Gal Weinstein: Discovery Through Constrictions
A Dialogue with Etty Yaniv
Gal Weinstein, Murray-Darling Basin, 2022 (detail). Courtesy the artist. Produced in collaboration with the Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT) at the University of
New South Wales renowned for pioneering the transformation of waste for use as a new generation of ‘green’ materials and products. Commissioned by the Biennale of Sydney with assistance from Artis. Installation view, 23rd Biennale of Sydney, rīvus, 2022, The Cutaway at Barangaroo. Photography: Document Photography.
In Gal Weinstein’s visual world, the concrete overpowers the symbolic. Most viewers with an inkling of the Israeli zeitgeist would be able to instantly recognize the potent cultural cues in his imagery, but the impact of Weinstein’s multi-faceted mixed-media work derives from its materiality. It is our engagement with the tactility, shape, color, and form of familiar materials—the way they inhabit the space and age—that slows our gaze and prompts us to experience the tension between opposing forces, absorb them simultaneously, and digest the artwork as a total experience.
Weinstein, who was born and resides near Tel Aviv, used steel wool in many of his earlier works to depict iconic landscapes in Israel such as the Jezreel Valley—the inherent color, texture, and history of the material coalesce into an instantly recognizable map-like bird’s eye view of the landscape of the Jezreel Valley, a potent symbol from biblical times, to the early Zionist period, to the present. In Weinstein’s work, steel wool presents co-existing yet opposing characteristics: It is an industrial product but also resembles facial hair; it is adhered to the surface with glue but also invokes a sense of organic growth. Weinstein not only captures the essence of the landscape but also sparks contemplation on the interplay between industrialization and nature, decay and growth. By actively immersing ourselves in these contrasting sensory, tactile, and verbal aspects of the artwork, we become open to complex new perspectives. Weinstein weaves material, form, and language into conceptual conundrums that are profound, concise, layered, highly visceral, and often visually stunning. Object and idea seem to be stationary and stable in our minds but are, in fact, subject to the ongoing process of change: images of the past change and their traces are only hinted at in the present.
Weinstein increasingly revisits his earlier images by changing their materiality—for instance, Jezreel Valley in the Dark (2017) evolved from Jezreel Valley (2002)—synthetic carpets are replaced by a carpet of mold made by pouring coffee and sugar into patches which grow organically. There is tongue-in-cheek at play here: Jezreel Valley as an artwork became iconic in Weinstein’s oeuvre, and his act of metamorphosis references change not only in the collective ethos, but also in his own art over time. Sun Stand Still (2017), Weinstein’s powerful site-specific installation which extended over three floors of the Israel Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, explored the process of transformation on a much larger scale—colonies of mold spread rampantly and, as a whole, it came across as darker and more emotive than his previous work. In this ambitious installation, Weinstein related directly to works he had created over the past decade in dialogue with the architecture of the building, as curator Tami Katz-Freiman put it. Significantly, the mold spores did not just infest a neutral domestic environment or exhibition space, but grew rampantly in Israel’s national pavilion in Venice, giving rise to the following question: What does it mean when a pavilion representing a state becomes a mold-covered space, where the danger of toxicity might pose a health hazard?
The fact that you can find the materials Weinstein uses in any local hardware or grocery store adds to their significance. Vibrant fragments of synthetic rugs, metallic-gray and bronze steel wool, brownish-red Coca-Cola or dark brown coffee stains interact to create textures, colors, and processes that evade simplistic interpretations. These familiar and ubiquitous materials embody entangled dualities—alluring and repugnant, soft and abrasive, organic and synthetic—and serve as sensory catalysts that stimulate a wide array of associations ranging from femininity and masculinity to life and death. In Weinstein’s work, form combines with materiality to represent this state of in-betweenness—two dimensions transition into three, renderings become photographic, and synthetic fibers evolve into mold.
New York, New York, 2023
Gal Weinstein, Murray-Darling Basin, 2022 (detail). Courtesy the artist. Produced in collaboration with the Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT)
at the University of New South Wales renowned for pioneering the transformation of waste for use as a new generation of ‘green’ materials and products. Commissioned by the
Biennale of Sydney with assistance from Artis. Installation view, 23rd Biennale of Sydney, rīvus, 2022, The Cutaway at Barangaroo. Photography: Document Photography
Etty Yaniv: Materiality appears to be very important in your work—wall-to-wall industrial carpets, MDF, steel wool. In an extensive published e-mail conversation with Jerzy of Michalowicz Building Materials, you compare the act of turning particles of wood refuse into a solid block with a defined shape and function to the act of draining a swamp and turning it into “productive” land. Each entails “a transition from something useless, shapeless and indefinable, into something utilitarian, effective and distinct.” How do you choose materials in relation to an image? Can you elaborate on this process?
Gal Weinstein: Sometimes an image prompts the selection of material, whereas in other cases, the material itself triggers the choice of an image. In the process, I use trial and error to find new opportunities and different ways of molding the appearance of the materials. Sometimes, I find new methods out of the need to address concrete issues in existing works. A solution to a functional problem often inspires a new method that I will use in further artworks.
I usually utilize industrial and mundane materials, as well as various states of the same material. I don’t paint the materials—the surface and raw feeling of the material is significant for me. The advantages of a certain material are exposed through limitations. The limitations and constrictions of specific materials lead me to find new possibilities that wouldn’t be revealed if I had total freedom. The curiosity to discover a surprising presence of a material is an impetus, an ongoing interplay between controlling and letting go—an attempt to engineer the material in a way I intend, and on the other hand, to embrace unexpected reactions caused by chance.
Gal Weinstein, Backwards, 2016, Installation view, Gordon Gallery Tel Aviv, photo by Elad Sarig
EY: In your show at Gordon Gallery, Backwards (2016), you archive recycled fragments of your own work. Tell us about this installation and how you think it relates to Sun Stand Still, your site-specific installation in the Israeli pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale (2017).
GW: In both installations, there is a process of dismantling. In Backwards, the dismantling is more literal—I deconstructed and dissected existing installations and works from my artistic past that were of the same scale and recognized as important works in my oeuvre. Using them as raw materials in new works became an important part of the work itself, as did the new installation that looked like an interior design store with samples of decorative panels and flooring. It was in these types of stores that I purchased the materials for my works Jezreel Valley and Hula Valley. Another important aspect was the venue—it was displayed at Gordon Art Gallery, an established gallery in the Israeli art field. The installation was like returning to both the physical and cultural origin of my works.
In Sun Stand Still, the dismantling is more an issue of manifestations of time and the decay caused by mold and dampness. I placed more emphasis on the look of neglect, decomposition, and decay of the works. The look of dereliction is “more natural” in that it is easier to recognize with the effects of time—indifferent to any decision, and passive. In this work the venue was important as well—the Israeli pavilion in the Venice Biennale is a Bauhaus style building that was erected in the 1950’s and represents Israel till today.
Gal Weinstein, Jezreel Valley in the Dark, May 2017, Polyurethane, coffee and sugar, Installation view, Sun Stand Still, Israel Pavilion, Venice Biennale, photo by Claudio Franzini
EY: Sun Stand Still is highly visceral, invading the space and our senses with a sense of atrophy. Can you elaborate on the genesis of this installation, the idea, and the work process?
GW: The work grew out of a previous project submission to the Venice Biennale four years prior. While I was debating whether to work on a new presentation, I thought of the idea of offering the same submission as if it had mutated over time. Meaning the “wounds of time” will decide the look and content of the new submission and not a new idea. In this respect I wanted to emphasize the constant state of change that happens over time and isn’t under my control. Decay and erosion are also processes of growth and renewal.
The implementation of the project in a very short time span called for solutions that weren’t my usual work process. Usually, I would work on these things alone and in a dynamic and iterative process. In this case, I had to translate my work process into a set of simple manual instructions to be able to work with a large crew of assistants and finish the work in time. In my opinion, there is something interesting in the limitation that forces you to change your work habits and convert them into more verbal communication so that others can understand and perform them. The interest lies in the fact that it puts you, the artist, in front of a mirror regarding certain mystifications that are part of your process, and this limitation lets you notice them and maybe develop new habits.
Another aspect had to do with the fact that Sun Stands Still was planned as a site-specific installation that was designed specifically for the Israel Pavilion in Venice and basically “re-builds” the pavilion inside itself (covering all the walls and the floors). On the other hand, the actual production had to be done in Tel-Aviv. This created a unique situation that required planning and consideration that emphasized certain absurd parts of the work—creating wall coverings that are usually decorative and covering them with images of mold, dampness and rust.
Through the whole process, it was only possible to work on fragments of the work without knowing what the whole will look like, trying to imagine the whole by looking at the specifics, and trying to imagine the full installation using models and simulations. In this regard it was like walking in the dark—at each step you try to focus on the nearest object, zooming in without being able to zoom out. The first time I saw the installation in its entirety was when it was fully installed in Venice. This is the first time it became an artwork and (for a while) stopped being a creative process.
EY: Your short video, Enlightment (2017), is part of Sun Stand Still. It captures a fire burning through an image of a human brain, or rather revealing the brain as it pushes upwards, as if tracking the enlightening process. How do you see the relationship between your work with materials and your video work? And how did this video work within the site-specific installation?
GW: The work Enlighment was created using cotton wool and fire. The video is a documentation of the burning of an image that was created using cotton wool in real-time. As a starting point for choosing materials in my work, I usually pick the same materials that I work with in my installation (fibrous materials). I used the materiality of the cotton to burn and char, changing the color of the cotton as part of a chemical process.
Another aspect is the aspect of control: timing the material and controlling the movement of fire in lines and areas where I placed the cotton wool. We usually expect fire to expand and move freely and without control. This artwork goes against our expectations and instincts and confines the fire to a specific pattern. This way I “cool” the performative and expressive aspects of fire.
In this work there is also a paradox of control. The installation Sun Stand Still deals with the megalomaniac idea of controlling time by attempting to create the illusion of controlling the effects of time. The title of this work is a metaphorical expression regarding light, focusing on the time of revelation, the enlightenment of thought. What was first in the dark and not understood is now in the light and easily understandable. Enlightenment revolves around our longing to control, showcased through the absurd undertaking of taming fire and directing it along a specific path. The image that is created or exposed via the fire (the work was filmed in the dark) also disappears once the fire goes out, meaning that the same mechanism that creates the image is also the one that makes it disappear.
Gal Weinstein, Enlightenment, video projection, Sun Stand Still, Israel Pavilion, Venice Biennale
EY: Let’s look closer at Sun Stand Still in context of Israeli art history. In her review “Moldy Walls: Gershoni 1980 / Weinstein 2017” published in the journal of art Erev Rav, Tali Tamir compares your installation in the Israeli pavilion with a 1980 site-specific installation by Moshe Gershoni. She says that although both of you work with walls and floor, creating an “internal alternative” in contrast to the modernist building, each of you enters from a different starting point. Gershoni works directly on the walls, enhancing the neglected physical state of the pavilion “theatrically”— water damage on walls is sealed with thick red paint, creating a bleeding vein-like path. You stage the whole space by mixing synthetic and organic matter using walls brought in from your studio mounted with steel wool. What is your take on her observation and how do you see your work in the context of previous and current Israeli (and international) art?
GW: I find the connection made by Tali Tamir between Gershoni’s Venice exhibition and mine very interesting. Tali turned her gaze towards the past exhibition at the pavilion and used the architecture of the building as a starting point, sharpening some of my ideas about my work. While working on the installation I didn’t think about the connection to Gershoni’s work, but her article definitely showed some interesting connections between the works and highlighted a continuum between the works at the pavilion. As with any juxtaposition, they highlight similarities and differences, in this case the differences between the approaches and decisions that we both took. Tali Tamir clarified the differences between Gershoni’s approach to working directly on the existing walls and my approach to covering them completely.
The idea of coating the walls with “mock-walls” that simulate mold deals with the way we are used to thinking about coating surfaces, where we usually use this method to create a decorative look over a bare surface. In my case, I coated a finished surface with a surface that simulates natural dereliction like mold and dampness. My decision came from my interest in creating artificially the demeanor of natural processes of decay. To try to create an illusion of the ravages of time using materiality and not by highlighting the existing reality. This may be because I’m interested in drawing a clear distinction between art and life, or because of my inane motivation to control time by creating the illusion of its passage.
There are certain themes of Israeli art that can create a context for my thoughts about my works, almost like a contrarian. I can think of a term like “Want of Matter” (an Israeli version of Arte Povera) as one that helps me define what my work is not. Or, as another example, the built-in tension between the terms of Art and National Patriotism and the way I sometimes create “Patriotic Art” as an attempt to defy art and certain artistic values that developed during the times of the “New Horizons” movement (in the 1940s). There are certain examples of previous generations in Israeli art that I think are very tied to my work on the one hand, while on the other hand I try to distinguish my work from theirs. I will try and describe this by using opposite examples and generalization. An artist like Gidon Gechtman on the one hand and an artist ilke Moshe Gershoni on the other-—one symbolizes analytical works and the other expressive works. Another example is Mordecai Ardon vs. Moshe Kupferman-—with the extremes of symbolism vs. concreteness. Rafi Lavi’s plywood surface vs. the “real truth of the material” in Yechiel Shemi’s work. The names and terms I mention represent well-defined territories and this allows me to resist them and carve out my own artistic path in a clear way.
Gal Weinstein, Persistent, Durable, and Invisible, 2017, bronze wool, steel wool, and glue on MDF, Installation view Sun Stand Still, Israel Pavilion, Venice Biennale, photo by Claudio Franzini
EY: In that article (“Moldy Walls: Gershoni 1980 / Weinstein 2017”), Tali Tamir also sees your work in Venice as a bold reflection on “mid-life” work. What are your thoughts on that in retrospect, and how do you see your work evolving from that self-exploration?
GW: Changes over the span of time that are demonstrated in my works are best seen by the way I re-use works from the past and how they become the starting point and raw material for new works. It interests me to continue returning to the same image, so that the work itself becomes like a physical body that changes through time. In a generalized manner, in my more recent works I am dismantling the prominent images that defined my works in the past, shifting towards a more primal approach that emphasizes the raw essence of the material I employ. In addition, some of the materials I presently work with are a more tangible decomposition of the materials that I previously used. The images are still present, but they are fading and degrading over time. Like, for example, the images of Jezreel Valley in the Dark: the image itself is of Jezreel Valley cast in coffee and mold, not made from carpets. I think the relationship I have with the image is a little like a piece of gum that is stuck to your shoe—you try to get rid of it, but part of it still insists on staying there. The process of decomposing the image allows me to enter a relationship with abstract art, but abstract art that is the result of the dismantling of an image that is part of my artistic biography, not abstract art that is self-defined by a goal within itself. This also allows me to recycle my previous work as both physical and ideological materials in a new work in a way that doesn’t separate the physical aspects of the work from its content.
Gal Weinstein, El-Al, 2017, wool, polyester wool, steel wool, Styrofoam and graphite, Installation view, Sun Stand Still, Israel Pavilion, Venice Biennale, photo by Claudio Franzini.
EY: Yigal Zalmona’s text on your earlier work at the Israel Museum (2010) describes it as “familiar landscapes” you transform into “concept and myth.” What is your take on this description, and can we look closely at your Nahalal landscape in that context?
GW: The image of Nahalal holds great significance as an iconic and symbolic representation in Israeli culture. Nahalal was the first workers’ cooperative agricultural settlement in Mandatory Palestine established in 1921. It is instantly recognized in the Israeli imagination as a symbol of both modernist and Zionist ideals. Nahalal carries a profound sentimental value invoking cherished memories of an ideological past and the realization of the Zionist dream. In the Hebrew language (as in English) the word “touching” conveys a metaphorical sense of deeply moving emotions—to touch one’s heart, as well as a literal act —physically contacting an object. In my work Nahalal I aim to take the expression “touching” and transform it from the metaphorical into the literal and physical. I seek to enhance the temptation to physically touch the work by using synthetic rugs, creating a paradox between the colorful vitality of the work and the sterile materiality of the material itself.
Gal Weinstein, Jezreel Valley, 2002, wood, carpets, felt, artificial turf and PVC, 20 x 1900 x 1500 cm, Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art, photo by Ilit Azoulay
EY: Many of your other major works deal with sites of historic significance for the early phase of Zionism. The Hula Valley is both a real place and an idea with a Utopian flavor deriving from its transformation from an area defined by “swamp and malaria” to “a National Heritage Nature Reserve and park.” In our conversation, you addressed the centrality of the Zionist narrative in your work. How do you approach this narrative in terms of process, material, and source material?
GW: I find the Zionist narrative fascinating due to its dual nature. It involves a concerted effort to forge a collective identity that breaks away from the diasporic past, while simultaneously justifying our presence in the land through a connection to our historical and mythological roots, dating back to biblical times. All this, while also identifying itself with modernist western ideals of the 20th century. These conflicting attempts are at once bold and absurd.
Also, in the context of art, I strive to revisit moments when Israeli art was enlisted to serve the Zionist vision. These were periods when Israeli art didn’t stand on its own and was perceived as inferior. My interest might have involved an element of defiance against the international art values I was exposed to during my art education, but beyond this defiance I was genuinely driven to create works where the concrete manifestations—material, scale and shape—can create an experience that transcends the symbolic content of the images. For this reason, examining art that was recruited for an ideal is a valuable litmus test for exploring the relationship between these two paradoxical intentions: pure art for art’s sake, vs. art for the sake of ideals—and to see how this art affects the viewer. I remember my experience of reading the poems of Uri Zvi Grinberg, a prominent right-wing Israeli poet—I felt detached from the meaning of the poems, but astounded by the poetry itself, a sharp discrepancy between what I knew and what I felt.
Gal Weinstein, Hulah Valley, 2005, carved MDF, 1862×1380 cm, Helena Rubinstein Pavilion, Tel Aviv Museum of Art, photo by Ilit Azoulay
EY: How has your work evolved since your show in Venice?
GW: The work in Venice used the entire structure of the pavilion. The viewers entered a work that contained them. There was less emphasis on the various details in the installation as details and more on their reference to the work as a whole. After Venice, my focus on the work processes was more on the details, and less on the environment. This way of thinking arose out of an interest in separate pieces rather than a single environment.
I continue to use previous works as raw material physically and in the sense of their content for the new works. I focus more on the experience of time and less on work in space (as an installation).
Gal Weinstein, Untitled, 2004-2015, MDF, d. 118 cm, courtesy Gordon Gallery
EY: Tell me about your work these days.
GW: A concrete question I was occupied with when I was working on a project that was not fulfilled, was how to reproduce a work using means other than photography or printing. I wanted to replicate a certain work but also to keep a material surface. I started thinking about the possibility of using molds and casting. While working, I thought about trying to use steel wool.
Through a process of trial and error, I examined how it is possible to work with the steel wool as a "casting material." Operations of sanding and corroding brought up a new material horizon that is based on and derives from the steel wool. You can say that for me, it is a traditional material. The new use of the material also changed its definition. Rather than ready-made, it became raw material from which I prepare the work. Instead of buying rugs, I started making them.
The literal description: "Wool casting" excited me. This expression attributes to steel wool the characteristic of a liquid, both as a material (wool) and as part of the casting process itself, even though these concepts contradict each other. In addition, I thought of iron casting not as a process involving the melting of a solid into a liquid and subsequent solidification but rather as a process that resembles the act of felting. Another aspect was related to the connection between a body that is made of iron but appears to be a textile work.
A rug piece that used to be an original work changed its purpose and became a functional model for a mold. A change of purpose highlights the aspect of time which also allows for a visual echo of past work in a new one. Layers of past and present are experienced simultaneously, and not one after the other. The work retains a resemblance to the original work, but is different from it, like a child who is perceived as different from his father, but the resemblance betrays that he derives from him. In 1998, I made a small collage work, a portrait consisting of my father's eyes and my nose, mouth and chin. The title of the work was a literal description of the operation of cutting and joining: "The eyes of the father." In 2010, I made a series of portraits of myself, all based on the same photographic source of my driver's license photo. All the portraits were original, but at first glance, the viewer could think it was a print. I called the series: "Looking the same." The title can refer to the impression of a viewer who meets the work for the first time and reacts with disappointment to the visual monotony and the lack of change, but it also brings up an association of something we may say as a compliment when meeting someone we haven't seen for a long time and reacting to the fact that their appearance has not changed. A kind of mock victory over time itself.
Gal Weinstein, who lives and works in Tel Aviv, is known for his large-scale, site-specific installations. Weinstein’s works have been featured extensively in major international exhibitions, including the San Francisco Art Institute (2001); 25th São Paulo Biennale (2002); Art in General, New York (2003); Centro Huarte de Arte Contemporáneo, Pamplona, Spain (2007) and Kunsthaus Baselland, Basel, Switzerland (2011). He has also had solo shows in Israel’s leading museums, including the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art (2002); The Helena Rubinstein Pavilion for Contemporary Art (2005) and The Israel Museum, Jerusalem (2006). Weinstein has participated in group exhibitions in major museums and galleries worldwide, including Kunstmuseen Krefeld, Germany (2003); Martin-Gropius-Bau, Germany (2005); the Museum of Contemporary Art (MARCO), Vigo, Spain (2006); Mercosul Biennial, Brazil (2011); MAC, France (2013); MACRO, Rome (2013) the 4th Thessaloniki Biennial of Contemporary Art, Greece (2013) and the Biennale of Sydney (2022). Sun Stand Still, was Gal Weinstein’s project for the Israeli pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale, Italy in 2017.
Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing, and curatorial projects in Brooklyn, New York. Her work includes paintings and immersive dimensional installations which merge photography, drawing, and painting. She has exhibited her work extensively in solo and group shows at galleries and museums nationally and internationally. She is the founder and chief editor of Art Spiel, a visual art online publication. Yaniv holds a BA in Psychology and English Literature from Tel Aviv University, a BFA from Parsons School of Design, and an MFA from SUNY Purchase. She is currently teaching graduate classes at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts.