How an Israeli Artist Ended Up Inside a Deep Pit in Berlin

Gilad Ratman's video work was commissioned and paid for in full by the city's Jewish Museum – something that rarely happens back home, even in the best of times

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A scene from Gilad Ratman's 2020 video work "Drummerrsss."
A scene from Gilad Ratman's 2020 video work "Drummerrsss."Credit: Brinkley Capriola
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba

With museums in Israel closed and no indications yet of when they'll reopen, quite a few Israeli artists have been displaying their works abroad. Among them is Gilad Ratman, whose multichannel video work "Drummerrsss" was created for the Jewish Museum Berlin, was installed in late summer and will be on display there for the foreseeable future.

Ratman worked on the 11-minute installation for about two years, and it features three clips shown simultaneously on different screens. The main protagonists are two percussionists, seen situated one above the other: The first is Haggai Fershtman, one of Israel’s best-known and veteran drummers, and the second is Alex Levy, a member of the Suicidal Furniture band.

A snippet from Gilad Ratman's 2020 video work "Drummerrsss."
A snippet from Gilad Ratman's 2020 video work "Drummerrsss."Credit: Eva Walter

Fershtman is filmed inside a deep pit, while Levy and her drums sit on a round transparent surface that seems to float in the air. The setting is an expanse of dark soil with trees, in Germany. The angles of filming change. Sometimes you see Levy hovering from inside the hole itself; sometimes you see both drummers – who perform both separately and together – next to each other. A few elements in Ratman’s new installation, among them the pit and the music, have played prominent roles in his previous works as well.

“I decided not to focus in the work on historical elements, or those directly connected to German-Jewish symbolism,” he says. “I tried to create something more universal that contains tension between two elements that forge identity. Identity is formed by many things, but two elements are very dominant: One is nationality, which is closely tied to land, to territory and borders, and the other is a set of beliefs, a spirituality or ideology, which is something that guides you but is not necessarily connected to where you live. The difference between these two elements creates friction."

Gilad Ratman, third from left, working on his 2020 video work "Drummerrsss."
Gilad Ratman, third from left, working on his 2020 video work "Drummerrsss."Credit: Brinkley Capriola

Such a situation, he tells Haaretz, arises out of conflict. It could relate to that involving a German-Jewish identity, but also to different identities.

The site for the filming of Ratman's work was discovered by his producer, Eyal Vexler, who has moved to Berlin and was told by a colleague about the coal mining region of Saarland, which is near the French border and was for years a source of friction between the countries.

Ratman: “The connection to the coal mines added an unexpected layer to the work. The action of the miners who strike at the ground was related, for me, to the action of drumming. That’s how we found ourselves working with the region’s coal miners’ union, which provided us with engineering permits and knowledge related to digging in this specific soil. Our production and filming team included people from Israel and Germany.”

About two years ago Germany closed its last coal mine and declared that for ecological reasons the industry would no longer operate in the country. Despite the closure, when Ratman traveled around the area he encountered many former workers. “They stopped working but still get money because they belong to the coal miners’ union,” in accordance with Germany’s labor laws. “The landscape in the work looks universal, but German viewers can read it because it’s unique to Germany.”

Some water and greenery as well in Gilad Ratman's 2020 video work "Drummerrsss."
Some water and greenery as well in Gilad Ratman's 2020 video work "Drummerrsss."Credit: Eva Walter

What were the challenges in the project?

“There was quite a complicated production challenge here. To hang a glass structure at a height of 30 meters in the air and to seat a drummer on it – that’s something that requires a lot of planning and engineering permits. Digging a deep pit in coal soil and lowering a drummer into it is not a simple thing. Especially in Germany. But the most interesting part was the work with the musicians.

“We held meetings in Israel for months in order to decide which musical language we'd speak. The challenge was to create a rhythmic language based on segments that could be connected afterward. We wanted to avoid adopting the rhythm of a familiar musical style like rock or jazz, but rather to try to tap out the fluctuations and pulses of the earth and the air.”

Veteran sound artist/designer Daniel Meir worked with Ratman on the music, which is not improvised but was not composed in advance either.

The Jewish Museum in Berlin, Germany.
The Jewish Museum in Berlin, Germany. 'Drummerrsss' was commissioned and funded entirely by the museum.Credit: WorldWide / Shutterstock.com

“The instructions to the drummers were given while they’re playing. They wore an earpiece and Danny and I made comments to them while they were drumming. The idea was to let the energy dictate things. In every project I do I try to define relationships between freedom or improvisation on the one hand, and structure or a specific framework on the other.”

'A kind of introduction'

Ratman was chosen to display his work by a professional committee created by the Berlin museum.

“After suggesting possible names, they decided to approach four artists and ask them to propose a work of art,” he says. “Each artist appeared before the committee and presented his proposal. The project was supposed to relate to a specific space planned by [Polish-American architect Daniel] Libeskind, and to constitute a kind of introduction to the new, historical-thematic permanent exhibit that opened in the museum.”

The screening process described by Ratman sounds trivial, but is rare to nonexistent in the Israeli art world. As opposed to the situation here, "Drummerrsss" was commissioned and funded entirely by the museum.

“That also included the artist’s salary, which is not symbolic," he explains. "This situation, of a museum ordering and underwriting a work, is rare abroad too, but in Israel even more so. For the most part, its museums at most fund the installation of the work in the museum space. Funding for projects usually comes from other places.”

Last week it was reported that Israel’s museums will open only in late December. You and other Israeli artists continue to show your work abroad during this pandemic period. How do you feel about that?

“The situation [of keeping museums closed] seems unjustified to me. Museums and galleries are places that are not crowded; they are places where it’s easy to police the audience. I’m not sure that they’re being closed for health reasons. This whole attitude attests to the status of culture and art [in Israel]. It’s also very disturbing that they’re treating culture as a single phenomenon. A museum, a performance, a conference – everything is the same. The art world simply doesn’t interest anyone. It’s low on the order of priorities.”

Most visitors to the Jewish Museum Berlin come to learn about Jewish history and the Holocaust. Does your work undercut that? Did you think about the visitors when you created it?

“I thought a lot about the fact that it’s not an art museum. It’s a place with a very heavy and thick context. I also thought about the fact that visitors there come with other expectations that aren’t related to art. For me it’s actually an opportunity to do something unexpected. I believe that the encounter with art should be upsetting and confusing. This power is actually intensified in a space to which people come for other reasons.”

Buried amplifiers

Ratman, 45, who lives in Tel Aviv, has a bachelor's degree in art from the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem – where he also teaches – and a master's in fine arts from Columbia University in New York. He is represented by the Braverman Gallery and his work, which has appeared in many shows in Israel and abroad, generally features films and installations.

In 2013 he represented Israel at the Venice Biennale with his video installation “The Workshop,” which followed a group of people making their way via subterranean tunnels leading from Israel to Venice, and bursting into the Israeli pavilion via a hole in the concrete floor. Once there, the group sets up a workshop for itself, where its members sculpt themselves with clay they brought with them from Israel.

Another well-known work, which was displayed in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem in 2015, is “Five Bands from Romania.” In an open area near Bucharest, Ratman assembled five local hard-rock bands that agreed to bury their amplifiers in the ground and to perform together, without an audience. The music and other sounds in effect erupt from inside the earth – and Ratman documented the entire process.

Drums up in the air in Gilad Ratman's 2020 video work "Drummerrsss."
Drums up in the air in Gilad Ratman's 2020 video work "Drummerrsss."Credit: Eva Walter

The production of your works is complex and demands budgets. Doesn’t that limit you?

“It limits me greatly. But I have no control over my dreams. They hand me a bill and I go into negotiations. Now, during the lockdown, I make music and that’s cheap. Every idea has different production conditions. Sometimes I have an idea and I link up with an institution or other support system. It’s exhausting to live in the situation I have imposed upon myself. I know outstanding artists who know how to work with low budgets, and I can only be envious.”

Has it happened that you didn’t have anyone to fund a project and you got started anyway?

“To do ‘Five Bands in Romania,’ I borrowed money and I managed to return part with funding and part through sales. It’s a project where I took a risk. In the work for the Jewish Museum Berlin there was also a moment when we realized that we were exceeding the budget. I turned to the museum and requested a budget increase and we got it.”

Are you continuing to create during this period? How does it happen?

“There’s a heavy feeling in the air. Everything is stuck or faltering. The enthusiasm for online formats has waned. People don’t have the strength any more to see some dance festival on Zoom. I’m happy about that. It shows that not everything can be replaced and that there are times when it’s possible to look inward rather than outward. It’s a good time to look for new ways of working. For me that means relying less on a whole production dimension and to work alone and do whatever is possible. I started creating music on the computer. Maybe it’s dumb, but it excites me now.”

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