Conversation Between Haimi Fenichel and Shlomit Breuer
Shlomit: The exhibition at Basis Gallery is shown simultaneously with your one-person exhibition at Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art. The museal exhibition features a wide diapason of your sculptural works from the last decade, whereas in Basis you display a large site-specific installation, a light work, and a video work. Even though the leitmotif of both is building and architecture as local cultural-social-political seismographs, the essential difference between their materials, mediums and aesthetics is quite obvious.
Haimi: I’d define the difference between these exhibitions as a difference in temperatures, or alternatively as that between backstage and frontstage. The works exhibited at the museum are saturated with materials, each millimeter of which I had treated with my own hands paying careful attention to every technical detail – you can’t think of anything more romantic and warmer to the touch and the eye than this. In the creation and production of the works exhibited at Basis Gallery, on the other hand, I was assisted, for the first time in my artistic career, by a wide range of professionals. This professional mediation created a distinct buffer that not only chilled my own direct contact with the work, but also affected its visuality and consequently, I believe, impacted the experience of watching it as well.
It’s important for me to note that despite the discernible difference in the “temperatures” of the exhibitions, which finds expression, among other things, in the lush and nuanced materiality of the one, and the “meager” materiality of the other, the content field and imagery remain the same in both. Moreover, in my opinion, an artwork is a synergistic whole that is bigger than the sum of its parts. As such, it also predetermines the choice of its components, namely of its materials, contents, technics, medium, etc. If we take as a test case the Babylon exhibition, we would realize that were I to choose, as I did before, to interfere with and touch each and every object or material – to manually saw and stain the panels, to cut and install the drywalls, etc. – the cold, estranged, uncanny and alienated essence and appearance of the exhibition would have been diluted and, as a result, the intensity of its contents would have been dimmed.
S.: In hindsight, do you miss the direct contact with the materials?
H.: The idea for the Babylon exhibition began to take shape in a period when a sense of weariness and slight tedium of my work rut along with my desire to achieve technical mastery and virtuosity started to gnaw at me. Once I felt that I had exhausted this avenue and was tired of working alone in my studio for days and hours on end, I wanted to expand my options, acquaint myself with different and new practices, scales and mediums and have a go at teamwork.
Of the works exhibited at the gallery, the video work required the least involvement on my part. Due in part to the nature of the medium, a cameraman, a video editor and a soundman were involved in its creation and I joined them in watching the footage on the screen (paradoxically, despite the clearly mediatory role I played in its creation, this work appears to be the warmest, because, in addition to the color, the sound and the motion, it’s more varied and realistic). On the hand, in the carpentry workshop, I was an integral part of the team, albeit at the lowest rank of the professional hierarchy – cutting, sawing, staining, just like any other unskilled worker.
As to your question, not only do I not miss my previous practice, but in a way, there is even a sense of relief, of liberation. But a recurring voice keeps whispering in my ear: “Beware! You’re slipping into dangerous, seductive places of art production, which you’re usually severely critical of. These places might be considered prestigious and seen as a natural stage in the development of any sculptor, but you must always remember that you’re also a romantic, who needs to be in direct touch with the matter and the process. Be careful not to wander into the provinces of the Jeff Koonses, the Anish Kapoors and the Damian Hirsts of the world.” I haven’t got a clue whether this voice will grow louder or softer or will dissipate completely. All I know is that within a rational dosage, a combination of these directions might be right, and since it’s the first time in my long record of artmaking that I take this road, I’m still entitled to benefit from the doubt. I don’t have an ideological problem with doing both, nor do I think that it will compromise my professional integrity. As far as I’m concerned, a tiny hand-carved sculpture can definitely coexist with spectacular production of an installation.
S.: It seems to me that the shift in your creative practice has not only transformed, in some way, your ethical self-perception as a “proletarian” (to use Tali Tamir’s characterization in the essay accompanying the Herzliya Museum’s exhibition) and turned you into a producer of monumental art, but also, almost self-evidently and consequently, has enhanced the alienation of both you and the viewer.
H.: The installation, the central work in the exhibition, focuses on one of the most widespread modes of local urban construction, better known in professional lingo as “saturated construction.” Characterized by dense urban planning, the quintessential aim of which is to find an answer to shortage in available building lots, this mode of construction is guided by other economic and aesthetic considerations than those guiding the building of detached houses. Whereas in the past saturated construction offered a relatively cheap and available housing solution to the socio-economic lower classes, beginning with the 1980s more and more luxurious multi-storey buildings began to dot the local urban-scape. Simultaneously, purportedly prestigious unified housing complexes earmarked for the middle classes started mushrooming especially on the outskirts of big cities.
The installation was conceived within a framework similar to that of the economic and practical rationale of IKEA’s flat pack furniture kits. Thus, the uniform façade of the saturated construction, which is embodied in the work through three façades of an imaginary building, not only simulates generic architecture, but is also tangential to a prevalent economic and practical trend in interior design. The flatness of the work’s components references a DIY kit, the meaning of which is not only an available, easy and simple to assemble unit, but implicitly also uniformity. The installation, then, is a secondhand simulation deprived of any personal trait or characteristic. As such, it wonders whether personal identity characteristics are not perforce blurred in a reality of accelerated construction of generic residential complexes – within generic neighborhoods of generic residential buildings with generic apartments – and whether aesthetic and functional uniformity does not engender, in its turn, uniform thinking.
The exhibition doesn’t pretend to have invented something new, but rather seeks to reflect (perhaps hyperbolically) the reality of a very large segment of Israeli society. Rather than expressing alienation from the work, I believe that the viewer’s impressions will reflect his or her feelings towards the alienated daily existence in residential towers.
S.: The façade motif is unmistakably present in the exhibition. But while its literal meaning as an architectural façade is explicitly structured into the exhibition, its metaphorical connotation of false appearance seems somewhat vague in contrast to the otherwise immediately comprehensible contents of the work. Moreover, it seems to me that the thematic and intellectual layers were more implicit and less declarative in your previous works.
H.: This issue of comprehensibility never crossed my mind during any stage of the planning or the making of the work. In the previous as well as the recent works, I didn’t resolve to be mysterious or enigmatic, and although I can’t deny that the former were clearer in their messages, it wasn’t my aim to be more intelligible. I feel that throughout my career, I have been positioned in the interstice between the pronounced and the enigmatic – in a place that requires the viewer to take second and third looks at the works and that epitomizes for me my desire to keep a wider statement simple without being simplistic.
S.: And why “Babylon”?
H.: This is the title of the video work, which was inspired by the story of the Tower of Babylon. The confusion of tongues of the biblical account is replaced in the video with an infinite tower of the architectural languages that coexist in the local building index. The fragmentary nature of the video editing, which consisted of splicing together images of various residential building façades from all over the country, underscores the work’s fictitious aspect. Moreover, compared with the almost formal, linear reduction, or rather the removal of matter from the installation, this fragmentation also alludes to the divergence between eclectic and generic architectural conceptions.