Ron Arad Conquers London but Worries About His Legacy in Israel

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The Holon Design Museum, designed by Ron Arad, opened in 2010.
The Holon Design Museum, designed by Ron Arad, opened in 2010. Credit: Asa Bruno
Shany Littman
Shany Littman
Shany Littman
Shany Littman

If you happen to be visiting London in August, you can fill an entire day just touring the works of the Israeli artist, designer and architect Ron Arad, who lives and works in the city.

Three of his projects will be exhibited in public spaces in the British capital, in addition to a large exhibition that will open in a commercial gallery. In the meantime, in Washington, the Watergate Hotel — yes, the famous site of the break-in that lead to the downfall of Richard Nixon — reopened its doors last week and Arad’s architectural firm was responsible for the redesign of its public spaces.

Arad admits that he usually works on a number of projects at the same time, but such a confluence of major events is exceptional, even for him. The interview with Arad was held just before his trip to Milan to receive the Compasso d’Oro award for lifetime achievement from ADI, the Italian industrial design association.

It is important that his summer projects in London are experienced as the work of an artist and not of a designer, the title which may have brought him a great deal of acclaim, but also places him into a rubric where he doesn’t necessarily want to stay, he says. “Even if I painted the Mona Lisa, people would write about it: ‘Designed by Ron Arad.’”

The Royal Academy of Arts, London
Summer in the Courtyard: Spyre

Every year the Royal Academy of Arts selects a different artist to plan a work for the courtyard entrance to the building, to be on display throughout the summer. This year, the Royal Academy chose Arad, who is also one of the Academy's 80 members.

The enormous kinetic sculpture, named Spyre, is a sort of rust-colored arm or finger 18 meters tall, divided by joints which rise, fall and rotate through a system of motors and other mechanical workings. Each segment moves at a different speed, so that the sculpture’s unpredictable acrobatic postures are never repeated. It has an “eye” at its tip containing a camera which will constantly film its surroundings. Whatever it films will be streamed to a screen on the façade of the Royal Academy building, and on its website, so that visitors can view whatever Spyre “sees.” “You look at it, and it somehow looks at you too,” says Arad.

Ron Arad with his sculpture, "Thought of Train of Thought," which will be exhibited at St. Pancras International train station in London this summer.Credit: Wallpaper Magazine

“I was interested in doing something that had the ability to move, but whose volume remained intact,” says Arad. “The preliminary idea and simulation I created very quickly, but the construction was a slow climb up a steep mountain with technical, budgetary and safety difficulties. There are a lot of laws and regulations when you place a sculpture in a public space in England.”

The fact that the "eye" is for all practical purposes a surveillance camera required a legal clarification, which cost Arad a potential sponsor: “Someone senior at Google was very excited about the sculpture and wanted the company to fund it, but they reached the conclusion that from an image perspective they could not support a work called ‘Spyre’ [a portmanteau of the words ‘spy’ and ‘spire’] at this time. It was too much ‘Big Brother’ for them.”

Arad says he did not think of anything futuristic when he created the work. “I think that the sculpture is a mix of something from the Middle Ages, along with something contemporary. It is exactly like the Royal Academy itself — a frighteningly traditional place which at the same time aspires to be as contemporary as possible. When you are there, you feel both of these: The desire to be the spearhead of modernism and the weight of [the institution's] tradition.”

Ben Brown Fine Arts Gallery
Summer Exhibition

“Works of love" is what Arad calls the works displayed in public spaces. The summer show at the commercial gallery Ben Brown Fine Arts may be a sales exhibition, but the creation process was similar. Here, too, some of the works were made by various workshops according to Arad’s instructions, and he did not see them until they were completed.

Ron Arad's sculpture "Useful, Beautiful, Love."Credit: Ron Arad Associates

One of the two pieces he describes as the main fixtures of the exhibition are a bench made from a huge cedar tree trunk, measuring two meters long and weighing 900 kilograms, which he bought in Austria, called “Useful, Beautiful, Love.” Before the show, he had only seen a video showing the piece being packed for transport. “It looked like a work of Pina Bausch. The movie is basically instructions on how to ensure the work is moved perfectly from place to place. It's like a dance for me.”

Arad asked the workshop to hew a niche for sitting inside the log, and to carve a phrase in his own handwriting. “The cutting was done on a sophisticated robotic machine, which carves and engraves according to the computer model I made,” he explained. Hidden inside is a mechanism that causes the bench to hover above the floor like a glider when visitors sit on it.

Another work displayed at the exhibition, which runs from June 22 through September 15, is a large map of China that looks as if it's balancing on one point. Completed six years ago, it was meant to be shown in Shanghai at the Expo fair, but the Chinese refused to display it because the sculpture did not depict what they call “Greater China" — Hong Kong, for example, is missing from the map.

St. Pancras International train station, London
Thought of Train of Thought: Terrace Wires

Born in Tel Aviv in 1951, Arad started studying at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem at age 22 and later moved to the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London. One of the first places Arad saw in London was the St. Pancras station, a splendorous Victorian structure. It was the marketplace of the old world, “an amazing space,” he says.

"Spyre," a sculpture by Ron Arad on display at the The Royal Academy of Arts in London.Credit: Asa Bruno

On July 7, Arad will close a small personal circle when he unveils another moving sculpture at the train station, entitled “Thought of Train of Thought.”

“I thought, what do you do in this busy and action- and motion-filled place? I wanted to create something that has movement and direction like a train, but doesn’t move either,” he said. The result is a sort of metal wave hung from the ceiling of the station, as if floating over the heads of the passengers, whose movement creates an optical illusion of lightness, without a beginning or end. In this case too, the development of the idea and the planning was easy and quick, says Arad — but the implementation was a completely different story. The source of the metal was a shipbuilding factory in Groningen, Holland. Arad is now busy with the final touches.

Ron Arad's work "Curtain Call" at the Roundhouse performance club in London.Credit: Asa Bruno

The moment of encounter with the physical sculpture, which is made far from the where Arad and his planner sit, is the true test. “Both at St. Pancras and the Royal Academy I spent so much time with the imaging that I thought I knew it all. But, when it takes shape, if the result is not better than the simulation, then I wasted time. When I traveled to Holland the first time to see the sculpture, I discovered I got more than I deserved. It was a good sign.”

The Roundhouse performance club, London
Curtain Call

The third of Arad’s works in public spaces this summer will be exhibited at the Roundhouse, a performing arts and concert venue. It is a reconstruction of “720 Degrees,” a work that the Israel Museum in Jerusalem exhibited four years ago. It will be on display from August 8 to August 28 in the Roundhouse's main space as part of its 50th anniversary celebrations, with the title “Curtain Call.” The floor-to-ceiling artwork is made of 5,600 silicon rods suspended from an 18-meter diameter ring.

Back in the Middle East

In Israel, Arad is busy with quite a number of architectural projects: The Design Museum Holon, two office buildings under construction in Tel Aviv and a cancer treatment center in Afula that will be completed in 2018.

However, he is very concerned about recent events at the Design Museum, whose unique structure he planned and where he also sits on the board of trustees. The museum’s chief curator, Galit Gaon, is leaving this week; for now, Maya Dvash, the former director of the museum's website, has been named as a temporary replacement. Other senior executives at the Mediatheque complex in Holon, where the museum is located, have also left in recent months. No replacements have been named so far and the exhibition plan for 2017 hasn't been drawn up yet.

The Holon Design Museum, designed by Ron Arad, opened in 2010.Credit: Lolita Brayman

“The museum made an excellent name for itself in the world. It had a dedicated and outstanding staff, which is dispersing, and we don't know how a new curator will be appointed and what the plans are. It's awful," says Arad. "As a member of the board of trustees, I don’t know anything. I found out the city has also decided to interfere and build an addition to the building, but in secret, without asking me. It's strange. From here, it all looks very bad.”

After you placed your first and only sculpture (so far) in a public space in Israel at the Tel Aviv University in 2011, art critic Gideon Ofrat described you as an “artist in exile.” Do you identify with this description?

“The greatest influence is to work in a place where you didn’t come from, which gives you the quality of being an outsider. It could be that this is limiting, but for me it provided mostly freedom. When you grow up in the periphery, you look at the centers with a different intensity than someone who takes thing for granted.”

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