Roof (the space underneath)
text from the catalogue of the 25th Biennial of San Paulo, 2002
“The resurrected space of the bedroom is enough to bring back to life, to recall, to revive memories, the most fleeting and anodyne along with the most essential”
- Georges Perec, Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, trans.: J. Sturrock (London: Penguin, 1997), p. 21
Gal Weinstein first built a large tiled roof that was laid on the floor, as an object in-and-of-itself, without the walls of the house underneath it, in 1999 at the Kibbutz Art Gallery in Tel Aviv. There, imprisoned between the four walls of the cellar-like gallery, the roof appeared like a reddish suburban growth grown wild in the basement of an old urban building, until it smothered the entire space. It could only be viewed from a single viewpoint; you could neither encircle it with a gaze, nor move around it.
In the Israeli and Middle Eastern context, the tiled roof is associated with the pastoral fantasy of Zionist settlement, symbolizing the escapist dream of well-being fostered by the local bourgeoisie which denies the climatic, geopolitical and cultural realm in which it dwells. “The rooftops in Eretz-Israel are flat and white, so as to deflect the heat,” explains the protagonist of Boris Schatz’ 1924 utopian novel, Jerusalem Rebuilt1 to his flight companion while taking an aerial tour in the country’s sky, not knowing then that Zionist-Israeli architecture would follow its own bent rather than its real spatial whereabouts. For many, intense years of construction, during which the Israeli impulse to build has been fostered and heightened, the tiled roof has taken over the local landscape on both sides of the Green Line and has become “one detail from a bourgeois-pastoral fantasy in a non-bourgeoisie, non-pastoral place”2; a Swiss roof at the heart of the Orient; a foreign architectural element that represents futile yearnings for life in a different time and a different place. Weinstein’s roof strives to exaggerate this foreignness, to highlight the fantasy’s detached nature, and challenge its very relevance.
However, lying on the floor, with neither windows nor ventilation apertures, Weinstein’s roof encloses a darkened space that breeds dark anxieties. In his book The Architectural Uncanny, Antony Vidler insightfully discusses the dark side of a space: ”space is assumed to hide, in its darkest recesses and forgotten margins, all the objects of fear and phobia that have returned with such insistence to haunt the imaginations of those who have tried to stake out spaces to protect their health and happiness.”3 Weinstein addresses the tension between the tranquil, idyll image of a “country home” and the charged familial intimacy bubbling under its roof and protection in a variety of ways. The concept of home, as he perceives it, refers to a psychological space in which the bourgeois family, clinging to the illusion of its protected safety under the roof, forms its charged, Oedipal intimate relationships. “Indeed,” Vidler maintains, “space as threat, as harbinger of the unseen, operates as medical and psychical metaphor for all the possible erosions of bourgeois bodily and social well being.”4
Architectural forms imbued with physical and psychological feelings preceded the roof piece in a series of sculptural works reminiscent in their rectangular structure of various pieces of furniture or alternatively refrigerators wrapped with loose wallpaper rolls or bristly links in the form of black plastic zap straps. The geometric, box-like structure, which was the point of departure for the work, sprouted a tangled hairy coat, as if something had gone profoundly wrong, causing excessive hormonal secretion. The bristly coat, like the suspended wallpaper rolls, blurs the clear distinctions between the objectal and the human in a manner that, according to Freud, furnishes “a particularly favourable condition for awakening uncanny feelings […] when there is intellectual uncertainty whether an object is alive or not, and when an inanimate object becomes too much like an animate one.”5 The protrusion of the black bristles is akin to an uncontrolled deviation from the smooth surface, “something which ought to have remained hidden but has come to light.”6
This infiltration of the psychological into the architectural is further elaborated in a set of works that form an organic link between architectural elements and bodily conditions. Concurrent to the first roof work and shortly thereafter, Weinstein covered wall surfaces with marble-like wallpaper netted with bluish veins, thereon attaching a thin layer of either gray steel wool or white cotton wool. As in sophisticated transplant surgery, the flat geometrical surface of the wall had grown a hairy cutaneous bodily tissue, spawning an architectural entity that embraced the rhythmic breathing of physical intimacy.
Unlike the human orientation of Classical-Vitruvian architecture, which was essentially founded on proportional correspondence between the structure of a building and that of the human body, and unlike the deconstruction set in motion by Deconstructivist architecture on the code of human physicality – Weinstein infuses the architectural elements themselves with biological processes which originate in clear, rational functionality yet conclude in its total reversal. In the installation featured at Chelouche Gallery for Contemporary Art, Tel Aviv (2000), and at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art (2001), Weinstein divided the space in two with a partition of winding silicon threads, and re-introduced the physical into the spatial-architectural substance: the curtain as a space-delineating partition transformed into a screen of sinewy fibers, oily to the touch, suggestive of an umbilical cord.
A similarly ambivalent move was also performed in the opposite direction, from the human body – his own body – to undefined intermediate states: in a series of experimental albeit highly suggestive photographs, Weinstein depicted parts of his body covered with a white coat of cotton wool which was demarcated by the garment’s contours. The blurring of boundaries between skin and garment and between garment and an animal’s fur coat, transformed the body’s contours into markers of a metamorphosis in progress, one which has not yet been completed and is still trapped by the dictates of fashion. Simultaneously, he set out to construct a photographic family portrait collage cumulated from facial features and organs extracted from his own face as well as the faces of his parents, siblings and nephews. The distortions rendered by the incongruence in skull dimensions interfered with the sense of familial serenity, generating bizarre situations. The intermingling of family members to form an identity that is at once all-absorbing and split, attests to conflictual anxieties ranging between separation and total assimilation.
The physicality addressed by Weinstein is not extroverted-sexual physicality, but rather one which is borderline and invisible, like the physicality typifying hidden private parts such as the crotch area, the inside of the leg, or the armpit, which, in turn, correspond to secret borderlands in human consciousness. However, it was not the prevalent gender discourse tackling questions of sexual identity that preoccupied Weinstein in these body works, but rather the evasive definition of the human, and the fluid intermediate states resulting from the interaction between humans and their surroundings. This friction of boundaries prompted his preoccupation with the set of interrelations man has developed with animals, and primarily the pets and farm animals with which he likes to surround himself – the dog, cat, horse, donkey; these were not modeled with conventional painting materials, but rather from layers of steel wool in varying densities, attached to surfaces of adhesive, always with a slight shift between artistic tradition and the act of gluing.
The series of pet “portraits” is based on models extracted from instruction books for drawing animals. Through this choice, Weinstein has “domesticated” not only the animal kingdom and natural world, but also the tradition of classical painting: both “nature” and “painting” have substituted their essential authentic power – even if in a slightly ironic way – with dexterous domestic labor. Even when painting a large-scale scene of a herd of lions in nature – once again by gluing steel wool – the scene is modeled after a book about the socialization of the species. The natural scene thus reflects a cultural, controlled gaze on nature, one that arranges this wild band of predators into a stylized, domesticated structure.
A pivotal point crucial to the comprehension of Weinstein’s work is his humanist anti-romantic position, which does not draw a clear-cut line between “nature” and “culture,” but rather recognizes the overlapping areas between them. The black bristles, the tiled roof, the venous walls, the frizzled silicon curtains, as well as the dog and horse – all these mark a single territory that oscillates between the domestic interior which is charged with emotional tension, and the bestial exterior that has been domesticated and stylized, and thus restrained. While the traditional distinction between “nature” and “culture” presupposes the superiority of culture by virtue of the lucid inner logic of cultural thought vis-א-vis the disorderly arbitrariness characterizing the forces of nature, in Weinstein’s work nature and culture are reflected in one another, renouncing the hierarchical vantage point. The dramatic tension between these two categories is no longer relevant for a discussion that focuses on measures of control and loss of control in view of ambivalent states of the uncanny. Ultimately, it is the sensorial dimension that leads to the cultural realms, realms that are never free of human-psychological ambiguity.
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This three-way axis of architecture, psychology and physical presence has led Weinstein back to the pure motif of the tiled roof. Since the major theme of the 2002 Sדo Paulo Biennial is urbanization and its impacts on the human psyche, and under the influence of the modernist architecture by Oscar Niemeyer (planner of the Biennial’s extensive display complex) following a visit to the place in November 2001, Weinstein chose to install the tiled roof in a way that would transcend the defined boundaries of the building, and thus challenge the formal-geometrical purity and the crystalline transparency underlying modernist thought.
Interference with the modernist order and its transcendence highlight questions pertaining to the boundaries between interior and exterior, undermining the validity of earlier ideas that demarcate a human territory. The arbitrariness is introduced as a critical opposition to the narcissist standard and the austere discipline of modernism: deviation from the lines embodies the insubordination of urban construction which circumvents the planners’ outlines, or alternatively – its invasive passion: through sprawling albeit incessant construction whereby one building addition clings to another, the city gradually expands, extending in all directions, swallowing more and more chunks of territory. In a manner which does not entirely account for the direction of its growth, Weinstein’s roof too transcends the transparent boundaries of the building (which, by its very transparency, strives to merge with the landscape around it), when one third of it remains outside, as an uninvited guest of sorts, as if it were a construction error determined to live on, a sudden growth that developed on the skin, or an inaccurate alien landing. Either way, an act of ordering and removal is required so as to restore the proper order.
The penetration of the impervious “dark space” into the transparent “illuminated space” soils the moral, hygienic purity of transparency, and undermines the fantasy of absolute control which is based on the presentation of total visibility. The modernists, led by Le Corbusier, believed that transparency (if I may quote Vidler) “would eradicate the domain of myth, suspicion, tyranny and above all the irrational.”7 However, Weinstein’s tiled roof, which shuts itself in Niemeyer’s lit and open space, reinforces precisely the need for protection and delineation, seclusion and privacy, characterizing the present-day city-dweller. The “roof” reintroduces into consciousness the irrational fears – both fears of physical intimacy and, on the urban level, fears of the (equally threatening) metaphor of the detached, obscure figure of the homeless.
In the wild and uncontrolled architectural reality of refugee camps and slums in the Third World and in the Middle East, the tiled roof is entirely absent from the landscape. In its stead various substitutes emerge that attest to the class status and existential condition of its inhabitants: from corrugated tin through various mud casts to cloth tents. The tiled roof remains a metaphorical entity: its construction as an independent element, without walls, illustrates displacement from its natural place, namely – castration of the dwelling option. The “unhomely home” or “homeless home”8 is split by the building’s glass wall, that looks as though it had landed on its back like a guillotine that had fallen on the neck of one condemned to death. While the current Biennial of Sדo Paulo is the first in the third millennium, human civilization, even in these “advanced” times, is still far from realizing the promise for a roof over every person’s head, and has not yet found a way to prevent tragic circumstances that lead to the demolition of houses. As an Israeli artist, the meaning of demolition and construction is all the more intensified in Weinstein’s consciousness.
Gal Weinstein’s tiled roof endeavors to mark a protected human territory, recognizing the crucial condition of the metropolis inhabitant at the beginning of the third millennium, in a world so overcrowded, polluted, clamorous and violent. The territory it marks does not belong in the realm of sterile utopias, for it regards with disillusioned irony the promise for pastoral happiness awaiting mankind, who are so suffused with physical and psychological tensions. Equally critical and utopian, Weinstein’s roof work liberates man – for better or for worse – to live his life, within his own home.
1. Boris Schatz, Jerusalem Rebuilt (Jerusalem: Jerusalem Press, 1924), Book I, p. 14 [Hebrew].
2. Tali Tamir, “Wall, Skin and Psyche in Gal Weinstein’s Works”, exh. cat. Passage: Gal Weinstein in collaboration with Pedro Cabrita Reis (Tel Aviv: Chelouche Gallery for Contemporary Art, 2000), trans.: E. Klagsbrun, p. 11.
3. Antony Vidler, The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999), p. 167.
4. Ibid., ibid.
5. Sigmund Freud, “The ‘Uncanny’” (1919), trans: James Strachey, The Penguin Freud Library (London: Penguin Books, 1990), vol. XIV, Art and Literature, p. 354.
6. Ibid., p. 364.
7. Vidler, n. 3, p. 168.
8. The expression ”unhomely home” was coined by Vidler to adapt the English “uncanny” to the literal translation of Freud’s original German term “das Unheimliche.”