Israel Prize-winning Artist Puts His Home Into a Museum: 'There's a Political Metaphor Here'

‘If two families know how to live on one piece of land...maybe two nations can too,’ says Micha Ullman whose work is currently on display at the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art

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Micha Ullman with his work “Two-Family House.”
Micha Ullman with his work “Two-Family House.”Credit: Moti Milrod
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba

In the bright, central hall of the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art, “Two-Family House” by Israel Prize-winning sculptor Micha Ullman is on display. The work is a kind of impermanent relief that is a full-scale outline of the walls of his apartment and the adjacent one of his neighbors on Geulim Street in Ramat Hasharon.

The relief is made of red-loam soil, and within the space it delineates one will find a variety of details representing items from inside the homes, such as beds, toilet bowls, sinks, tables, a television and a computer, which is represented by some letters from its keyboard.

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The soil that composes the walls and the other elements rises to a triangular peak 15 centimeters (6 inches) above the floor. “I don’t show the entire contents of the house, many things are missing, I show only elements that have a connection to the body,” explains Ullman. Regarding the strong color of the soil, which stands out boldly against the background of the beige floor, he says: “I looked for the reddest soil to be found, and I found this. It’s from the Beit Lid area [near Netanya]. I live on soil like that and I like the color.”

The installation is one of a group of nine exhibitions that make up “Scene of Events,” currently on display in the museum, all but one of which were curated by Aya Lurie. The work is subject to being touched by visitors, and over time it is likely to be affected by that contact. “That’s the big question – how people will behave,” says Ullman. “The work is fragile and clearly things can happen. In a way this is a test of behavior in the museum. Theoretically, anything can happen, and whatever happens – is part of the work.”

Micha Ullman with his work “Two-Family House.”
Micha Ullman with his work “Two-Family House.” Credit: Moti Milrod

He says that there will be no warning sign next to the work, “but it also won’t say that you must touch it or do things to it. The work will raise questions as to how people behave in a museum. We’re organizing a team of repair people,” he adds, “who will fix damage as needed. But it’s clear to me that I’m not about to repair every mark or every bit of damage. Depending on the damage, we’ll decide.”

There are two more parts to the exhibition. One consists of two-dimensional depictions made of soil from the house. These look almost like archaeological documentation. The other is a series of photographs of the house, starting in 1970.

The house where Ullman lives was built in 1947 for new immigrants. He himself was born in Israel in 1939 to parents who immigrated from Germany following the rise of the Nazis. The house has had four different owners. Until 1950 it was the Greenfeld family, followed by the Rosenbergs, until 1966, and from until 1974, the Yaakovis. At first, says Ullman, the individual apartments were small, each comprised of one and a half rooms. “Each family added something and extended it. If you look at the interior divisions, you see the life stories of the families.” His neighbors today are renters – a couple with two girls.

Soil, house, two

Ullman has been involved for several decades in some of the issues dealt with in the Herzliya exhibition – the two-family house, the concept of “two.” In addition, he works frequently with soil. One of the first attempts to work with the material was in the Messer-Metzer project in 1972, in which a group of artists worked in the valley between the Arab village of Messer and Kibbutz Metzer.

Ullman’s work was called “Land Exchange.” At the time he initiated the digging of two square pits of the same size in the village and the kibbutz. The work was done by the residents of each of the communities. He placed the soil that was removed from one pit into the second pit and vice versa. After a while the differences in the colors of the surface of the filled-in pits were blurred, until there were no longer traces of the activity and it remained a memory in photographs only.

FILE Photo: Ullman's home in Ramat Hasharon in the 1970s.
FILE Photo: Ullman's home in Ramat Hasharon in the 1970s.Credit: Moti Milrod

Another related project by Ullman was “Foundation,” which was placed in the late 1980s near the Habima National Theater, on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv. It consisted of four squares of concrete that represent the four chambers of the human heart. The sides of the squares are 10 centimeters thick and are reminiscent of a sketch of the design of a typical apartment.

Another work is “Day, Havdala, Midnight,” from the Israel Museum collection. Its components are three sculptures, each of which resembles a doll’s house, and each of which has undergone various manipulations. “Day, Sand” is an installation of sand that has been thrown on the contents of a house; it was displayed in the Artists’ Studios Gallery in 1997. Finally, two years ago, Ullman showed “Two-Family House,” at the Givon Gallery. It was composed of two iron toilet seats placed back to back.

Political metaphor

Over the years, Ullman’s work has always had a political dimension, albeit a subtle one. In the context of the current installation, he says it represents “two families that know how to live on a single plot of land. There is a political metaphor here. If two families know how to live on a single plot of land, maybe two peoples can live on a shared plot of land. I am creating a fraught situation that is given to interpretation. The political interpretation is a kind of a question and food for thought.”

Can two families live in one home? “At one time there was no alternative, but it’s not so logical. Is there any logic in there being one family that rules over another family?” he asks, hinting that in the home where both Israelis and Palestinians live, the families aren’t living in semi-detached halves of a building but rather in a single unit, in which one of them rules the other. Taking the concept of ruling or controlling a step further, in the new work the relations between outside and inside are blurred, raising the question of whether it is possible to enter the home without permission. In this context, Ullman mentions his work “Water,” from the mid-1990s, which is made from two manhole covers – the one from Zion Square, in West Jerusalem, and the other from Ha’ahim Pereire Street in Jerusalem’s Old City.

“I didn’t want to install that work without the residents’ agreement, because of the sensitivity,” he recalls. “When I asked those in the eastern part of the city, they said there was no need to ask, because Israelis even enter people’s homes freely without asking permission. After we talked and got to know each other, they understood that my intentions were positive. When I’m walking around in a place that isn’t mine, there’s always the question of the extent to which I can enter.”

The display of “Two-Family House.”
The display of “Two-Family House.”Credit: Moti Milrod

Private and collective

Over the years, Ullman has also created memorials, such as his famous “Empty Library,” at the Bebelplatz in Berlin, from the 1990s, which consists of an empty underground library, with an opening in the sidewalk sealed by a sheet of glass. Not being marked, it is difficult to find. Another memorial is “Last Remnant,” from 2004, commemorating Holocaust survivors who died in Israel’s wars. Situated at Mount Herzl, the monument consists of two sides of a house, which have fallen in different directions. One side is a sort of a wall and the other is a kind of box shaped like a house.

Herzliya’s “Two Family House” is also a kind of monument. Ullman’s house is slated for demolition, as part of the frenzy of urban renewal and new construction that has engulfed Ramat Hasharon in recent years. He says that when the possibility of tearing down the house and replacing it with a larger structure was raised a few years ago, he was not interested in demolition, but with the passage of time, he has come to terms with it. Is this work, then, a memorial for his home, I ask. “That’s not what led to the piece but to a certain extent it could be a memorial.”

“Scene of Events,” Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art, 4 Habanim Street. Opening hours: Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday: 10:00 A.M. to 2:00 P.M.; Tuesday and Thursday: 4:00 P.M. to 8:00 P.M. Closing on April 27, 2019.