Work of Art: A Life Project Whose Theme Was Death

Five years after Gideon Gechtman's passing, the Israel Museum is holding a superb retrospective of his work.

There is a lesson in the Gideon Gechtman exhibition at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem: This is how to mount a superb retrospective. Aya Miron, curator of the show, which runs until April 5, displays great intelligence in managing Gechtman’s life project. Writing on the museum’s English-language website, she observes that his work actualizes “the possibility that artworks, whose survival potential is ‘greater than life,’ would be a means of perpetuation – a kind of mausoleum designed to preserve the body of his works after his death.” Miron has mounted a comprehensive exhibition that includes central works from all periods of the artist’s life. At the same time, she maintains precise proportions between key works and those that are more secondary in character. The space, too, is handled dramatically, without surrendering to a cult of death beyond the boundaries set by the artist himself.

If the exhibition contains sentiment or kitsch, a ritualizing or fetishization of bereavement and mourning, these are all themes that were saliently explored by the artist. As linchpins of his art, they are on display without a trace of curatorial imperiousness or populism. Imbuing an exhibition with the right dose of emotion is never simple for curators, and in this case is particularly complex. It is almost impossible to curate a posthumous retrospective that will constitute a fair requiem for an artist who was constantly – obsessively, some would say – preoccupied with death: his own future death and the death of his elder son at the age of 26. Miron also wisely avoids excessive narration of Gechtman’s biography and artistic development.

Gechtman’s artistic lifework was a preparation for death, an orientation toward death and its description and documentation, indeed the creation of a mausoleum for the concept of death itself. “Gideon Gechtman will not die again,” Miron writes in the exhibition catalogue, thereby also setting the appropriate secular tone.

Visitors unfamiliar with the entire Gechtman oeuvre will be able to acquaint themselves with it deeply and intensively, for Miron has actually reconstructed three of his exhibitions in their entirety: “Exposure” (1975), “Hebrew Work” (1975) and “Yotam” (2000). Many other projects are also represented in part. Beyond the powerful experience that floods viewers in the presence of death’s representation – which in Gechtman’s case is tautological and by the same token, retrospectively indifferent and theatrical – those who already know his work will benefit from a reconsideration made possible by the juxtaposing of his art from the mid-1970s until his death in 2008, aged 66.

The exhibition makes it possible to discern development, change of tone and an emotional range. There is a marked transition from action and body art and from texts (documentation of the shaving of his body hair for medical treatment in the “Exposure” exhibition, the creation of brushes from his and his family’s hair, the fake death notices of the 1970s and 1980s), in which Gechtman is present himself or in name, to synthetic theatrical installations that deal with the accessories of illness and bereavement. These include death carts canopied with colored marble or simulated marble, burial urns, still lifes in the vanitas style, stone pillars and other ritual elements of commemoration bearing an indirect or “everyman” presence.

The extensive display also allows for the discovery of close connections between Gechtman’s earlier and later work. One dominant feature of his art that becomes apparent in this way is the presence of beds. There is the anonymous Arab worker’s mattress strewn on the floor, photographed in blurred fashion alongside the real mattress on which Gechtman slept for a week in the museum itself while creating the 
“Hebrew Work” installation. There is the 1985 exhibition devoted to beds, which dealt in part with the disparity between the object itself and its photographed representation. Finally, there is the “Yotam” installation, whose subject is the artist’s late son. These are always single beds. Mostly they are hospital beds, consisting of mattresses, bars and charts, with medical instruments close at hand.

Similarly, the breach between “warm” human and nostalgic materials, such as black-and-white home photos, and “cold” and industrial materials, such as stainless steel valves, medical instruments and marble surfaces, is bridged by serial sculptural sequences. Thus, a 1972 work consists of a display box containing four pieces of rope at different stages of fraying. “Archive” (2003), a large wall installation consisting of vertical burial niches, is a free reproduction of the cemetery in Portbou, Spain, where the philosopher Walter Benjamin committed suicide in 1940. Each niche contains a vase, a floral arrangement, a pitcher, or a bowl of fruits and stones, with the same equalizing system of classification between original and substitute that one finds in works from the start of an artistic path.

After the “Exposure” exhibition, Gechtman, who was then 33, had death notices printed up in which his family supposedly announced his death. These were posted around his home in Rishon Letzion and published in daily newspapers. Miron, the curator, notes, “This was a kind of general rehearsal for his anticipated death, or perhaps an act of projection as a means of managing anxiety. As with many of his works, this action appeared in many artistic embodiments, as part of his trenchant and sometimes chilling research into the connections between life, death and the definitions of a work of art.”

Eli Posner/The Israel Museum