Its been 31 years, but Oded Hirsch still remembers precisely where he was in the kindergarten when his mother told him that his father had been in a road accident. I was 5, and I remember that it didnt interest me because I was busy playing with a dog at that moment, says Hirsch, during a visit to Israel this month.
His father, Yoel Hirsch, was critically injured in a truck accident in 1981, which necessitated him being away from home, in rehab, for two years. When he returned he was a different man, paralyzed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair. His impaired mobility and other disabilities posed a daily challenge to everyone in the household, and left a mark on the young Oded. Wisps of pleasant memories of the father who used to stroll along the kibbutz paths with him or kick a ball around on the grass were completely wiped out.
One winter a few years ago, I came up with the idea of photographing my father, in his wheelchair sunk deep in mud, says Hirsch. An allusion to his inability to get everywhere and, of course, also of my need to stress that we came from the muddy earth of the fertile Jordan Valley. It was winter. We left our kibbutz, Afikim, which is near the border with Jordan. I dragged him out to the open field near the border fence and planted him in the mud. I set up the camera and then an Israel Defense Forces patrol showed up all of a sudden. One of the soldiers yelled to us, Are you out of your minds? Get out of here. In March 1997, a Jordanian soldier shot schoolgirls who were touring the area, killing seven of them.
I couldnt give up the photo shoot that easily, Hirsch recalls, but meanwhile a whole fiasco was unfolding. From the other side of the fence, Jordanian soldiers were peering through binoculars and reporting back on the radio. I told the soldiers, Just give me a minute, and I took the pictures. And then, at that moment, I understood for the first time that I was fascinated not just by still photography but also by all the activity and interaction around it. For me, this was an act of art just as valuable as the still image itself.
Since 2006, Oded Hirsch has been living and working in New York, where he earned his masters in fine art from Brooklyns Pratt Institute in 2008. His multidisciplinary works, all photographed in the Jordan Valley, were recently presented in Manhattan at the Thierry Goldberg Gallery which also represents him and received rave reviews.
However, Hirsch is barely known in Israel. In 2008 he had a photography exhibition at the Museum of Israeli Art, Ramat Gan, and he recently made a professional connection with Galia Bar Or, a curator and director of the Museum of Art, Ein Harod. The two are working on an exhibition for next year.
Films, not video art
In his video art pieces, Hirsch combines cinema and performance elements, but he prefers to describe them as films. He carefully documents the behind-the-scenes of his complex and spectacular productions, that over time have come to include numerous participants. Appended to each film is another film documenting the installation and, he says, the show that exists for the sake of producing the movies ... Im interested in the process as much as the final edit. This is why the documentation of how it was done is as artistically valid as the final piece.
His four films all surprising in their aesthetics and their personal, social and political significance were shot in the region where he was born (in 1976). His first film, from 2009, is called 50 Blue like the name of the label marking the Hirsch familys clothing in the Kibbutz Afikim laundry. The film originated with an image he had in his mind of a man in a wheelchair, sitting in a tower surrounded by water.
For 10 minutes, cameraman Eran Baraks lens follows a young man (the directors brother, Eli), who is pushing a wheelchair in which an older, disabled man is sitting (the directors father, Yoel). The chair struggles to make its way toward a high cliff, its wheels get stuck in the mud and it flips over. After an arduous struggle, the man in the wheelchair is led to the edge of Lake Kinneret, where a 10-meter-high guard tower stands. The young man ties the wheelchair to a rope and, together with another eight men in yellow plastic raincoats, they hoist Hirsch, Sr., to the top of the tower, where he remains alone.
Hirschs second film, Tochka 2010)), follows a group of laborers toiling to prepare the ground for the construction of what turns out to be a large bridge to nowhere. Tochka is Russian for a settlement point and the name of a Soviet Hashomer Hatzair youth movement kibbutz that was founded in 1925 in Beit-Gan, near Yavneel. It became a permanent community in 1932 but it wasnt until 1939 that the founders gave up the name Tochka and renamed it Afikim.
Hirsch says the film depicts the boundless effort to achieve an unattainable utopian goal. Theres something awkward about the kibbutz idea, he says. Admirable totality. People abandoned houses and families in Europe in order to build a new utopian world. The implementation of this totality included some peculiar practices.
Israeli video artist Oded Hirsch
The idea that people didnt have to specialize in any one occupation, for example, that a person could tend cattle, be a welder and also a babysitter, or that the children are part of the community, he continues. They didnt encourage marriage, because it violated the equality. They took the utopian idea of equality to crazy and wonderful extremes. When I was planning Tochka, I likened the film to a person out walking in nature who is supposed to get from Point A to Point B. He comes across a small crevice and instead of just skipping over it, he builds a huge construction a bridge that leads nowhere. This construction symbolizes pipe dreams.
Detached from the land
In another 2010 film, Habaita, the camera records a group of 20 kibbutzniks, women and men in their sixties, dressed in work clothes, standing on a boat that appears fixed in place on a lake. The expression on their faces is determined, they gaze straight ahead, and seem oblivious to the surroundings. This work is named after a novel by Assaf Inbari, who is also an Afikim native.
If a person is a product of his childhood landscape, Hirsch explains, in the film I wanted to create an opposite situation the person as detached from his childhood landscape and people that are stuck. Above them is the blue sky, and all around them are the waters of the Kinneret, but they arent moving anywhere. There is hardly any movement at all in the frame apart from a light ripple on the water. This detachment, says Hirsch, returns them to their initial condition as immigrants.
Its a little trite to keep talking about the shattering of the kibbutz dream, he says. I see it as a dream thats no longer relevant. You cant update a dream that was solidified in the early part of the last century. The update it is currently receiving wont last. The kibbutzim have become construction sites. Retirees take mortgages and expand their apartments, but their children live in New York or Tel Aviv and wont come back to the Jordan Valley. This is the flight from the dream and the detachment that I depict in an abstract way in the film.
The most recent film, Nothing New, produced this year, is based on the 1962 short story The Way of the Wind by Amos Oz (from the Where the Jackals Howl story collection), and the cast was comprised of approximately 200 kibbutzniks from the Jordan Valley area. The hero of the story, a paratrooper who grew up on a kibbutz, jumps out of a plane with his comrades as part of a display for Independence Day, Hirsch says. He jumps last and gets tangled up in some power lines. The kibbutzniks run to the spot and his father, who has a classic Zionist activist look, tells him, Jump! Jump! But the terrified paratrooper is unable to meet society and his fathers expectations to be brave and bold. Humiliated, he puts a hand out to touch the wires, is electrocuted and dies.
The film relates to something that I felt as a teenager. The burden of expectations that I grew up with resonated with Ozs story. The son who doesnt fulfill the fathers expectations. In my films, the solution that society proposes is always an absurd solution.
The Mad Lift
We found Hirsch at the welding workshop at Kibbutz Regavim, dressed in work pants and boots, and standing in front of a large silvery metal chamber. The artist, who will soon become a father for the first time, spent a few jam-packed days here earlier this month, pushing ahead with preparations for his first environmental sculpture, to be shown from September 15 at the Liverpool Biennial International Festival of Contemporary Art, in England. More than 60 artists from around the world will be presenting their works there, including Doug Aitken, William Kentridge, Sophie Calle, Mona Hatoum, Martin Parr, Fischli and Weiss, Thomas Hirschhorn, Gilbert and George, and many more; quite an impressive list.
Curator Lorenzo Fusi, who saw Hirschs films at Mass MoCA (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art), invited him to participate in the biennial. Fusi saw my films and challenged me to think a little differently this time and show an outdoor sculpture at the biennial, a piece of public art, Hirsch says.
In October 2011, Hirsch made his first trip to Liverpool, the northwestern port city best known as the home of The Beatles. Undeterred by the gusting wind and driving rain, he walked all over the city, admiring the red brick buildings. In 2004, Liverpool was declared a UNESCO world heritage site, and Hirsch, a cinema lover, was astounded to see dozens of abandoned movie houses there. Small shops and shopping centers had also closed in the wake of the construction of a fancy new downtown area. The city underwent a major facelift costing millions when it was declared the European capital of culture for 2008.
Theres a huge area [Liverpool One] that became a pedestrian mall filled with shops, Hirsch says. In this escapist-capitalist space they also opened a big multiplex. The vast new mall drained the city of its special character, and life was drawn into the glittery new area.
I decided I wanted to create a work that would respond to the new social reality that was created there, he adds, and in my head I had these images of a cityscape getting out of control. From there I got to the idea of a rebellious elevator, that bursts from the earth as if from some underworld beneath the shiny shopping center. This new architectural phenomenon just fascinated me.
The sculpture, called The Mad Lift, cost NIS 200,000 and includes a metal elevator that Hirsch built at Regavim. Electronic contamination that makes its presence known in the middle of the mall area, he explains. The idea led me to Metropolis, the 1927 film by Fritz Lang, in which the city of the future goes out of control, and in one scene sewage pipes burst into an apartment. In the center of the sleek shopping center, he will display his sculpture of the burned and scratched elevator with broken tiles around it; the elevator doors will tremble as if struggling to open, and a faint neon light will flicker from within.
In Hirschs films there is no dialogue. He says there is no need. The groups in his films, as in life, act as one, according to an inner logic that seems absurd to someone from the outside, but to the collective all is clear. There are no questions and no distractions from the common effort.
How does one of your films come into being? Where does it start?
First comes the imagery. Then I write a detailed script, a storyboard with a list of the shots, the filming locations, the filming angles and the frames. When Im filming, Im concentrating on directing and I work without a monitor. I entrust the task to cameraman Eran Barak, and I am always pleasantly surprised.
Hirsch says his films derive from a need to respond to a social problem. He likes to pry into the collective memory of the kibbutz movement and explore where the community ends and the individual begins.
Hirsch considers his first film, 50 Blue, his most personal. It is rooted in his fathers accident. Yoel Hirsch was driving a tractor-trailer, hauling chemicals for the glue industry, when he lost control of the brakes. When the truck ran off the road, one of the tires exploded and it flipped over. Yoel was trapped in the cabin and, in the process of being extricated from the vehicle, his spine was severed.
Yoel Hirschs father was of Czech descent and his mother was born in Poland. He was born and raised in Tel Aviv. His father had a shop on Allenby Street that sold fountain pens, and the family lived in a two-room apartment on Gilboa Street, across from the Schocken family. Yoel shared a room with his sister, the composer-songwriter Nurit Hirsch.
As a child he was considered something of a rascal without much of a future. His mother pressed him to attend the Tichon Hadash High School, and he was registered there, but no more than that. His sister Nurit, meanwhile, excelled in her studies and went on to attend the Academy of Music and to join the IDF entertainment corps. I volunteered for Sayeret Egoz [reconnaissance unit], says Yoel. Thats where I met Gila, who came from an old Safed family and went to school in Afikim.
We got married and moved to the kibbutz, he adds. I didnt have a higher education and it bothered me greatly. The most important thing to me was for my three children to get to study, no matter what. The eldest, Boaz, is working on his doctorate in history. My second son, Eli, finished a masters degree in Arabic literature, and then he got into computers and now he works for a Swiss media company. And Oded, who studied photography, found his calling in filmmaking. None of my children has a television at home. We all give precedence to reading.
According to Yoel, it was his mother, Leah, Odeds grandmother, who is responsible for the animating spirit in the Hirsch family. At age 40 she enrolled in law school, and Moshe Dayan reputedly copied off her in the final exams. She had a law office for some years, and when she got older, she became a yoga teacher. At age 80, she completed a skydiving course and jumped out of a plane with one of her grandchildren.
Oded Hirsch describes a difficult childhood in the aftermath of his fathers injuries. After the accident, Dad spent a year in the hospital and another year in a rehabilitation center, and when he returned to the kibbutz my parents divorced. My father had been an adventurer, a very active and dominant person, and after the accident his morale went way down. He and my mother separated. In the kibbutz its easy ... You load your things on a hand truck and move to the other side of the lawn.
I was 7 and I remained with my mother. My two brothers, who were 13 and 15, lived with the kibbutz children. Hirschs father remarried two years later, to a woman from the kibbutz named Daphna, and they had a daughter. His mother, Gila, did not remarry. Everyone gets along great now, and that includes my mother and father, his second wife Daphna, and their children. They all take part in my productions .
When Oded Hirsch was 14, he moved to the childrens quarters, which was called the suburb and was a society like the one in Lord of the Flies. Since my father was very frustrated by his lack of education, he pushed us very hard. When I grew up, it wasnt the norm to push kids to study. At most, you went to work in the banana fields. I was a rebellious and impudent kid, and I wanted to work in the cattle barn. I was angry at him. I thought, Whats he doing sitting in that wheelchair, he should get up and play soccer. I was lugging around this big sack of resentments, and, as I got older, it eventually blew up.
My mother was a steady presence, he adds. Neither happy nor sad, but stable. She was my anchor. My father is more capricious. When they wanted to throw me out of high school, he came to the school every day and sat there in his wheelchair outside the classroom. When we moved to another classroom, he would roll behind us in the wheelchair. Talk about being mortified. He did all he could to keep them from throwing me out. He knew that if I left the classroom I would run into him. He was very stubborn, and thats how I was forced to study.
Hirsch says that he has no solid memories of his father walking. The bigger I got, the more I looked down at him, because he was in the wheelchair and I was getting taller. I had this recurring dream in which I lifted him up and placed him on a big boulder, or on a tower, and looked up at him from below. 50 Blue grew out of a desire to deal with the baggage of the past and with the pain of the child who was ashamed of his father. Its not easy to live in a closed and claustrophobic kibbutz society. As I child I felt different. Everyone elses fathers were like big heroes who could walk while my father, whom I saw as a hero, wasnt perceived that way by the collective. The film reaches a peak when he is hoisted up in his wheelchair to the top of the tower.
This scene arouses different feelings. At first it seems that you are preparing to hang him. And then it turns out you are leaving a man in a wheelchair at the top of a tower, where theres nothing around and he will never be able to get down.
Its the sacrifice of Isaac in reverse. Im interested in the tension between the individual and the group, so in the film theres a situation in which a group of people hoist him up to the tower. Essentially hes dependent upon them, and they are not human but mechanized characters. I try to take the heroic ethos of the pioneer and to make it ridiculous to the point of being absurd.
If the symbolic going up to Hanita in 1938 was a heroic act of settlement, and they were photographed carrying poles and ascending the mountain to establish a tower and stockade settlement, then Im taking the tower and sticking it in an absurd location and, instead of legendary pioneers carrying poles, my brother is rolling our father in the wheelchair along the muddy paths. Much ado about nothing.
You werent risking his life?
Not really, although there was an element of risk. Im interested in live action, in doing something in real time in which there is an element of danger. Before we lifted him up in the chair, I sat there in his place and they lifted me to make sure that everything was okay. I sat there in his place and it was pretty frightening. Its like bungee jumping. Very scary, but pretty safe.
A campus like a kibbutz
After finishing high school thanks to his fathers close scrutiny, Hirsch did a year of national service at a boarding school for juvenile delinquents, in Kiryat Bialik. I was going to fix the world, he says casually. I came out of the kibbutz and I felt like a salmon leaving the river for the first time and swimming in the ocean. I had no idea what a Mizrahi or an Ashkenazi was, and all of a sudden in the boarding school I found out.
For his military service, he served in military intelligence in Lebanon for four years, until 1999.
Today Im not happy about that period, he reflects. I sat there in Marjayoun and we gathered intelligence. We did whats called field intelligence. Maybe one day Ill do a piece thats related to my service in Lebanon. Im a political person and my art is very political. It attests to the complexity of things and refrains from expressing a strong view. I try to focus on the problem and not the solution.
You fled from here to America.
Its comfortable for me to be far away. Yes, I ran away because of my big ambitions. I felt that I could achieve them more fully there.
After the army he traveled around South America for several months but says he didnt touch drugs: Once was enough for me. It was terrible. I have to be in control. After returning to Israel he spent three years working for the Israel AIDS Taskforce. He lived in Beer Sheva for two years, managing the branch there, focusing on the daily care of Israeli and foreign homeless AIDS patients. I was young and idealistic, Hirsch says, and more than once I dragged people in off the street and brought them into the apartment we had there to shower.
Hirsch then moved to Haifa and continued with the same charitable work. One day he passed by WIZO Academy of Design and Education in Haifa, and saw a sign advertising an open house. Up to then hed only done amateur photography and was planning to enroll in college to study social work. At that moment he decided to apply to the colleges photography department. When I look at the project I did a series of informational photographs on how to avoid AIDS infection its ridiculous, he says now.
Micha Kirshner was the head of the photography department, where Simcha Shirman taught alongside Sheffy Bleier and Reuven Kuperman. I came in as a blank slate, and since Im the kind of person who doesnt do things by halves, I decided to completely devote myself to it. For the first two years I only photographed in black and white and never left the lab, and then I decided that I wanted to really go for it with all I had. At the end of the third year I went to New York and chose to study at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, because the campus there reminded me of the kibbutz.
As a student he took on any job that was offered him, in order to support himself and pay the high tuition fees. I worked as a mover, I put flyers in mailboxes, I worked in clothing bazaars. My wife and I had some small savings and her salary from her job at the embassy paid our rent and living expenses. I financed the first film out of my own pocket, and for the second I obtained funding from various organizations. Were talking tens of thousands of shekels.
An army camp in the living room
At first, Hirsch concentrated on studying photography in an attempt to come up with a visual language. He worked with a heavy Linhof camera and large negatives, and photographed people including his father, as well as himself posing in their small apartment in Queens in various absurd situations.
He chose to combine his civilian New York life and Israeli military experience when he built a guard post inside the apartment with real sandbags. Amazingly, Liran, his wife of 12 years who works at the Israeli Consulate in New York and is in charge of promoting Israeli art and literature cooperated with him when he transformed their apartment into a filming site and built a military tent camp in it. For the earth, Hirsch traveled 100 kilometers outside the city and lugged the sandbags, weighing 30 kilos each, up the stairs to their fourth floor apartment.
He went onto the roof of the building opposite and photographed into his own apartment, wearing a helmet and with his face covered in military camouflage colors: like an ambush in Lebanon, in the middle of Queens. He says the educators at the Pratt Institute were very enthusiastic about these works.
Since his photographs are narrative-based and contain elements of performance, the transition to film was a natural one. And Hirsch was already a movie lover who felt his work was influenced by Russian filmmakers like Aleksandr Dovzhenko and Vsevolod Pudovkin. He also likes the American documentarian Robert Flaherty and German director Werner Herzog, as well as Federico Fellini and Akira Kurosawa.
Another element that has influenced me are the Renaissance landscape paintings Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Hieronymus Bosch, and also the works of Jean-Francois Millet, he adds. In the art world, he admires the American multimedia artist Doug Aitken, and the video works of Matthew Barney, and of performance artist Marina Abramovic. Among Israelis he feels a close affinity to the work of video artist Guy Ben-Ner.
Hirsch owes his Stateside success to The New York Times art critic Roberta Smith, who was the first to recognize his talent. In the summer of 2010 I took part in a group show with 10 other artists at a small gallery [the Lesley Heller Workspace] on the Lower East Side in Manhattan. Smith happened to come in, saw 50 Blue and wrote a glowing review that opened a lot of doors for me. I was invited to show my work at Mass MoCA, the Queens Museum of Art, and elsewhere.
Reviews in New York Magazine and the Village Voice were also very positive and a year ago he started working with the Thierry Goldberg Gallery on the Lower East Side where many galleries have been opening in recent years, positioning themselves as a bolder alternative to their swankier counterparts in Chelsea. The gallery is owned by the husband-wife team of Israeli Ron Segev and Frenchwoman Claire Lemetais.
Youre a big success in New York, but here nada.
I wrote to a number of curators at museums in Israel and to gallery owners, but they didnt show any interest. Success isnt something commercial, but rather the crystallization of your artistic vision. The artistic lifespan is short, just a few years. Right now Im at my peak, but Im aware that before too long something will go wrong. There are endless examples of artists who reached a peak and then started to recycle themselves, or to do works that were not as good.
Selling well is not success, he concludes. You know what, I wouldnt mind not selling anything, as long as I could continue to make meaningful works. By the way, I didnt run away from Israel. My wife and I are building a house on Moshav Beit Hillel. Well be back.
The family business
When Yoel Hirsch notices the look of discomfort on his sons face, he immediately gets nervous. He says the situation forces him to almost blindly obey every request of the artist, his youngest child. Im a talkative type who likes to laugh a lot and nobody could believe that, under Odeds orders, I looked so stern in 50 Blue and was so silent as they dragged my wheelchair through the mud and raised me up. I have nothing to do with art, Im just doing the job. We are all Odeds servants. We work for him 24 hours a day.
Oded Hirsch describes working with his father as a successful family business, but his father puts it in more picturesque terms. For 50 Blue I was asked to prepare a 10-meter-high iron tower. Later, when the tower was ready and Oded was away in New York, we didnt know where to put it. Not to mention that the authorities dont let just anyone stick a tower that tall in the waters of Lake Kinneret. I got a truck to transport it, but in order to get the tower from the beach into the water, my wife, Daphna, had to bring a tractor, and somehow we pushed it in there.
Oded arrived back in Israel for the filming. When they lifted me in the wheelchair with a cable up to the top of the tower, I wasnt afraid, says Yoel, who calls himself an adventurer. Even though Im classified as 100-percent disabled, over the years I traveled with my children all over the world, and I also did a jeep tour in Peru for a month with Oded.
Before the filming of Nothing New, he asked us to gather 200 people to take part in the film. He came from New York, gave talks at kibbutzim and handed out flyers, but only a few responded for the film. My wife managed to convince 200 older folks to be in it, including some in their seventies and eighties, and one fellow who was 90. It was hot and somebody had to organize a rest tent with refreshments, so I was also the cook. Everything is based on communal connection and goodwill.
This May, Oded came to work on the elevator sculpture. I barely saw him for the 10 days that he was working and sleeping at Regavim. Twice I went to the welder in Tiberias and brought perforated iron rods to him in Regavim. On Friday he was on his way to us in Afikim after giving the elevator four coats of paint. On the way, when he was around Wadi Ara, he kind of flipped out. On Sunday he was supposed to fly to New York and now it was Friday night and suddenly the color didnt seem right to him. When I saw that expression on his face, I got nervous. But on Sunday evening the sculpture was set with new rods and before he flew he said that he was pleased. So now Im happy.
In August 2010, Roberta Smith, The New York Times tough art critic, visited the group show where Hirschs films 50 Blue and Tochka were showing. She called them the best films in the whole exhibition. Israel as a place of strange vistas and fraught history is intensely present in the work of Oded Hirsch, whose task-oriented videos are among the shows most haunting, Smith wrote. Shot on or near the kibbutz where he grew up, and cast with people who live there, both works depict oddly pointless physical feats in spectacularly isolated landscapes. In his 50 Blue, (2009) he pushes a wheelchair holding his paralyzed father in a yellow slicker up muddy paths to a rocky palisade that evokes the battle of Masada. He then takes his father to the edge of the Sea of Galilee, where six more slicker-clad men hoist his father, wheelchair and all, to the top of an old watchtower.
Citing the films unique aesthetic, Smith went on to say that a medieval yet timeless mood prevails; the fragile predicament of Israel is enacted in terms that Bosch or Bruegel would recognize. Hirsch also received glowing reviews from the art critics of the Village Voice and Artforum magazines.
In April this year, he had his first solo show at the Thierry Goldberg Gallery. It was reviewed in New York Magazine by Jerry Saltz, an influential figure on the Manhattan art scene. Saltz described the experience of watching Nothing New as captivating and was wowed by the richness of the film. Hirsch evokes our eternal need to build towers of Babel to touch the gods, he wrote.
Karen Rosenberg reviewed the show in The New York Times and praised Hirschs mysterious narratives in which he manages to pay homage to his kibbutz roots while invoking larger and less predictable models of collective action, from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street.
Lorenzo Fusi, the curator who selected Hirsch for this years Liverpool Biennial, said the following in an interview conducted by email: When I saw Oded Hirschs work for the first time, I was amazed by the palpable, warlike tension that exists within the silence that he was able to convey through his work methods. Most of his imagery alludes to progress, or to action that is hard to predict.
The viewer doesnt know which way things will go and this uncertainty generates a sense of anxiety, Fusi added. There is also a cheerful aspect to his work, and often a clearly representational element appears too.
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