Mukam and the Avant-Guard
Of Yitzhak Danziger and Avital Geva
Who was Yitzhak Danziger to the artists of the 70s, 8os, even the 90s? And what is Danziger for local contemporary art community? Answer to the first is easier, as the theme has resurfaced in local art discourse, and in a number of works completed during and after his lifetime. For the artists of his generation and the next, Danziger represented an exemplar of conceptual art, and stood as a beacon of the conceptualization of the local topos: its topography, climate, geography, ethnicity and history, which prior to that had only been represented in traditional art forms (painting, sculpture). Danziger was perceived as a member of the Zionist elite, who was set on being pioneer, an Avant- vanguard defending the fraternal, political and environmental ethos. In his image met the linguistic, formal and semiotic aspects of conceptual art (themes of self-determination and confines, gender and barriers), and matters pertaining to anthropology and ecology (Bedouin corrals posing as aqueducts). His work is viewed as interdisciplinary (sculpture, architecture, garden design, locating and reviving old orchards) and has been associated with activism, awareness-raising to environmental hazards and their rehabilitation (he once referred to the abandoned Nesher quarry in the Carmel Mountain as “the gaping wound in the mountain”). Danziger’s concept of Tikun Olam bound the knowledge and praxis of different fields in modern science and technology with ancient wisdom and techniques, rites, rituals, lifestyle and traditional local cultures. He used to remark, “The dignity of such places demands old, natural things, perhaps the heathen animal element”.
Danziger’s body of work is embedded in an organic world fabric, composed of local animals, (jackal, snake, eagle, deer, goat and sheep, wild boar) implanted in ritual animals (as sacrifices, icons or shrines). Dead or alive, the animals are as the earth’s core which infuses it with both vitality and meaning. For this reason, Danziger elected animals which burrow into the earth or dig into rocks, symbolizing a natural void thereby fulfilled. His work is often credited with rooting conceptual art in local space, in the relics of ancient agrarian civilizations and nomadic cultures, whose face is as that of the earth and its channels (noteworthy are his sculptures of Bedouin sheep from 1953-63, whose bodies bring to mind tent canvases and the topography of the Negev desert, its mountains and gullies), and in its folklore and popular costumes (sheep shearing fests in the Kibbutzim, rituals for sacred trees). Through his deep interest in topography and ethnography sounded two of the world’s elements: water and earth.
He is also credited (some would say charged) with the reinstatement of old mythical, religious and epic-heroic themes, veering away from the well trodden institutional course. The meditative (spiritual even) aspect buried in his work, also found its expression in the practice of uncovering spaces of quietude, aloneness and aloofness, away from the social fabric with which he wished to associate. These places included orchards, groves, tombs of sheikhs and other sites. Michelle Foucault would claim these sites as heterotopic, sites which while partaking in their immediate socio-political surroundings, are at the same time exterritorialized from them. Danziger found the epitome of these in the “mukam”: “One of the wonders of this country is the mukam: a cell for meditation. It's believed by many to be a sheikh's tomb. There's such a mukam in an oak grove at Sha'ar Hagai.
A reclusive cell in nature, a place to tarry at. To sit on a stone step with room for only one person. The mukam is always built of stone and whitewashed. Seclusion there invariably elicits recollections and a yearning to integrate with the surroundings, an emotional bond.”
His great persona- affluent and immediate, at once involved, detached and mysterious- made him the local counterpart of the German artist-shaman, Joseph Beuys. Says Danziger: “a good artist can direct his feelings outwards. At the core of every good artist is a system of thought and sensibility that can operate as a catalyst on other fields that have lost their sensibility and morality.”. Furthermore: “The responsibility of the artist in society is like that of an educator, a thinker, a rabbi, a father, a prophet at the gate, a preacher. It is his duty to preserve the things that have taken place. Yes, romanticism is an extraordinary force.”.
Avital Geva, who initially worked with Danziger during the 70's, “retired” in 1977 from the local art scene in order to establish an experimental greenhouse in his Kibbutz of Ein -Shemer has since become a center for creative collaborations between researchers and scientists from different disciplines such as agronomy, ecology, hydrology, and oceanography. Although the greenhouse is set within the kibbutz’s territory, it functions as an autarky, a heterotopia. To some extent, if only owing to its function as an art space, it exists as a mere idea, an embodiment of the original historical utopia of the kibbutz. Combined research and the experimental aspect of the greenhouse is also applied through education initiatives which continuously grow, involving young adults, teachers and educating institutes from different sectors of the Israeli society, bringing together Jews and Arabs. Their joint activities, in Geva’s words, their joint activities, an attempt to exist, instead of discussing co-existence, are fired by the vitality of the greenhouse itself, while in turn egging this organic habitat, founded and organized through interaction between its counterparts (vegetation, livestock, fish and human beings presiding over their co-existence) on. The greenhouse has a felt presence of water in fish pools and artificial rain which showers upon them occasionally in order to maintain a temperate climate.
About 15 years ago Geva set up another heterotopic space in addition to his kibbutz site. Far from the eye of the media, in fields at the outskirts of his kibbutz, he set up a network of pipes attached to an old transistor radio. If one chooses to meander around these pipes or walk about in the fields at evening time, one can place his ear to the small cracks in the pipes and hear musical sounds emanating from the transistor radio. The sounds are more evocative of a howling wind than they seem fruit of the technological era. Offshoots from Geva’s two enclaves, which echo Danziger’s orchards and sites of quietude and listening, have (over the past few years) ever so often, appeared in the local art scene. This however, rather than signaling Geva’s return into the art world, denotes a heterotopic infiltration into it.
In the current exhibition he launches a team of sewage-pipes which curve upwards inhabiting the gallery, near its ceiling. It is “a sewage-pipe-organ” (Geva’s wording) playing popular tunes (gypsy style), songs by the “Halturot” musical band, and songs with Hassidic touches by Kobi Grossman (a musician, fellow member of Ein Shemer kibbutz). Says Geva: “Kobi is the canto for these tunes and hymns. In a sense this is reminiscent of another conceptual project from the 70s, that of Moshe Gershoni singing "Soft Hand".
The lyrics to some of the songs played out in the gallery (taken from the scriptures), and their religious context raise important issues regarding Geva’s work, which have been overlooked in recent years. First among these is the identity of the popular community with whom he interacts- its memories, pains, voice, and even its galuti (Diaspora-like) moments of pathos (not just Sabra and kibbutz folk); second, is the spiritual aspect of his critical work (which, for instance, argues against the misuse of spiritual elements by members of the political-religious institution) which beg (also on behalf of art in general) not to be stripped of the prevailing vitality embedded in religion. The individual’s voice could be perceived to be that of the Absolute Subject, yet Geva’s “cantor” produces a slightly dissonant sound. This discord gives presence to the distance elapsed since the time when such hymns were taken up naturally by the community, and perhaps the critical reaction to the status of religious rhetoric in today’s political climate.
These squeaky skies hang above a floor of shallow waters, a small dirt mound hollowed with anthills set inside small pools. In and alongside the political reality contained in the work, is a mutually self-contained series of heterotopic conclaves, which curves on display like a serpent (similar to Danziger’s Akalton sculpture). The largest among these conclaves is the gallery itself (which becomes a microcosm with its own sky, earth and water); and the smallest, hide inside the anthills, which, like Danziger’s animals, or Beuys’ hare, are there as the small agents of the animal kingdom. They burrow into the earth obstinately merging with its elements, although it takes place on a remote isle devoid of any real `reason d'etre" in the earthly world. Almost absurdly, these ants (similar to Beuys’ bees) illustrate how the tiniest of creatures can uphold an ideal organic kingdom (complete with queen and workers), where an interaction and an undesecrated ancient natural order still exist. (The voice emanating from the top sings “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem may my right hand forget”, while from the pipes plays “The wedding song” by the “Halturot”).
More than any other working artist, Avital Geva shows mark of Danziger’s legacy. With the multiple facets and disciplines involved in Danziger’s work, comes the impossibility of reconciling its contradictory aspects with the Market and the interests of the contemporary art world. His art being truly conceptual leaves it to appear only at the very edges of the art world, at its heterotopic sites. Yet, these conclaves- ordinarily hidden from public attention through an array of actions and disciplines- function as the gate-keepers for the values, dreams and ideas of contemporary art, and of Art itself. An art scene which commemorates an artist such as Danziger, or allows an artist such as Avital Geva to act within it, indicates its functioning as the gaurds of the gate-keepers of its Avant-guard's spirit.
 Danziger is quoted by Ben-Ami Scharfstein, from Yitzhak Danziger: Makom edited by Rina Valero; Text: Mordechai Omer (Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1982).
 Michel Foucault, "Of Other Spaces", Diacritics, 16:1 (Spring 1986) pp 22-27
 Danziger is quoted by Amnon Barzel, "Itzhak Danziger: Landscape As a Work of Art", Haaretz, 22 July 1977; Cited in: Mordechai Omer, Yitzhak Danziger: Place, (Tel Aviv and Tefen, Tel Aviv Moseum of Art and the Open Moseum, 1996), p. 370.
 Danziger is quoted by Sarah Breitberg-Semel, "On Sculptures, Landscape, Society, worship and sacred places", Yedioth Aharonoth, 23 January 1976; Quoted in Place, ibid, p. 377
 Danzider is quoted by Amnon Barzel, Place, ibid, p. 368.
 From 1993 on, after he was invited by Gideon Efrat to exhibit in the Israeli pavilion at the Venice Biennale
 A known local popular song, written by Zalman Shneur, one of the national Hebrew poets.
 For the creation of the anthill, Geva acquired the assistance of entomologists Dr Tovit Simon (Tel Aviv University), Dr Dani Simon (Tel Aviv University and Kibbutzim College) and Yossi Ben-Mayor (Kibbutz Ein Shemer).