at Bezalel [Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem].

How do you make a living?

In addition to the struggles and the other problems, the economic element is always there, and it is a great burden. What do I live from? I do a lot of teaching. I hold down three academic teaching jobs and teach 24 hours a week.

What is your view of formal education? How necessary is it for a philosopher? Is there not something emasculating and obstructive about it?

I think formal education is essential. That’s the difference between a postmodern philosopher and a modernist philosopher. A modernist philosopher knows philosophy; a postmodernist philosopher has to know everything: what happened in art, in literature, in history. There is also a different type of openness. That is what Foucault taught us. A philosopher need not look where philosophers look. He can look where physicians or biologists or anthropologists look and find the philosophical nexus there, the locus of philosophical poetry.

Like the 360-degree camera.

Exactly, like that camera which sees everything. I tell my students at the outset, “There’s no way around it, there is a great deal to learn.” It’s impossible otherwise. I truly believe that a formal education is necessary. The world proves that to us. Even in the art world there is hardly an example of an artist who did not come out of one of the major institutions.

What is your opinion of iPhone photography, of the flourishing of Instagram?

There are two possibilities here. On the one hand, I think it is the greatest proof of what I call vertical photography, because effectively everyone is taking the same picture. There are millions of cameras, millions of photographers, millions of users, millions of people exchanging photographs, but in my method they all take the same picture and simply duplicate it.

Instagram has a particular moment when it displays only photographs of sunsets.

Vertical photography has enslaved our form of vision to the point where we all take the same picture. On the other hand, the curator of my exhibition in Barcelona, a theoretician named Ariella Azoulay, calls this a civil revolution. Because, when you have events in Tahrir Square and a revolution in Syria and the Israeli army executing all kinds of operations in the territories ? the possibility to take pictures and share the images with us constitutes a civil revolution. And I agree with her.

That is actually the thesis of Walter Benjamin: that in the end the camera will become a reactionary tool which will work against the regime.

That’s correct. His general argument is that the camera has a role in preserving what we call democracy. The camera has a role and the ability to allow people to participate in things to which they cannot be a party. In this sense, Instagram and the iPhone are the most wonderful tools in the world. Although the result is to force the same way of seeing on all of us, there are also radical possibilities for a new society. The nation of photography cannot develop around the cameras I build. It can only develop when everyone has an iPhone, and the iPhone is located in places where the government or the powers that be do not want it to be located. It’s a paradox, because the mega-companies, the governments and the industries are the ones that created the iPhone.

And thereby gave the masses the instrument to subvert them.

Precisely. It’s what’s known as anarchism.

Lusky.Credit: Ilya Melnikov
Aim Deulle LuskiCredit: Ilya Melnikov
Aim Deulle LuskiCredit: Ilya Melnikov

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