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Ceci n’est pas un Chofar – This is not a Shofar

Ayelet Zohar

 

Avital Geva’s new installation project “Jews”, at Contemporary Gallery, considers the image of the shofar. These are not autonomous shofar images , but ones that specifically associate with the Jewish tradition, shofars that burst out their blowing  sounds, calling out in the public sphere, sounding the voice of sanity – in these times of incitement, instigation, arrogance, self-righteousness and zeal. Geva’s shofars occupy a space of local and contemporary contexts – which may be read as a critical challenge –emerging from within the art world against instigate and rowdy regime. The installation of shofars along the gallery walls, their relationship, and the blowing sounds rising from within them, with the presence of works by Micha Ullman and Moshe Gershuni – offer several possible routes  for reading this project.

 

The title of this essay is borrowed from René Magritte’s famous painting “This is not a pipe” (1928-9) (fig. 1), one of the most famous iconic images of the surrealist painter. The painting also perfectly matches Michel Foucault’s text Les mots et les choses,[1]and in 1966, after reading Foucault’s book, Magritte created a new version of the work, doubling its contextual relationship between word and image (fig. 2). The painting's name was eventually borrowed by Foucault as the title of his book (1980), where in one of its footnotes Foucault remarks that Robert Hughes (in his 1980 book The Shock of the New) claimed that Magritte’s pipe was painted as a critical response to Le Corbusier, who in 1923 used a pipe as a signifier of pure functionality (to which we shall return shortly through the discussion of pipes and plumbing).[2] The difference that exists in Hebrew between a smoker’s pipe (mikteret) and a water-pipe (tsinor) is eradicated in French and English, where the term "pipe" serves for both meanings. Beyond the immediate and material connection between the shofar and a pipe, of both types, the epistemological connection between the two concerns the conceptual image of shofar/pipe. Magritte’s proclamation that “this (painting) is not a pipe” returns to Geva’s installation through contemplating the relationship between the object presented in the gallery and its material, linguistic and audial state: the sound of a shofar is a metonymy of calling, a calling which in the present context posits the voice of sanity against the surrounding instigation. The voice of the shofar is conceptualized beyond its material presence, and while encountering the sound,  it leads us towards the cultural, social and political context in which is there is a call to the people: “Jews, the shtetl  is burning.”

 

Adolf Loos, the father of functionality in architecture, published in 1898 a text titled “Plumbers”,[3] in which he argued that the invention of plumbing, and the capability to install a system of running water and sewage within buildings, is what enabled modern construction and the vertical development of architecture. This functionality, a pipe system netting through structured space –simulating the flow of blood in the body – was featured in Geva’s work as an image of flow and communication systems as early as 1972, when he installed a network of communication through water pipes across the kibbutz, as well as the underlying structure of Geva’s previous installation at Contemporary Gallery (2012).

 

In the previous installation, the pipe system transmitted music from the center of space, in a metaphor for flow, movement and passage – of water, of ant colonies and of sound. In the current installation, however, the sound-conducting pipe-installation is transformed from a plumbing system into a pipe organ installation within the entire gallery space: similar to the organ made of pipes in various heights and lengths, each functions both as an independent shofar and as a flute within the organ’s pipe system, creating the musical harmony, so the installation plays an organ piece by J. S. Bach or the singing of a multi-vocal choir. Among others, works played include pieces by Meir Ariel, Kobi Grossman, Ha'Haltura band in the wedding song “Jamila”, Hamutal’s girls’ choir, Spindel, “Yad Anuga”, and “On the Shores of Sea of Galilee”.

The shofar-pipe evokes internal cultural context within the Israeli sphere: Yitzhak Danziger’s “King of the Shepherds” is a work installed of a pipe/horn. The material of which the sculpture is made – polished brass – links “King of the Shepherds” with the wind instruments family – horns, trumpets, trombones, –all consisting of a curved brass pipe, winding around itself in order to lengthen the air  column within and thus obtain a wider tonal range. Danziger’s “King of the Shepherds” in the past, like Geva’s shofars at present, are associated with the world of the shepherd, reaching the presence of the ram, and its horns turned into shofar. The shofar in this context is the primal wind instruments, the primal horn, the column of air that moves through the curved horn, creating a screaming sound. The primal scream of the shofar is echoes the sound of the siren, ascending and descending, piercing the air, emanating from megaphones mounted on a high pole, pointing in four directions,  blowing their bloodcurdling wails. Geva’s shofars become sound-amplifying megaphones producing a siren, sending their warnings in every direction. Aleksander Rodchenko used this image of calling and shouting, with a hand held up in megaphone shape, in his famous poster for Lengiz books, where he ingeniously combined photography and text, monochrome and bright graphic colors (fig. 3). The ultimate megaphone of Israeli art was created by Moshe Gershuni, who in the 1970s installed a megaphone on the Tel Aviv Museum of Art rooftop, hourly broadcasting Gershuni’s voice singing “Yad Anuga” ("Delicate Hand"). This installation played on the tension between the wailing of the siren and the trilling singing of the Muezzin, carried away over the city’s roofs, summoning the listener with its trills. Gershuni’s slow, trilling voice is a simulation of the Muezzin, and a warning/ alarm call for the listener.

Audial contexts have already appeared in Geva’s projects in the past, through the presence of the grand piano. Using the most complex musical instrument, an object that more than any other instrument signifies high culture and elitist music; Geva set the piano into its deconstruction by placing it on a sugar heap, pouring the sweetener into the piano's mechanism (Yodfat Gallery, 1974);[4] recently, installing “Piano in a Swamp”, placing it in a water basin, among some wetland plants (Haifa Museum, 2014). Geva’s project tantalizingly echoes Sanford Biggers (b. Los Angeles, 1970), an African-American artist, whose installation “Blossom” (2007) grows a thick and tangled tree out of a grand piano that automatically plays the music of “Strange Fruit”, the famous Billie Holiday standard, referring to swaying dead bodies of lynched African-Americans in the US South. In Biggers’s project the piano voices a protest, while in Geva’s the piano gradually collapses into a roaring silence, through its wet destruction in the swamp water, sketching the audial potential of a concert that is never performed, instead being  consumed into the marshy water.

 

This time Geva, whose previous installations performed the destruction of the voice and the incompetence of the word, eventually accedes to play music –of Bach, of the choir and of the cantor, music that emanates from the pipes of the organ installation built in the gallery. In the past, Geva saw the theoretical discussion of art as a weakness and a symptom of hypocrisy (like in his “Cow Tongues” project, 1974), now he opts for the performative force of sound and word – the sung word, conveyed through sound and singing, becoming a concretized speech through the manner of its pronunciation, while its meaning, its communicational, dialogical and conceptual value, reduced to insignificance.[5]

 

Into Geva's pipe organ installation, Moshe Gershuni's art is added - expressing fury,  insult and convalescence vis a vis the rolling malice, and Micha Ullman's  installation – producing an extra, inverted system of tunnels and passages, in his project "Inversion"(2015). Ullman installed an overturned table whose hollow legs signify an invisible tunnel system, a parallel world that exists upside down, entrenched under the surface as a maze system of tunnels. The excavated, underground tunnel, unseen from the outside, refers to the mole in Kafka’s “The Burrow”, a metaphor for a state of invisibility and ignorance. The entrance points to these burrows appear as vertical tunnels turned upwards like in a ventilation system, offering the possibility of entry and exit, communication or lightening. Connecting between the gallery space, Geva’s audio tubing, and the internal burrows system, the tunnels signifies the location of unconsciousness, disappearance, and existential fear of a possible untraceable enemy who may infiltrate in – a particularly current and local fear.

 

 

  


[1] Foucault, Michel (1966). Les mots et les choses, Paris: Edition Gallimard. Translated into English as The Order of Things (1970), London: Tavistock

[2] Foucault, Michel (1980). This is not a Pipe (Ceci n'est pas une pipe), Berkley: University of California Press. p. 60 (ch. 4 n. 2).

[3] Loos, Adolph (c1898). 'Plumbers', in: Jane O. Newman & John H. Smith (trans.) (1987). Spoken into the Void: Collected Essays 1897-1900 by Adolf Loos, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 44-49.

[4] Ofrat, Gideon (1993). ‘The Greenhouse: Avital Geva at the Venice Biennale 1993’, Teoria Ubikoret 3:129-141, 132 (in Hebrew)

[5] Austin, J L (1962; c1955).  How to do things with Words? Oxford: Clarendon Press