Ron Arad, perhaps the most internationally successful Israeli architect/designer/artist, turned 70 about a month ago – and is still clearly in his prime. Throughout the year of the coronavirus pandemic, which he spent in the U.K. where he has lived for five decades, he kept working and also kept up to date with what’s happening in the small Mediterranean country he left so many years ago.
“Every person is a prisoner in the place where he or she was born and raised,” he says in a Zoom interview with Haaretz. “I used to see someone with an Israeli newspaper maybe once a month, and really take notice. These days I get up in the morning and read Haaretz on my phone or iPad.”
The speed with which information is conveyed makes the Tel Aviv-born Arad feel more connected than ever to life in Israel. In 2019, he signed an international petition calling for a suspension of the plan to build a cable car over the Old City of Jerusalem. During Israel’s recent army operation in the Gaza Strip, he signed a petition calling for the establishment of a joint Jewish-Arab government. Although he leans to the left, he doesn’t see the situation in his homeland in black or white.
“Israelis are used to saying that every demonstration is antisemitic – but that’s not true. Antisemitism exists but it is complex. Can I still support the current situation and explain how we got there? It’s difficult,” says Arad, but adds that he opposes movements like BDS. “I am against cultural boycotts.”
These days, a large solo exhibition of Arad’s works is on at the Gordon Gallery in Tel Aviv. Called “Strings, Love Songs and a Red Car,” the exhibition features some 15 sculptures, most of which he created over the past year, as part of a series called “Love Songs.” Some of the works, in the front part of the gallery, are made of steel; others are mixed media, and use books and catalogs and cut-out texts.
At the center stands “Quartet” – four chairs with string instruments, from which a recorded chamber piece emerges. The music, played in a loop, makes manifest the absent performers, and serves as a powerful metaphor for a time when concert halls have stood empty. Performed by the American Pacifica Quartet, the work was recorded with each musician playing in a separate room, while maintaining eye contact with the others.
Further into the gallery, there are some 10 other works featuring string instruments. They include a violin in a box with a mirror inside it, and additional violins placed at different angles on tables. Arad is one of the few artists to have exhibited in all rooms of the Gordon, which is usually divided between a general collection room and a solo show space.
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“My brother, who is 6 years older than me, has been a gifted violinist from a young age and I was born into the sound of the violin,” Arad writes in the exhibition catalog, describing his attraction to string instruments. He adds that his parents would not let him learn the violin, saying, “You do not want to spend the rest of your life knowing that you are not as good as your brother.”
Arad’s brother, Atar, also wrote about his brother’s exhibition in the catalog, as being a distilled and surprising combination of music and visual art, “pleasing to both eye and ear, a new vibe and a new mood in which to indulge, different from the experience of being in a concert hall or living room.” Atar Arad added that although they live on separate continents, he in the United States and Ron in the U.K., they speak often. “We soon realized that our quartets belonged to each other. Therefore, I dedicate mine to him with love.“
Ron Arad’s renewed connection with violins began during work he did for a company that makes loudspeakers. “At the time I visited the studio of the fantastic violin maker Stefan-Peter Greiner and was really envious of his work. I had the idea to produce self-playing violins – in 2019, before the coronavirus arrived and put orchestras out of work. I bought 26 violins at auction at high prices, and I went to work on them. They were dismantled and reassembled.”
Arad may not definitively be a designer of ready-mades, but it can be said that his career began in this vein. His 1981 “Rover Chair,” fusing a Rover car seat and steel pipes, was a ready-made that helped make him famous. “It’s not that I’m back to ready-mades,” he says of the art he is producing now. “It’s like paints and brushes – some of the tools in the arsenal.”
Love in the mirror
The name of the series of works on show, “Love Song,” is based on a sort of palindrome that Arad invented. If you look at the word “love” in the mirror, the word “song” appears opposite, he discovered – a typography that popped into his mind one night a few years ago. “I had to get out of bed and write it down in case I forgot by morning,” he recalls.
The palindrome idea first appeared on a series of chairs he designed in 2018 to mark Mickey Mouse’s 90th birthday, titled “D.F.W.T.M.” (Don’t F**k With The Mouse). The words were integrated into and matched the chair design, which consists of two ears. In the current exhibition, the palindrome takes physical shape in the form of small stainless-steel works; in the background one can identify, for example, an Andy Warhol banana and the faces of the Beatles. It is also seen in pieces made of corten steel, and in works featuring catalogs and books, by Israeli authors Amos Oz and David Grossman among others, that Arad manipulates and cuts out.
“To this day I have not found two other words that work so well together, both in meaning and visual appearance: Love and song, what a pair,” he writes in the catalog.
Weren’t you afraid people would say it was kitsch?
“No. There are two types of objects in the world. Tiresome and boring objects, and fun objects. If someone is bored or thinks it’s kitsch – they should just move on, it’s not my problem. Once I finished the job it’s not mine anymore. I created something that attracted and interested me, and that generated other people’s interest as well.”
The interconnection between Arad’s art and music continues with his work “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me?” referencing the Janis Joplin a capella hit “Oh Lord, Won’t You Buy Me a Mercedes-Benz?” It hangs in the front of the Gordon Gallery – a flattened Mercedes subdivided into seven parts, each in a black frame. Arad’s crushed cars were previously exhibited at a 2013 exhibition at the Design Museum in Holon (which he designed); another is on display at the Dan Caesarea Gallery.
“Each part of the show actually represents three separate exhibitions. While the violins were delayed, and ‘Mercedes’ was being held up at the Royal Academy [where it was exhibited for a time] – I was working on ‘Love Songs.’ We finally decided to do one exhibition that is really a kind of large installation,” Arad explains.
Gordon Gallery director Amon Yariv notes that so far, three copies of the “Love Songs” series of works and four of the violin series have been sold. “The most expensive thing in this exhibition is the $300,000 car,” he adds, in answer to the question of whether it is difficult to market artists like Arad who move between the worlds of art, design and architecture.
Yariv: “Works by any designer are hard to sell, but with a mega-designer it is easier. There is a global market for this, and some individual works sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Arad is a brilliant person and leaves such a strong impression that people will buy his works.”
‘Whatever I want’
Ron Arad was born in 1951, to artistic parents; his mother was the painter Esther Peretz-Arad and his father, Grisha, was a sculptor and photographer. He studied industrial design at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, and architecture at AA in London; the late, renowned architect Zaha Hadid was a fellow student. In 1981, with Caroline Thurman, he co-founded his first design studio, One Off. Arad has received numerous awards and distinctions over the years, including the London Design Medal, and is a member of the celebrated Royal Academy of Arts.
Over the years Arad has designed objects for world-renowned design brands including Swarovski, Vitra, Kartell, Alessi, Cappellini and Cassina, and he has collaborated with luxury fashion and technology giants such as Kenzo, LG, Samsung, Fiat, Nestle and Adidas. His works have been displayed in leading museums and galleries around the world, and grace the collections of the Metropolitan Museum and MOMA in New York City, the Pompidou Center in Paris, The Victoria and Albert Museum London, and others. His large-scale public works and designs can be seen in major cities such as London, Tokyo, Seoul, Milan, Toronto and Singapore. In Israel, a sculpture he designed is on display at Tel Aviv University, and he also designed the interior of the Tel Aviv Opera House. He was also scheduled to have an exhibition at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, he says, but it was canceled. “There were some productive conversations but, in the end, it was complicated, and the museum had its problems,” he explains.
Arad is pretty tired of talking about his constant shifting between the worlds of art, architecture and design – as is the writer of these lines.
“I’m not really interested in breaking boundaries, I’m interested in doing whatever I want,” he says, nonetheless. “Sometimes it’s art, sometimes it’s industrial design and sometimes it’s architecture. Some people are uncomfortable with that – but I have no choice. There is no prescription. Ever since I can remember, my tool is a pencil, but when I work with a tablet it’s the same thing – it’s the relationship between the eye and the hand. “
Another technique that Arad has discovered in recent years is the use of fabric coverings. For example, in the exhibition “Over the Influence,” which opened in Los Angeles at the start of the pandemic, some of his “D.F.W.T.M.” series, showcasing that technique, were on display. During 2020, inspired by an affair that shocked the art world, in which the Royal Academy in London considered selling Michelangelo’s “Virgin and Child with the Infant St. John,” aka “Taddei Tondo,” to underwrite salaries for 150 employees, Arad created a replicate, called “Tondo.” The relief he made was covered by on a woven fabric of his design.
“The people who work there were important to me, and I decided to make something for the occasion, on which I wrote ‘absolutely not for sale,’” he says.
In the end the Royal Academy didn’t sell the Michaelangelo masterpiece. Arad’s was eventually sold at the Phillips auction house – a significant achievement, certainly during lockdown
This year there is a growing sense around the world that culture is a low priority. Do you agree?
“When you have nothing to eat, you will eat what you find, and when you have something to eat you will look at cookbooks or add spices. When you have nowhere to live, you will live under any shelter. When you have somewhere to live you will show an interest in architecture. Culture is second to needs. It does not mean we do not need it. We cannot live in a world without music and painting.”
Close to the heart
In light of his strengthening bonds with Israel, and perhaps to confirm the cliché that architects reach their peak after the age of 60, Arad is currently overseeing several local architectural projects – each in collaboration with an Israeli entity. At Haemek Hospital in Afula, the cancer patient wing he is designing, Beit Shulamit, is in a stage of advanced construction; the building is named after the wife of businessman Haim Katzman, a philanthropist who died of cancer and served as chairwoman of the board of trustees of the Design Museum in Holon. Already at this stage, one can see that the long facades of the building will allow light to enter all the hospital rooms.“
“We had the privilege of choosing the location for the building, and we chose a lot that is in the interior ring of the hospital. It was more important for us to consider the view for those inside, rather than what it will look like to those who drive by in the car,” says Arad.
Another local project he is working on is ToHa2, the “big brother” of the ToHa skyscraper on Tozeret Haaretz (hence the acronym, ToHa) Street in Tel Aviv, voted “best office tower in the world” in a competition of the International Council of Skyscrapers. ToHa2 will rise to a height of 80 stories and shares a design language with its shorter neighbor.
Outside Israel, Arad is currently designing a Holocaust memorial in the gardens of Victoria Tower in London, after he won a competition there with British-Ghanaian architect David Adjaye in 2017. The monument will consist of 23 bronze plaques, with the spaces between them representing 22 countries whose communities were destroyed in the Holocaust. These spaces will lead to a staircase descending to a hall, which will serve as a place for contemplation; beyond it will be an underground educational area. The project is currently being held up, however, a result of the decision to build it in a sensitive area – a historic garden that already houses a number of memorial sites.
“I understand some of the objections,” says Arad. “But just because I understand does not mean I agree.”
Do you accept such objections as part of the rules of the game of architecture or is it depressing?
“Naturally, in architecture there is a lot of debate and conversations, and you have to deal with a lot of people. When working on a small scale it is different, but I like both types of work, and I am collaborating with some great people, like Asa [Asa Bruno, who runs the architecture division in his London office] who manages all the things I’m not attracted to.
“We are not an office that has built itself by doing more and more work just to maintain ourselves. We could have taken all the other offers we got. We only take on projects from people who know what to expect and what not to expect – and we give them the best service. We need to insist and compromise, but our red lines are pretty high.”