From Sputnik 1 to Lady Gaga: In Tel Aviv, an Artistic Tour of the Cosmos

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Yonatan Vinitsky’s exhibition “The Cosmos.”
Yonatan Vinitsky’s exhibition “The Cosmos.” Credit: Gidon Levin
Joy Bernard
Joy Bernard
Joy Bernard
Joy Bernard

Two men negotiate over a pack of cards in a lab-like room, exchanging tense words. The collection at the center of their mysterious transaction is the ‘‘Cosmos’’ pack, which the more villanous-looking of the two characters, Anton, appears to possess. Ezra, a young man with an innocent face, is hesitant to go on exchanging cards, but is eventually coaxed to give up a rare item. When the deal is finalized, Ezra realizes he has been tricked. He runs after Anton, to no avail. “It’s not fair,” he says breathlessly, despairing as he watches the other man disappear from view. 

Cut. A young boy, looking bored, silently observes an elderly Jewish man clad in traditional religious garb as he cleans artifacts in what looks like a Judaica shop. 

Cut. Young adults, European probably, are seen walking through snowy woods. They appear directionless and dazed. 

Cut. A cute little girl sporting pigtails, a broad smile and an outfit reminiscent of Vicki the android from the 1980s hit American TV series “Small Wonder,” announces in a shrill voice: “This is the Cosmos.” 

Cut. The screen fades to black and the lights of an orange installation panel flicker to the left of the small TV set on which the video is being shown. These disparate and intriguing fragments are not part of an avant-garde film. They are scenes from a video work at the center of a new exhibition that opened last week at the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion for Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv, featuring an ambitious solo project by Israeli artist Yonatan Vinitsky, now based in the U.K.. 

Yonatan Vinitsky’s exhibition “The Cosmos.” Credit: Gidon Levin

Over the past two years, Vinitsky, a sculptor and installation artist, dreamed up an exhibition that aims to tackle one of the broadest subjects possible: the world itself. The surreal universe he has crafted, together with a large international team, sprawls over the three floors of the pavilion and tells the story of three characters: Anton, Ezra and Batia. Their cut-off conversations, which follow visitors everywhere in the form of an audio play that goes on and off, suggest they are participants in a strange, futuristic human experiment. So, perhaps, is the viewer. 

Spectators are invited to wander slowly through the exhibition and take in the different and confusing elements on display. Vinitsky would rather you do so only after reading a visitors’ guide he has composed, a thick booklet offered at the entrance that has been translated into Hebrew and Arabic.

Vinitsky, who came to Israel for the opening but has since returned to his studio in the British countryside, told Haaretz he wrote the guide because he “wanted my voice to stay there, as I’m not able to be there every day. You can have this tour with me, if you want. At the same time it’s completely optional, because you could also decide not to take it and not to read the guide and then you would have a completely visual experience, which isn’t derived from what I had in mind.” 

To be an Israeli artist

Vinitsky, 39, was born in Jerusalem and moved to Britain in his early twenties to obtain his BFA at Goldsmiths, University of London and an MFA at the Royal College of Art. During our conversation, he repeatedly says he does not identify primarily as an Israeli artist. 

Yonatan Vinitsky’s exhibition “The Cosmos.” Credit: Gidon Levin

However, an attentive visitor will realize that this site-specific exhibition was made in Israel by a former local. Parts of the audio play that accompanies viewers are recorded in Hebrew. The actors in the video work showcased on the ground floor are Israeli, and speak their lines in English with a heavy Hebrew accent. The artist says this was “a very conscious decision. Doing an exhibition in a major institution in Israel, it was important [to work with Israeli actors], and together with the graphic designers from Paris who worked with me on the visuals, it was important for us that the show be in three languages and that all languages be equal.”  

This is the first time in nearly a decade that Vinitsky has shown his work in Israel. Landing a solo exhibition at the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion, a prestigious venue connected to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, is considered a great honor on the local art scene. He says he “was humbled” by the invitation to present his work there, and quickly adds that he presented the materials mostly in English because “it’s easier for me than working in Hebrew.

“It was a conscious decision not to make the film in Hebrew, because the scenes with actors are remakes of scenes from American and Canadian films,” the artist explains. “It wasn’t a provocative decision, it was just fitting for the project.”

Asked why the issue of the languages is so sensitive, Vinitsky admits that “it’s something that hovers around me and my identity. When I’m in England people see that I was born in Jerusalem, I have this stamp that I’m from another place, but I don’t really know what it means to be an Israeli artist.”  

Inspired by Sputnik 1

The artist may have a complex connection to his background, but the inspiration for the project is clearly rooted in Israeli culture. The idea for “The Cosmos” was inspired by “The Universe: Astronomy for Youth and for Everyone,” a book for Israeli teens by Avigdor Hameiri (in Hebrew) published in 1951.  “What really drew me to this book was that it managed, in Hebrew, to capture the spirit of the times a few years before the Soviet Union in 1957 launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite,” says Vinitsky. 

Yonatan Vinitsky’s exhibition “The Cosmos.” Credit: Gidon Levin

The structure of the exhibition and the idea of basing it on three main characters was influenced by the book, but “content-wise, there’s no link between the book and my show,” Vinitsky adds. “I wanted to highlight this writer, who was extraordinary and wrote dozens of books, some of them really quite bizarre. That’s something I like to do in my work, highlighting people who are forgotten.” 

Another text that was on Vinitsky’s mind while working on the project was “The Human Condition” (1958) by the German-American philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt. In it, she offers an analysis of how human activities have been perceived throughout Western history. 

“Arendt described the human reaction to the launching of Sputnik 1 with the word ‘relief,’ which really surprised me,” Vinitsky says. “She also described it as the first step toward the escape of humans from their arrest on Earth. I was very interested in the gap between the time that book was written, when it was still a fantasy to be able to leave Earth, and our day, when men can walk on the moon, but we are still very far from escaping.”

Deep into the maze 

Contemplation of the fate of humanity and its uncertain trajectory is the thread that connects the multiple elements of the show. A walk up and down the stairs and into the different rooms offers viewers an opportunity to observe Vinitsky’s visual and auditory investigation of themes such as death, friendship, memory and loss.  

The lower floor of the pavilion is covered with an intricate tapestry displaying a myriad of enlarged images of objects like broken telephones and watches. Three androgynous figures made of plastic appear at the back of the room, their limbs frozen in mid-movement; they look like models of the human body, of the kind used in medical school. 

Yonatan Vinitsky.Credit: Gidon Levin

Visitors are invited to take a seat on a white stool and listen to a 12-minute recording in which the voices of Anton, Ezra and Batia recount traumatic and mysterious experiences from their joint adventure. “I don’t understand what they are trying to do to me,” Ezra’s voice breaks out in frustration. “I still don’t know what you both did to me. Whether you are protecting me or… but there is something that I can sense underneath everything.” 

The recording, titled “Catastrophe in the Space of the Cosmos,” is disturbing and painfully long. During my visit, several people enter the room and abruptly leave, appearing confused. Told that the exhibition is quite overwhelming, the artist acknowledges that is so. “Maybe the ideal viewer is someone who will be able to visit the show a few times, or someone who focuses on parts [of it]. Obviously it’s very difficult to contain it at one go, and it’s quite a lot to digest. Dalit [Matityahu, the curator of the show] said in one of the tours, that she felt that the show was like entering into my mind.”

The middle level of the pavilion takes the viewer to what Vinitsky dubs “Factory for Worlds.” There, the floor panel features hundreds of scanned images from magazines, newspapers and encyclopedias, in an apparent criticism of the consumer culture of today’s society. 

The visual chaos subsides on the clean upper level. Recordings in Arabic, English and Hebrew intone philosophical and emotional quotes from a wide range of sources – from the American pop singer Lady Gaga to the 19th century novelist Mary Shelley. Before I turn to leave, still processing the complex experience, some words of the Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz are spoken loudly in Hebrew. I ponder the familiar phrases, which have now taken on a new meaning:  

Yonatan Vinitsky’s exhibition “The Cosmos.” Credit: Gidon Levin

“One can only be certain of one’s own mental reality. 

I know exactly what I think right now. 

I know exactly what I want right now. 

I know exactly whether I am happy or sad right now. 

One’s only certainty is one’s mental reality 

All the rest is uncertain and doubtful.”  

“The Cosmos,” Helena Rubinstein Pavilion for Contemporary Art, 6 Tarsat Avenue, until May 30, 2020.

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