In the weeks leading up to the 57th Venice Biennale, the Israeli artist Gal Weinstein developed a mild phobia surrounding grocery shopping. The expiration dates on packages served as a regular reminder of the dwindling amount of time that remained until the deadline for completing the work that was to be displayed in the Israeli pavilion at the Biennale.
“I’m always looking and saying, this will expire after the Biennale. But as time went on I saw an increasing number of items that had more time than I did. Even dairy products,” he said on the eve of his trip to set up the pavilion at the Biennale, which opened over the weekend.
Although Weinstein managed to get the exhibition ready in time, before the sell-by dates on his dairy products, the Israeli pavilion is completely covered with mold these days.
In the exhibition, called “Sun Stand Still,” Weinstein uses motifs that are familiar from some of his previous works: mold, rust and images of mythological sites in Israel. It includes a large mural, “Moon Over Ayalon Valley”; “Jezreel Valley in the Dark,” a floor installation made of coffee that was poured into molds to create a bird’s-eye-view landscape of Israel’s Jezreel Valley and allowed to mold; and a sculpture, “Moon Over the Ayalon Valley,” depicting the clouds of missile launches.
The pavilion was curated this year by Tami Katz-Freiman. The exhibition catalogue was designed by Magen Halutz. In it there are texts by the poet Eli Eliyahu, the psychologist Ofra Eshel, the Biblical scholar Prof. Yair Zakovitch, the Austrian art historian and curator Sabine Schaschl, the American curator Anne Ellegood and Katz-Freiman herself.
The dimension of time was important to Weinstein already when he presented his proposal to the Culture and Sports Ministry committee that chose the artist who would occupy the Israeli pavilion. It is no coincidence that the work is called “Sun Stand Still” — based on the verse from the Book of Joshua in which, during the conquest of the country, Joshua wants to arrest the passage of time.
There are actually Israeli landscapes here that are becoming moldy, in a pavilion that belongs to the government. It’s impossible to ignore the political aspect of the work.
“Actually it is. I’m ignoring it,” says Weinstein, with a laugh. “I actually ignore many things.”
But you deal with very sensitive places and events in terms of the biography of the Land of Israel.
“All the images in these works are part of my artistic biography and are identified with Israeli culture — the Jezreel Valley, Nahalal, the smoke with the missiles. Here they receive a variation in their material and their appearance, they become filled with expressions of the ravages of time. But the motivation for the works come from a different place. That doesn’t mean that the political dimension doesn’t exist in the work, but I don’t think in that way,” Weinstein says.
“Initially, I come to the studio in order to play with materials. I examine what kind of rust I’ll get from steel wool with Coca-Cola, and what kind from steel wool with Diet Cola. After that comes the building of the content. Not that it doesn’t exist, but sometimes it’s like Botox, an addition.”
Upon further reflection, Weinstein develops stronger reservations about the attempt to define the work.
“My art deals with the gap between verbal expression and the physical presence of the things. To say ‘Israel is becoming moldy’ is the most simplistic metaphor possible. But to see patches of a liquid that was delineated and suddenly becomes moldy in different colors — that becomes a physical experience that in my opinion is stronger than the verbal expression,” he says.
“I think that the political here, if it exists, lies in the gap between the physical and the verbal, or between the symbolic and the concrete. It’s like the difference between knowing that someone exists and knowing him personally. In the final analysis, what’s important is people’s responses.”
Weinstein says that at first he felt a certain annoyance at the need to submit a new proposal for the pavilion, after proposing a project that was rejected in previous years.
“I wondered whether two years later the first proposal had expired. Am I now supposed to propose something new for Venice? This expectation for something new, as though what I thought two years ago is no longer relevant and now I’m a different person — I didn’t understand that farce,” Weinstein says.
“So I was happy to propose the same thing again, but to introduce the dimension of the time that had passed, in the form of mold that grew on the works. It connected to things that usually interest me, as well as to a megalomaniacal sense of control — to stop time and to decide how to give it presence.”
The second motivation for the type of project he proposed is related to the appearance of the Israeli pavilion itself, which was designed by the Israeli architect Zeev Richter in 1952 and has not been changed since.
“When I saw the pavilion from the outside it looked bizarre to me. Time had stopped. Is that Israel? It’s as though someone is walking around with a passport with a photo from the age of 16 and doesn’t understand why people in the airport don’t recognize him,” Weinstein says.
A denial of time
“The presence of the pavilion is an expression of a denial of time. I experienced a huge gap between the display and the reality, between the experience of Israel today and the utopian, global, modernist ambition in this building. And in general, how does a Bauhaus building in Tel Aviv look if it doesn’t undergo [renovation under Israel’s National Master Plan 38, allowing the enlargement of certain apartment buildings in exchange for adding reinforcement against earthquakes] and how does it look there, in Venice.
“The work begins when you see the building from the outside, and then you enter and you’re supposed to experience a gap between the external promise and what you see inside, which is examples of neglect — perishability, disintegration, lack of maintenance,” Weinstein says.
How is that related to Joshua?
“The International Style of building, also known as Bauhaus, began here before the founding of the state. So there’s a reference here to two returns of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel — the first by Joshua, who was ordered to destroy everyone who was here, and the second with the [waves of immigration] of the early 20th century, and the attempt to build the State of Israel as part of Western culture, rationalism, a Western branch in the East. And neither worked, either way. I think about those two moments. One is more contemporary, and the other is mythological, two situations of return in which identity is redefined.”
Weinstein learned that he was selected to create the project representing Israel in the Venice Biennal around a month after the decision was made, due to delays in the approval process of the committee’s choice, in the labyrinths of Culture Ministry bureaucracy. From the moment he was informed, he had only 10 months to carry out the project.
Weinstein worked in three different studio spaces, with a team of assistants. At the same time, he was also raising the money that he needed in order to complete the work: The allocation from the Culture Ministry, 1 million shekels ($278,000), was insufficient.
Weinstein, 46, is a graduate of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem and he teaches in the Multidisciplinary Art Department of the Shenkar College of Engineering, Design and Art, in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan.
“Being young is not about age, but rather to relevance. By accelerating time in the works, through the ‘aging’ of the image, suddenly a work becomes new, relevant. Artists confront the question of insignificance and irrelevance whether or not they want to. The usual question is whether I’m working on something new, there’s always an expectation of renewal, and that’s content that enters the work. Instead of opposing it I prefer to work with it,” Weinstein says.
You are probably constantly being asked whether it doesn’t bother you that you’re representing the country.
“They ask, and the answer is no. I wasn’t chosen for a Foreign Ministry training course for foreign service candidates. I worked with what interests me.”
Where does your choice of topography come from?
“When I began to create carpets, something about them reminded me of a bird’s-eye view of the landscape. The most clichéd association I had was with the Jezreel Valley. So in effect my first encounter with the image came from the encounter with the material. And then I was attracted by a choice of images that in my generation were already banal or clichéd — it’s not as though we stood across from the valley and were moved,” Weinstein says.
But you’re from Ramat Gan, when did you even stand across from the valley?
“That’s exactly the point. It’s a landscape that’s familiar to me through postcards and photo albums. My father’s family was among the founders of Nahalal. As a child I would go there. So I had a somewhat up-close familiarity, but also a lot via postcards and photos. But my initial thought was related to an association from the material. I was interested in working with one-dimensional images, images that have lost any emotional dimension, and to turn them into a physical experience, but out of synthetic materials. It’s something like preparing a gourmet meal from canned food. I wanted to play around as well as to excite and to touch. To convey touching in both senses of the word, to transfer it from the sentimental to the physical.”
Why out of synthetic materials?
“I’m attracted to materials that lack charm and warmth. Unpleasant. It’s like when you shake someone’s hand and he has a weak handshake. Limp materials. And on the other hand the works are tactile, they have contact. I wanted to turn the landscape into something you can feel, but not through materials that come from the landscape but rather from materials that created a sense of ambivalence, so you won’t know whether it’s hot or cold, alive or dead,” Weinstein says.
The desire to touch the landscape reminds Weinstein of Apostle Thomas, as he was depicted in “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas,” a painting by the Italian Baroque master Caravaggio. After the resurrection, Thomas stretches out his finger to touch the stab wound in the chest of Jesus, in order to feel whether it was real or not.
“This movement says that the eye is not sufficient. Part of the experience that I am looking for in my work is the touch of the finger, to touch in order to understand what the eye is seeing. It is a situation of constant doubt that interests me in the experience of the viewer, or of the baby, who wants to experience the world through touch. A desire to touch in order to solve the doubt,” Weinstein says.