Behind Vitraji Vulgarum

 

 

 

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The work Vitraji Vulgarum was presented as part of the exhibition The Left Hand, curated by Menachem Goldenberg and Galili Shachar, at the Genia Schreiber University Art Gallery in Tel Aviv, Israel. The exhibition asked to deal with the image of Satan among Israeli art. The curators looked at the character of Satan not as the demonic entity we all know, but as a metaphor for all that is "out of the right order", or in other words, what is referred to in Jewish mysticism as the Sitra Achra (the "Other Side"): the other side of the devine, the left side; that which is associated with evil and impurity, but also with creativity and sensuality.

The space of the University Gallery is large, spacious and spread over two floors. As soon as you enter the gallery, you will see the huge windows that surround its exterior walls, and give a very specific atmosphere for the entire space. When I entered the space for the first time, in order to find a place for my art work, I decided to ask the curators to let me work on the windows, and create a site specific piece especially for the exhibition. Since I could not work on the windows themselves, I have made the work on large transparency sheets, that I had adjusted to the proportions of the windows. The work was done in red and black glass-paints, and then glued onto the glass instead of being painted straight upon it.

To the question of what to draw on the sheets, I approached after examining the architecture of the place and how it dictates the visitor’s movement within the gallery. The gallery is located right on the border between the university and the street. It has two openings - one facing the street, and the other, located in the other side of the building, facing the campus. Theoretically, you can enter the gallery from the street, without going through the university's official gate, and then out to the campus through the two doors that are located in the other side. That is, the gallery is actually a passage between the street and the academy. Moving from the street to the campus through the gallery requires the climbing of some stairs (from the first floor of the gallery to its second one), and actually walking along the large windows, which start at the bottom of the stairs, and end at the two doors in the floor above.

I have now decided that in this work I would deal with the image of Nachash Hakadmoni, which is the mythical serpent from the Garden of Eden, that seduced Eve and made her taste the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The perspective I adopted on the story and on the serpent itself, is quite different than the way we were all trained to think of it, as a seductive creature that represents evil and is responsible for the deportation of man from paradise. In my own way of reading the story, the snake is the one who gave man the gift of knowledge, and the ability to distinguish between good and evil, i.e. ethics. A Jungian reading of the myth, will equate paradise to the pre-lingual state in which the human being has not yet developed his consciousness. It is a chaotic and boundless state in which man acts as an indistinguishable part of the world around him. It may be "paradise", but one that, without leaving it, you might never know of its existence (If there is no suffering, how would we ever know what pleasure is?). The serpent of Eden brought man to the knowledge, and thus led to his "deportation" from chaos. Knowing good and evil, nakedness, shame and guilt, is a source of great suffering, but also of pleasure and delight. It is the serpent who opens the eyes of humans, and allows them to look, and actually see, the world around them; To be separated and differentiated from the indistinctive and chaotic natural existence.

Nakedness, shame and guilt, in The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, by Masaccio, 1426-1427.

A bipedal snake in The Temptation by Hugo van der Goes, 1470.

From this perspective, I sought to give back to the serpent what was taken from him as punishment by God: "Because thou hast done this, cursed art thou from among all cattle, and from among all beasts of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life" (Gen. 3.14). My own serpent will receive back his limbs and wings, lost to him as a punishment for the gift of knowledge bestowed upon man. I have worked on the sheets according to the way the windows were ordered along the stairs, so that the viewer who wishes to ascend from the lower level to the upper floor, climbs up as he accompanied by the story of the serpent getting back its proper status. For example, in the first window, the serpent  is located at the bottom of the painting, and as the "story" continues up the stairs, it climbs up to the upper parts of the composition. As the reptile climbs up, he gets more and more of the parts he lost due to punishment.

The first window depicts a sort of an expulsion scene. At the center of the composition there is an open book that contains a text quoted from Ro’achem, a book I wrote about seven years earlier (Here you can find a PDF version in Hebrew), and is of great significance within many parts of my artistic practice. The text, which appears as a kind of a gospel that opens the whole story, is written on both sides of the open book. On the right side it is normally written, from right to left (Hebrew), but on the left side, it is written in mirror writing, from left to right. This lets you read, at least part of the text, from both sides of the window (outside and inside of the gallery). Next to the image of the book, on both sides of it, appear two semi-human figures, both pointing at it with their hands. Their feet look like the legs of a beast (a cow or a pig). The relations between man and animal are of great concern to me, and they also serve as one of the main ideas of Ro’achem. The transition between the animal and the human also marks the moment of tasting from the fruit of knowledge, which is, as mentioned, the moment of the awakening of consciousness. Above the image of the book, two angels appear, facing each other, also gesturing toward the book below. The angels' faces were painted in my own image, and, in fact, my self-portrait would appear throughout this entire piece.

First window, detail.

The light bulb from Picasso's Guernica.

Book of Ro'achem.

Above the angels, at the top of the painting, a kind of big eye appears, curved rays coming out of it, and within it there is a light bulb. It was inspired by Picasso's Guernica, and is, in a way, my comment on the political situation in which the State of Israel was at the time (air strikes over the city of Gaza). Underneath the book, and supposedly coming out of it, I have drawn an upside down ladder: its broad base is up, and it is getting narrower as it goed down. On the ladder is a figure of a naked and hairy man (also in my own image), who is supposedly climbing the ladder. But instead of climbing up, he is climbing down, to the bottom of the scene, toward what appears to be a serpentine pile of snakes (an image that has already appeared in one of my earlier works). The whole story, then, begins in descending toward the underworld. It is a narrative pattern that is well known from stories and myths that deal with development, evolution and redemption. It also involves my own personal life experience, which is reflected in this work as well as in many others. It is very important to note that at this point the snake(s) at the bottom of the scene is nothing but a winding tangle of tails and scales, headless and lacking of any other organs.

"Climbing down" the ladder in the present work.

The origin from 2005.

The second window shows two lions standing against each other on what appears to be a wall or an aqueduct. They were painted as a mirror image of each other, making them look as if they are in the midst of a battle. The images of the lions were inspired by Aryeh Yehuda (the Lion of Judah), which serves today as the symbol of the city of Jerusalem. Their faces were painted like my own, thus they also constitute a kind of self-portrait. This confrontation, between one and his own self, lion vs. lion, Jerusalem vs. Jerusalem, also constituted a kind of response to the political and social situation that prevailed then in Israel, and actually continues to this day. At the bottom of the painting, you can see that the snake has begun to climb up, on one of the pillars holding the aqueduct arches. Above the lions’ fight scene appears a sun that is unclear whether it is setting or shining. Below it, in the background of the entire scene, is a wasteland and some burnt trees.

The second window from the outside.

The symbol of the city of Jerusalem.

In the next window the serpent has already completed his journey up the composition. In fact, here there are two snakes, both of which now have a head with a face (in my own image, of course), and they function as a frame for the present scene, as they surround it while swallowing each other's tail. The motif is inspired by the ouroboros, the ancient symbol of the snake eating its own tail, used to represent chaos and the initial unity, as well as the cyclical nature. Inside the frame is a figure of a woman who looks like the Madonna, holding two babies (a kind of a double Jesus). She sits on a stage, and around her head, as well as around the heads of her twins, a black aura. The image of two twins, or of a double messiah, is also drawn from the book Ro’achem: The main character kills his twin brother (while both of them are still infants) before he grows up to become a prophet. The motif of killing the twin brother that appears in the book, in some way, represents the occasional need to eliminate your inner double (which inhibits or competes you), in order for you to move forward and grow. Here, in the present work, it is used also to enhance the duplication and duality represented in the entire window. The two snakes, one ascending and the other descending, form a sort of ouroboric circle while twisting around two poles bearing the logo of the Order of the Unclean, also one of my most significant projects (Here you can find a PDF version of the book Lexicon of Principles of the Order of the Unclean).

The Madonna with two babies, the third window.

The Ouroboros.

The snake in the next window had already grown wings, and it is now standing behind what appears to be a great ziggurat, a tower of Babel, which starts at the bottom of the window and ends in its top, as if drawn to infinity. The building looks like a temple, at the bottom of which are two groups of worshipers, standing on either side of the gate. The myth of the Tower of Babel and the connection it represents between the earth and the sky, between humans and gods (or the motivation of humans to become gods), has also been linked to the story of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, as a metaphor for the rise of human consciousness. One of the things that mattered to me in this painting (which was inspired by an image of a ziggurat I found on the net), was to emphasize the entrance to the temple, making it a more feminine and less phallic motif. Here you can clearly see that the winged-serpent's face was shaped in my own image (from my pre-bearded times).

The Tower of Babel. The image that inspired the fourth window.

The serpent above the Tower of Babel. The fourth window.

The next two windows are on the upper floor, surrounding the exit doors that lead to the university campus. In the right window, I painted the image of the serpent after it had already received back its hands, legs and wings, and it now looks like a human covered in scales of a reptile. Two such figures stand on both sides of the door, holding together a kind of a ribbon that quotes a sentence from Ro’achem: “And you shall be like leeches to knowledge”. Towards the end of the book, the main character, Ro’achem, submits his teachings to a group of followers, giving them a kind of a new Torah, a new way of living life. This Torah speaks, among other things, of an uncompromising desire for knowledge, curiosity and doubt. In the context of the present work, this idea refers to the location of the gallery-building, and to the way the work leads the viewer, through the serpent (the giver of knowledge) to the gates of the academy. Since the character of Ro’achem was created as a kind of an alter ego of me, and since his teachings present my own philosophy, it was important for me to unite my own character with that of the serpent. In the next window, which encompasses another exit door, I painted the tree of knowledge itself, naked from leaves and fruits. It wraps the doorway as a tangle that must be crossed before passing through the gates of the world of knowledge.

And you shall be like leeches to knowledge, 

The Fifth window.

The sixth window.

The atmosphere that the work has inspired on the entire exhibition space was mesmerizing. Throughout the day, sunlight penetrated into the gallery through the paintings, coloring the entire space in red, constantly changing as the sun moved. At night, the work "switched" to the other side of the building, when it could only be viewed from the outside, thanks to the artificial light that lit inside the gallery, and the darkness that covered it from the outside.

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