The Mystery Behind the Untimely Death of an Israeli-Dutch Art Icon

Yariv Alter had two lives: one as a young musician in Tel Aviv in the alternative band DXM, and another as an artist and a teacher in Amsterdam. Artists, friends and former bandmates reflect on a tortured but uniquely talented soul

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The young Yariv Alter during the 1980's. 'We would smoke, take speed, put on makeup, go to clubs'
The young Yariv Alter during the 1980's. 'We would smoke, take speed, put on makeup, go to clubs'Credit: Reproduction: Meged Gozani
Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev

“He looked like a rock star but didn’t want to be one. With Yariv it was more like ‘Let’s do everything: music, art, poetry, photography, graphics.’ He was kind of like Warhol’” — saxophonist Ori Kaplan on Yariv Alter.

On August 27, 2007, Israeli artist, musician and beloved art teacher Yariv Alter jumped to his death from an upper story of the Sheraton Hotel in Tel Aviv. He was 39.

Complex. Passionate. Loving. A legendary figure in Tel Aviv. A leader in integrating music and graphic art in his underground band DXM and later, in the second phase of his life in the Netherlands — where he taught at Amsterdam’s prestigious Gerrit Rietveld Academy — a pioneer in combining music and technology.

These qualities and skills made Alter one of the most interesting and unique artists to come out of Israel in the second half of the 1980s — even if his name was unknown outside the narrow circles of alternative music, and his death was widely inaccurately reported in the media.

“I felt he was the most talented person of our generation,” artist and friend Ram Katzir tells Haaretz. “I know many artists who became famous in that generation. I think Yariv was the only one who was truly a genius. But you also need talent to manage your talent.”

The many faced of Yariv Alter. 'The most talented person of our generation.'Credit: Yariv Alter Fin Estate

Alter’s contradictory personality was embodied by his combination of both maturity and immaturity. “He was a boy until his last day,” observes Nir Nadler, who was a student of Alter and a friend. On the other hand, artist Yifat Giladi, who was Alter’s first girlfriend before he even joined DXM, thinks he was born mature. “There was nothing childish about him. The work he did with DXM, his immense investment in the design of the recordings — he had a mission in life to get his art out, the musical and visual parts.”

If Alter was indeed an Israeli Andy Warhol, the apartment in which DXM began over 30 years ago was a mini-version of Warhol’s Factory. “It was so much fun being there. It was very liberating, breathing air that was the antithesis of the bourgeois life of Tel Aviv,” recounts Ori Kaplan, now a member of the Balkan Beat Box music group and who played the sax in DXM at the end of the ’80s.

“It was something of a rebellion: We would smoke, take speed, put on makeup, go to clubs and return home at dawn,” he adds. “That period was so intense and important for us. How did we stay alive? Some of us didn’t.”

Death was an inseparable part of Alter’s life. But along with his preoccupation and attraction to it, he also had a great lust for life and a creative impulse that was rare in its intensity. In fact, conversations with many of those closest to him reveal no partition between his life and his art. It’s not just that art occupied most of his waking hours: Even activities that ostensibly could not be associated with art were staged in a performance style.

Giladi remembers how, for all intents and purposes, Alter planned their first kiss at 15 or 16 as a kind of artistic event. “Yariv hid below the house, then he climbed up, came through the window and then we kissed. Everything was very dramatic and theatrical. One could say that he lived life through art,” she says.

The young Yariv Alter. A legendary figure in Tel AvivCredit: Reproduction: Meged Gozani

“Yariv was not happy,” says musician Karni Postel, who played with Alter in DXM. “But there are many people in my life whom I’ve heard laughing less than Yariv laughed. He wasn’t constantly depressed, even during times when this was expected of artists. When you saw Yariv, you couldn’t feel depressed. What you felt more than anything else was a sense of great complexity.”

Postel relates that when Alter was 20 or maybe even younger, he prepared a pamphlet called “My Funeral.”

“One of the first things I remember about Yariv is that, each time, there was another deadline for when he was going to commit suicide,” says Giladi. “At 16, the deadline was 20. And at 20 it may have been 30. The feeling was that at some point it would really happen. I quickly realized that he wouldn’t last forever.”

Kaplan mentions the word “Fin” (“End” in French) with which Alter signed his work already as a youth, later adding it to his name: Yariv Alterfin. This is how he was known at the Rietveld.

From ‘R.I.P.’ to ‘Faceless’

DXM’s early music had a shocking element at first. The group was one of the first in Israel to produce industrial music, influenced by bands such as Einstürzende Neubauten and Psychic TV. Ronen Hoffman and Alter recorded and performed using metal and electric instruments. “The stage looked like a construction site,” remembers Hoffman, “and Yariv was like a mixture of a construction worker and a prince.”

The band created at a feverish pace, releasing six cassette recordings (some full-length, others shorter) in four years. There was at least one album that was shelved. Hoffman and Alter led the production side, with Alter and bassist Eyal Doron writing the lyrics. Alter was also responsible for the artwork. The approach, in everything, was to work communally.

Every cassette the band released was totally different to the preceding one, even if the listener could discern some continuity. Only 18 months separated the industrial metal of the first release, “R.I.P.,” from early 1985, and the mesmerizing ambient beauty of “Faceless” at the end of 1986. The next musical phase, moving from the dense instrumental flow of “Faceless” to the darker and heavier rock of “Sad,” was also a sharp break from what came before.

“We copied some of the cassettes on my parents’ double-cassette player,” recalls Postel. “Yariv would arrive with piles of photography paper and a Japanese knife, and we’d sit and cut, fold and record from one cassette to the next. From time to time my mother would come in and bring us some food. We couldn’t be complete rebels with my parents treating us in such an encouraging way.”

Alter didn’t mind exploring the most painful corners of his soul. One of his songs, for instance, was called “Majdanek,” referring to the death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. His father, Shlomo Alter, says no one in the family had been in a death camp, but that his son “knew my story — and it could be that he tied that to Majdanek.”

DXM - In My Bed
A reproduction of a photo of Alter, left, during the 1980s.Credit: Reproduction: Meged Gozani

Alter Sr. was born in Romania in the mid-1930s and for four years, between 1944 and 1948, wandered with his family between different camps across Europe. “Many times, under cover, with forged documents, until we reached Marseilles in 1948 and came to Israel,” he relates. Yariv Alter was obsessed with documents and passport photos, basing several of his works on such raw materials. “It’s probably a result of my story,” says his father.

In 1989, the Third Ear record store assembled all six cassettes and put them out as one package, “The DXM Project.” All together, the band released six cassettes and one album. Marking the 30th anniversary, the Rietveld Academy was holding a memorial service for Alter on April 16.

Fashion model at 16

Alter was born in Holon, south of Tel Aviv, to an artistic family in 1968. The family home featured endless art books and had two ovens for preparing enamel and ceramics. When the kitchen was upgraded, the whole family drew its tile patterns. Shlomo Alter paints and works with computers, while his mother Aliza worked as a sales manager at a housing company. “Yariv was an exceptional child, very opinionated,” says his father. “In the first grades, he was an excellent student and a good kid. In high school he started running wild, out of boredom. It was too easy for him.”

He learned to play the keyboard as a youngster. “That bored him, too,” relates his father. “He played hooky all the time. We later found out that he worked as a model at age 16. His grandmother discovered that in a magazine.”

DXM Nobody
The many cover designs of D.X.M's albums. Credit: Reproduction: Meged Gozani

Aliza Alter says her son was curious and inquisitive as a child. “He always looked for something new and interesting, something fascinating. He did all this with boundless joy. Initially, I saw his attraction to art as a youthful rebellion. It started with external things like wearing black, and sporting a pink or blue mop of hair. His teachers at school always had something to say about it.” When he was 16, the Alters moved from Holon to the more cosmopolitan Tel Aviv.

Yariv Alter discovered punk on a family trip to London at 15. “He was really impressed by all the people with colored hair walking around Piccadilly Square,” his father relates. “As soon as we came back, he dyed his hair.”

“We were weirdos in Holon. We stuck out, we were different,” says ex-girlfriend Giladi. “We were interested in drugs, but didn’t try anything; we only pretended to. Yariv took some Tylenol [pain relief] pills, colored them with a brush and we pretended to be tripping. These were all innocent fantasies.”

Music enabled them to live out some of those fantasies. One place they went was the Penguin Club in Tel Aviv. Another was a record shop, as well as Hoffman’s parents’ house, where DXM took its first tentative steps. Alter joined the group when its first incarnation, which played exclusively industrial music, broke up.

Some 100 copies of the “R.I.P” cassette were made, each one containing a chicken bone. Alter designed all of the band’s artwork. “He was very sensitive and empathic, but on the other hand he wanted to shock,” says Postel. “Even the way his room looked then — everything was painted black with ash on the floor. There were no ashtrays; that was the concept.”

Squatting in a psychiatric hospital

Alter joined the Israel Defense Forces but was released soon afterward. He was accepted to the Bezalel – Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, which he attended for a term or two but then left. After that he successfully applied to the Rietveld. Katzir accompanied him on the Dutch chapter of his life. “I actually didn’t understand why he needed a school,” he says. “He was brilliant technically and, in terms of ideas, intellectually. I always thought that in another time he would have been a religious scholar.”

Kaplan visited Alter in Amsterdam shortly after he began his studies there. “He was squatting in what used to be a psychiatric hospital,” he relates. “The Amsterdam chaos nurtured him. That was the baseline state from which he could start creating. You take acid and everything is wild and unsettled.”

After three years in what was then the audio-visual department at Rietveld, Alter was supposed to go on a student exchange to San Francisco. “It was very important to him,” says Katzir. “Yariv was very technologically-minded, and he realized that digital technology was about to change the world much earlier than others at Rietveld did. In that sense, he was a pioneer. San Francisco was the place for him to be in; he saw his future in America.”

However, after arriving in the United States, it transpired that Alter didn’t have all the required documents and was held at the airport. Rather than be detained and go in front of a judge to hear his case, he preferred to return to the Netherlands, devastated.

Katzir says that after Alter graduated from Rietveld, he was identified as someone who could become a big name in the Amsterdam art scene. “But Yariv had a problem with believing in the illusion of stardom,” says Katzir. “As soon as something like that would happen, he’d take a step back. He had fears and even anxiety around new openings.”

Katzir compares Alter to Kurt Cobain, with Nadler adding that the Israeli artist would frequently repeat the Neil Young lyric “It’s better to burn out than to fade away,” which Cobain himself included in his 1994 suicide note. Says Nadler: “Yariv said that to many of his students.”

Alter started teaching at Rietveld in the mid-’90s and, later, also at the school of art and design in Kassel, Germany. Katzir says Alter was “a natural teacher,” while calls him very unconventional. “Yariv faced everyone at eye level, all the time. He saw through you, guided you using your own words. He was completely there for you — or he wasn’t there at all. Many times he didn’t come to meetings. That was part of the deal.

“I think that teaching was a way for Yariv to avoid being an artist himself, of staying an eternal student,” notes Katzir. “He wanted to remain in the playroom,” adds Kaplan. “In the outside world, everything is practical and commercial. Yariv didn’t want to go in that direction. He preferred staying in school, where you can talk about philosophy and conceptual ideas. In that kind of environment, he could be himself.”

‘Human interface’

Margriet Kruyver, head of the audio-visual department at Rietveld, believes Alter was a “pioneer in media art, a real wizard. He saw the potential of it all. He already knew that it would be a very important medium and encouraged students to use it.” In a book published by Rietveld after Alter’s death, Kruyver described him as a “human server.”

“He was kind of a human interface, always connecting people, and connecting students to their own ideas through the technical realization — which at that time was much harder and much more complicated than now,” she says.

A reproduction of a work by Alter.Credit: Reproduction: Meged Gozani

Like Kruyver, Nadler also uses the term “human interface” to describe Alter. “I think that as a teacher he was always a kind of a servant — that’s how he saw his mission. Some students exploited that, and there was something symbiotic in the relationship. They exploited him and he allowed himself to be exploited.”

“He was a mensch; he had a powerful drive to help,” says Katzir, who calls the students who exploited Alter vampires. “They took a lot of energy out of him,” he says.

Both Katzir and Nadler tell of lengthy periods in which Alter would completely cut himself off from the world and disappear. “We could be working together on some project and suddenly he’d lock himself in for weeks, not answering the phone. You know he’s home but there’s no one to talk to. I thought I’d kill him, and then he’d show up with a puppy face and I couldn’t be angry at him,” says Nadler.

The last months

Katzir describes his friend as “very loving and very much loved,” but when everyone learned that Alter had committed suicide, he relates how “one friend said that if he had to wager which one of us would do something like that, it would have been Yariv. He had a dark side to him. Yariv had a Peter Pan side; he didn’t want to grow up. It’s no coincidence that this happened when he was 39.”

“What had happened didn’t surprise me,” adds Postel. “Yariv didn’t want to get old under any circumstance — it bothered him a lot.”

“When I look at all of Yariv’s work, it seems like some kind of Kaddish prayer for himself,” says Kaplan. “Nearly all the songs Yariv wrote for DXM in some way revolved around death.”

According to Katzir, in the last months of his life Alter decided to stop teaching. This may have been connected to a relationship he had with a woman called Henrika, who was his student. Just before the summer of 2007 he went to China to teach for two months, and Katzir said that Henrika left him while he was there. “He had a few rough patches one after the other,” notes Katzir. “Yariv was a very dramatic person. He said Henrika had been his greatest love, and decided to stop teaching. That’s how he was. His desire to teach disappeared — even though it was a big part of who he was. He said he had shamed himself, since she had been his student. He carried a lot of guilt with him.”

DXM - Mydanek

Asked if Rietveld was critical of ties between a teacher and a student, Katzir replies: “As far as I know, it was his feelings about himself, not something that came from the school or from other people. Everyone wanted him to continue teaching, but he decided that it was over. He didn’t consider taking a one-year break.”

Nadler, who was in the same class as Henrika, says the relationship between student and teacher did not evoke any particular responses at the school. “There was no scandal around it. It seemed natural, maybe because we didn’t see him as an official teacher,” he says. “After his death, there was a lot of interest in the topic at the school, but I don’t think [Henrika] was the reason or catalyst for what he did. They hadn’t been together for a long time. His relationship with Dominique [his wife for a few years] was much more stormy, emotional and destructive.”

In August 2007, after returning from China, Alter paid a visit to Israel. Kaplan was very close to him at the time and recalls him being “in distress, under crazy stress. I saw him deteriorating, not shaking it off. He lost touch with reality to some extent, subject to fits of paranoia.”

Alter had stopped smoking weed when he went to China, after 20 years of daily use. It is possible Henrika had made this a condition of continuing their relationship, and anyway he was afraid of using the drug in China, fearing he’d be arrested. “I think that stopping using grass all of a sudden had an impact on his emotional state,” speculates Kaplan.

Postel met Alter four days before he would commit suicide. They sat in a bar in Tel Aviv, together with Kaplan. “Yariv didn’t want to eat or drink. He just smoked cigarettes, perhaps 30 in an hour,” says Postel. “He was self-destructing. He looked crazy. There was some conversation, but there was no content to it since he wasn’t really present. It was clear something wasn’t right.”

Alter. What you felt more than anything else was a sense of great complexityCredit: Reproduction: Meged Gozani

Kaplan, who was about to go to Europe to record, went to meet Alter’s psychiatrist. “I remember the conversation ending with her saying she believed he was not suicidal. This was about a week before he took the leap. There are many details in this story which I have no right to expose,” Kaplan says.

Two weeks after Alter killed himself, Katzir went to Japan for three months and created a beautiful piece of art in Alter’s memory. It was a floating forest in a shape that resembled the letter “Y.” The work was called “Mori Ame” (“Raining Trees” in Japanese), a gesture to a friend who died too soon. “I always thought of Yariv as a fallen tree,” explains Katzir.

A few years later, in 2013, he felt the need to create something else that would honor his friend: He created a work called “Where Thoughts Are,” which is found in the Dutch city of Almere. “It’s a statue of Yariv with his head in the clouds,” explains Katzir. “What’s funny is that this work is located at the Dutch tax offices — and I think it’s the first time he was ever in one.”

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