Israeli Exhibit in Venice Biennale Expresses the Ruin of Culture

Artist Gal Weinstein draws on previous works for ‘Sun Stand Still,’ but visitors may struggle to discern a clear meaning from it all

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"Enlightenment" (2017) by Gal Weinstein in the Israeli pavilion at the Venice Biennale, May 2017.
"Enlightenment" (2017) by Gal Weinstein in the Israeli pavilion at the Venice Biennale, May 2017.Credit: Cloudio Franzini
Shaul Seter
Shaul Setter
Shaul Seter
Shaul Setter

VENICE – In the introduction to his book about the city’s architecture in the mid-19th century, art critic John Ruskin wrote, “Venice is still left for our beholding in the final period of her decline: a ghost upon the sands of the sea, so weak, so quiet, so bereft of all but her loveliness that we might well doubt, as we watched her faint reflection in the mirage of the lagoon, which was the City and which the Shadow.”

Nearly 170 years later, Venice is still in a state of decline. The water overflows the banks, and floods some of the city’s squares and streets during high tide. The northeast Italian city is well past its best – neither the commercial and government hub it was at the start of modern times, nor the artistic center. Ever since, it has been declining with ostentatious presentations of untimely beauty – beauty that is no longer in use; beauty that celebrates its artificiality and demonstrates its atrophy.

That, though, is the source of its strength. Venice is the epitome of the vanity of charm – and charm is always accompanied by atrophy.

Although it doesn’t deal with the city on the water, or with water at all, Gal Weinstein’s exhibit in the Israeli pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale is a site-specific project: a presentation of decline and atrophy, in the city characterized by them.

The Israeli pavilion, curated by Tami Katz-Freiman, offers visitors a strong sensual experience. Even before you enter the gates, a scent draws you in – a smell of coffee, which upon entry into the pavilion becomes a powerful aroma hovering in the dense, stagnant air. Afterward, you are struck by the colors of the space – dark and gloomy on the ground; fading on the walls; colors created by the quasi-natural stains that dot it.

And then you sense the absence in the heart of the pavilion space: It’s almost totally empty, free of objects or images either hanging or standing. Instead, the activity takes place on surfaces – on the floors, the walls, the columns and the supports.

Weinstein, 47 this year, has prepared a peculiar space that generates confusion among visitors, and even occasionally embarrassment. It’s not clear what there is to see here. It has a strong presence of materials, in many shapes, which demand a layered sensual absorption. It offers an experience that can’t entirely be put into words and is possible only through your physical presence in the space.

In an age of reproduced images, virtual museums and familiar systems of meaning – “I wasn’t at the Biennale, but you can see everything on the internet today” an art collector told me recently – there is undoubted interest in such an exhibit.

The exhibit is spread over the three floors of the Israeli pavilion and develops with a gradual upward movement. On the entry level, layers of steel wool in various states create orange and black stains on the floor – images of mold created from coffee grounds. The dirt spreads on the floor, bursts through and grows, creating ugliness at the foot of the pavilion.

On the middle level, which you cannot walk on but can see, it is the moldy substances themselves that are placed on the floor: Turkish coffee poured into polyurethane containers and growing spores of mold. The organic development of the mold is trapped in the orderly path of the containers, and a kind of topographical map is created – or a bird’s-eye view of agricultural plots.

The top floor features a sculpture – a missile-launching pad made of Acrilan and felt fibers. What is created on the pavilion’s surfaces finally gains weight and becomes a body. But this developing movement is not organized with initial growth and ripening, but at the end – and, in effect, after their end: What has grown in the pavilion is the rottenness of the substances, the product of neglect and abandonment. It is the leftovers that grow and develop in the pavilion, creating models of slime.

These are the uncontrollable processes of nature. They don’t represent a decisive act of creation, a specific event. They are the history of a culture that has weakened and atrophied, that has handed itself over to conditions of biological development and creation.

Here lies the exhibit’s paradox: On the one hand, it presents processes without a creator – certainly without the stamp of an artist who will process the material, create a form, turn the material into an image. Weinstein rejects this status and instead creates a hard-working laboratory to keep track of the shapes of the material. On the other hand, the exhibit is clearly located within Weinstein’s body of work as the conclusion and transformation of previous projects, and because it is laden with internal contexts.

The floor installation on the second level, “Jezreel Valley in the Dark,” is an improvement on his earlier “Jezreel Valley,” which was displayed 15 years earlier in the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art, in which a view of the valley from above is made from the synthetic material of colored commercial carpeting. The red tile roof Weinstein displayed in the Kibbutz Gallery and afterward in the Sao Paulo Biennale in 2002 disintegrates and falls to the ground, on the dark stains by the entrance.

The wall work in the pavilion is an enlarged version of “Hula Valley,” with the sun on the ground of the pavilion’s inner courtyard processing the “Nahalal” carpeting.

The Zionist narrative

The exhibition at the Biennale is both an exaggeration and enlargement of the Weinstein corpus – the utilization, disintegration and atrophy of its materials – so that the exhibit works in a dual manner: From one direction, negation of what is understood in favor of unmarked materialism; and from the opposite direction, intensifying connections bursting with meaning, creating symbol upon symbol.

The motifs of Weinstein’s work are clear. They draw from the Zionist narrative: the country’s landscapes; the agriculture; the farming community – everything that is incorporated into his earlier “Nahalal” and “Jezreel Valley.”

The exhibit at the Biennale takes these motifs and expands them until they explode. The exhibit’s name, “Sun Stand Still,” is based on the verse from the Book of Joshua in which, during the conquest of the country, Joshua wants to stop time. After he has already brought about “a great slaughter at Gibeon,” and the war against the Canaanite kings has in effect ended with victory for the Israelites, Joshua pursues the retreating armies. When he is afraid he won’t have time to finish them all off, he orders the sun and moon to stay still, “until the nation avenged themselves of their enemies.”

It is hard to think of a statement that more sharply expresses the cruelty of the conquest of Canaan: a divine miracle that is needed in order to complete the killing of soldiers who are retreating from battle after their defeat. It was because of such verses that the late scholar-philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz refused to read the Book of Joshua.

Gal Weinstein, whose exhibit "Sun Stand Still" is at the Venice Biennale until November 26, 2017.Credit: Courtesy of Rotem Rituv

In this exhibit, though, this motif was especially chosen – a motif that diverts the Zionist mythology into murderous realms. The fields in the valley expose the ultranationalist theology at their core today. And while they are darkened and rotting – causing mustiness, emitting aromas – they reveal Zionism’s moldy aspects.

It’s not clear, though, whether there is even an iota of criticism here. The sculpture on the top floor is called “El Al” (“Upward”) and contains a missile pad mid-launch, wrapped in smoke and fire. The pairing of the national airline, a moment before the activation of a violent military force, and the upward aspiration could have been prepared by enemies of the state. Yet here it is one of the declared symbols of the Israeli pavilion.

The extent to which these symbols are discernible to the exhibit’s many visitors is doubtful. But that is precisely the point: The exhibit expresses the end of the work of culture, its rot and ruin, its disintegration. From the other side of the symbol appears the crude, meaningless material, giving rise to textures and shapes, in a long process of perishing. The atrophy can continue for a long time, long after the official expiration date – an infinite state of decline.

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