O My God
Interview with Assi Meshullam,
by Meital Raz
Timeout Tel Aviv, 2015
Translated from Hebrew by Etan Sanders
Photo: Yuli Gorodinsky
Decay, bodies and biblical motifs dominate the work of the artist Assi Meshullam. After leaving the gallery that represented him and suffering threats from far-right activists, he tells why he gave up his dream of becoming Damien Hirst and why he does not mind getting money from the government of Netanyahu.
I met Assi Meshullam for the first time six years ago during his brilliant exhibition “Iscariot”. Like many others, I was captivated by the magic and intensity of his works, which are a rare bird on the Israeli art scene. Aesthetics of violence, impurity and body fluids - all of which drained later into his ambitious project, "The Order of the Unclean", a biblical story centered on the figure of "Ro’achem", a religious leader, half human, half dog. Meshullam (40, born in Kiryat Haim, Israel) holds a BA in Art and Archaeology from the University of Haifa. He teaches art at the same faculty and is studying for his Master's degree in Biblical Studies. These days he participates in an exhibition at the Tel Aviv museum as one of the winners of an art prize from the Ministry of Culture of Israel.
This is not the first time that Meshullam has won a prize and received institutional recognition, but he continues to maintain the aura of the underdog. Perhaps it is because his work does not try to get in line with the ruling aesthetic trends, and maybe the fact that he has never played ‘the game’ - three years ago he left the prestigious Julie M. Gallery that represented him and served him as a prolific incubator for seven years - a brave step that only few artists would dare to make.
Congratulations on the award. How does it feel to receive money from the Netanyahu government?
[AM] “Limor Livnat (i.e. the previous Israeli culture minister) retired two days after I received the prize, so I would like to think it’s because of me", he laughs, adding a more serious note: "People asked me if I feel it's the right time to receive an award from the State of Israel. And I ask - has there ever been a good time to receive an award from the State of Israel ? I do not agree with what the government represents but I do need money and therefore I accepted the prize. I express my views without inhibitions and have no problem saying to Limor Livnat what I think of her and of the government that she was part of until recently. Every month the IRS is ripping off half my salary, so why not get some money back?"
When we first met, you talked quite romantically about the "Order of the Unclean". You claimed that you invented a new religion and you were convinced of its ability to change the world.
[AM] “At that time I had a messianic fervour, thinking I was bringing something new into the world. If I was more of a businessman, perhaps I would have succeeded in raising the hype around it. I fantasized about throwing copies of 'Ro’achem’ at bus stations for people to gather and read, or pasting posters on the street walls. It is not much different than Scientology. What made Ron Hubbard a guru? He got a huge amount of followers in that way.”
In the past your work was much more blunt and rude. In recent years you seem to get much more complacent.
[AM] “Those (older) contents still interest me but my aesthetics have changed, partly because I've got older and also because of the process I go through as an artist in the studio. I think the change was gradual and natural; it's not that one day I got up and said no more worms and maggots, and now I do ‘clean’ things. Things were cleansed slowly. Dealing with blood and defecation has passed sublimation. So rather than sculpting corpses I am giving talks on human sacrifices.”
It seems that nowadays only provocative art is getting the interest of the public. A few weeks ago it was the “khamsahs” exhibition at Sapir College, and two years ago it happened to you when unknown assailants threatened to set fire to the Shop Gallery where you presented. Don’t tell me you didn’t enjoy the attention.
[AM] “In retrospect I may have enjoyed it, but at first I was shocked and scared. It started when we discovered that a far-right site wrote about the exhibition and then, a day or two later, someone splashed gasoline near the gallery. It was scary; they could have hurt people over there. This event was a turning point in my work because I internalized the complexity of presenting art in the street (among others, Assi displayed in the front window of the gallery Chanukiahs hanging upside down and a sculpture of a half man and half beast). For these people it was as if I sculpted the golden calf, as if I put Idolatry in the Temple. For them, I did not do art, but the thing itself. It changed the whole concept of my work. I realized that the boundaries between the sculptures and what they represent is completely blurred. This seam between inside and outside - between the art world and beyond, the gallery and the street – very much interests me today. "
Don’t tell me you didn’t think that your work will create such a shock effect.
[AM] “My motive was not to shock. I want people to recognize the beauty of those works, because I like the aesthetics of decay. I wanted people to see it and ask themselves what art can be."
Meshullam's prize seems to represent a refreshing change by the establishment towards graduates of Israeli art schools. Until recently this field was dominated by the Bezalel junta and the Midrashah (Beit Berl) camp, and anyone who was not a graduate of those institutions had trouble making their mark. Meshullam was one of the first graduates of Haifa University to be embraced by the establishment. He explains that the current wave of success of graduates of Haifa University's art faculty lies in the fact that they offer something different, and points also to the MFA program that has already been running for several years. Assi admits that when he finished his undergraduate studies and was asked where he had studied, a lot of faces twisted when they heard the answer, but he always took pride in the institution where he was educated.
I realize that you really have quite a group of raving fans, artists who go after you and talk vocally about your influence on their work.
[AM] “I do not know such a fan group. I see many young artists that I connect to by their work and I can accept the idea that I may have been among those who influenced them. There are also artists who were my students, so obviously there is an impact. I was also influenced by my own teachers."
Despite all the institutional respect that you get, you still did not have a solo exhibition in a large museum. Don’t you think these exhibitions are a necessary part of an artist’ progress?
[AM] “What does it mean - an artist's progress? Once I wanted to become Damien Hirst, but I grew up. I realized that I will not be, and that's fine. I do not examine my progress on the basis of international parameters. Everything is part of an artist’s progress; also doing an MA in Biblical Studies is progress. Even a cool progress I would say. I learn about the Babylonians and about the Assyrians. I see presentations of Babylonian and Persian figurines and when I return to my studio it comes out through my work. In my opinion, the exhibition in Shop Gallery was far more important than any exhibition where guests come, say 'Wow, how nice !..’, drink cheap wine and after that the gallery stands empty for a month. Of course I would love to exhibit in a museum but I'm not chasing it. I believe that I will still create important projects in the coming years. And if nobody will remember me, then they won’t. After all, it’s only art.”