Curating Abroad: Keshet Award in Israel
Guy Goldstein: Freigedank (Free Thinker)
September 16, 2017 – February 3, 2018
The Contemporary Austin’s Executive Director, Louis Grachos, recently had the honor of serving as the Curator for the inaugural Keshet Award for Contemporary Art, founded by the Bar-Gil Avidan family, at Israel’s Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art. The Keshet Award Foundation supports an exhibition by an Israeli artist every two years, over a period of ten years, which is curated by an international curator in order to foster artistic dialogue.
Guy Goldstein: Freigedank (Free Thinker), the exhibition by the award’s inaugural recipient, uses a notorious opera and writings by the German composer Richard Wagner to illuminate ideas of the taboo, censorship in art, and the relationships between government, religion, and society. In this powerful installation, Goldstein transforms the physical space of the gallery into a music box in which the emotional intensity of Wagner’s work is absorbed by the senses.
Read on to learn more about this exhibition and to read Grachos’s in-depth conversation with the artist.
Louis Grachos in Conversation with Guy Goldstein
Using the musical compositions and published writings of German composer Richard Wagner as a starting point, Guy Goldstein strategically employs the prohibited—the taboo—to illuminate the relationships between government, religion, and society. Using one of the most notorious artworks as a test case, he engages with it in a way that not only makes reference to the unique nature of historical European racist crimes but also cautions against any agenda-serving manipulation or censorship in art or on its behalf.
Published under the pseudonym K. Freigedank (Free Thinker) in 1850, Wagner’s article “Das Judenthum in der Musik” (Jewishness in Music) was paramount in planting the seeds of German nationalism and anti- Semitic sentiment in the 19th century. Goldstein boldly appropriates the Friegedank alias as a title for his own current installation. He uses the medium of sound—specifically, pirated radio transmission—to disassemble and restructure Wagner’s opera Rienzi, The Last of the Tribunes (1838–1840), converting illicit text into music and transforming the physical space itself into a music box. The Rienzi narrative is rife with nationalistic metaphors that later inspired Adolf Hitler as the Nazi Party gained momentum, and Goldstein’s reworking of the forbidden music showcases the power that lies in the manipulation of art for political agenda. The installation is truly experiential—to stand in Goldstein’s “music box” is to absorb through the senses the emotional intensity of Wagner in real time. It sheds a humanist light on myth, censorship, and populism, and sparks robust dialogue on how art, in all its forms, defines and shapes cultural and political identity.
While challenging in its acknowledgement of the anti-Semitic fervor that was so horrifically woven into the fabric of the Third Reich, Freigedank takes a critical look at the threat of cultural censorship and discrimination on the basis of national, socio-political, and sectarian affiliation. Though often easier to stand idly by, Goldstein reminds us of the dangers of complacency and the importance of free expression.
Louis Grachos: What triggered your idea to use German composer Richard Wagner as a starting point for your exhibition for the Keshet Award for Contemporary Art at the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art?
Guy Goldstein: The exhibition “Freigedank” for the Keshet Award is a continuation and expansion of many themes I’ve worked with for years. I regularly work with sound and music sources that carry with them specific significations related to their social environments and political attributes. Just like any other art form, music and sound are products of their cultures and tied into them very intimately. In my experience, “translating” or changing the sound into different kinds of information (visual, textural, etc.) is a productive way of exposing hidden meanings in it or changing its context in a way that makes it accessible from new perspectives. As sound is removed from its source and travels across time and space, it accrues meaning through its new environments, interpretations, and, most radically, through its banning or exclusion from the public sphere. When a piece of music is banned, as Wagner’s music is in Israel because of its use in Nazi propaganda, it is blocked from creating further subjective experiences; its formative process is forcefully brought to conclusion. This limitation is all the more authoritative because it confines the material to its last interpretation—in this case, as a symbol of Nazi Germany.
In Israel, going back over three generations, there are few sources as charged and layered with political and emotional meaning as Wagner’s music. It tells a central story in Israel’s early decisions on how the Holocaust will be inscribed in the state’s identity and culture. Personally, as a descendant of Holocaust survivors, it connects to my family history and to my grandmother’s testimony at the Eichmann trial in 1961, which is considered a turning point in Israeli society’s dealing with the collective trauma of the Holocaust. Earlier in my career this was a central part of my work, specifically thinking about heritage and the ties between personal traumas and national identity. The Holocaust is still a central theme in Israel and one that influences the state’s mindset and decisions. As the generations pass, there are some images, sounds and ideas that persist as core elements of this identity, while others are forgotten. Wagner’s music is a case where the original reason for its banning has been obscured by so many other emotions and politicized arguments, and I thought it was an important issue to return to, both personally and as a public discussion.
LG: Why did you specifically focus on Wagner’s Opera Rienzi, The Last of the Tribunes?
GG: Wagner’s work in general is a point of contention in Israel, and reveals the complex identities and ideologies in Israeli society. As Dr. Na’ama Sheffi writes in her in-depth analysis of the subject, The Ring of Myths: The Israelis, Wagner and the Nazis (Sussex Academic Press, 2000), the discussion of Wagner’s music has become a “vessel” for many different political arguments, such as over Israel’s diplomatic relationship with Germany, freedom of speech, memory, and respect for Holocaust survivors. As a frame of reference, I was interested in unpacking some of the historical encodings of the music as just that: encoding that serves political ends, emotional reactions, etc. For me, it isn’t about returning to the “pure” original piece, that isn’t interesting to me; rather, I would like to look at these layered meanings as separate from the music and meaningful in themselves. For instance, the Nazis, aware of the symbolic and liberating power of art, banned not only Jewish artists and writers but also avant-garde movements, including Bauhaus, Cubism, Dada, and jazz and modernist compositions. This reflects on the banning in Israel of music associated with the Nazis and makes it questionable. Is cultural censorship always the same? Do survivors have unique rights, are they allowed their own particular sensitivities? How long should the ban last, now that most Holocaust survivors are no longer alive?
I chose to focus on Wagner’s piece Rienzi, The Last of the Tribunes because I wanted to look at a piece that is more narratively complex and politically layered than this outright banning acknowledges. The opera is about Cola di Rienzi, a popular 14th-century Italian politician who empowered the proletariat in opposition to the gentry. Changes in public opinion, however, coupled with pressure from the church, caused the masses to turn against him—and the opera concludes with Rienzi and his last disciples confined to the Roman Capitol and burned by the mob. In a twisted historical turn of events, the original manuscript of the opera was among Hitler’s possessions in his Berlin bunker, and was destroyed along with everyone and everything in it. There is a clear parallel between Hitler and Rienzi and their fates, which makes it seem like Hitler was aware of his inevitable end. I think this is a meaningful side of his story, which we never hear about.
LG: You described to me how your goal was to transform the gallery space at the Herzliya Museum into a “music box.” I found this idea to be thrilling and rich with potential for you to create a truly inspired and experiential exhibition that could engage audiences in a visceral way. Please describe your concept of deconstruction and reassembly of Wagner’s overture for Rienzi, and how it will appear in the gallery space, beginning with the orchestral seating configuration, and the use of speakers as surrogates for the musicians.
GG: I’ve been experimenting with how sound and music can be experienced in gallery spaces for many years. For the Herzliya Museum, I wanted to create a space that has multiple inputs—including sound, visual, and informative—that viewers can move through, a space where the materials are available but their reception is not enforced. The space deconstructs and reassembles the overture to Wagner’s opera in a way that makes it spatial and multisensory—a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art, which was an important concept in Wagner’s operas. Wagner considered the theater, and specifically the opera, as a convergence of all art forms, and conceived of every part of the experience: setting, costumes, text, music, acoustics, movement, etc. I, too, was aiming at creating a total environment—like a “music box” that is experienced through many senses and levels of engagement.
The gallery space includes twenty school chairs—themselves disassembled and restructured in new form—that are arranged in correspondence with an orchestra’s seating. Each chair supports a radio that plays one section of a full orchestra: the flutes, the violins, etc. I deconstructed the opera’s overture (the opening musical sequence before the libretto begins) into each of its twenty instrumental sections, and assigned each instrument to a different radio channel. During the run of the exhibition twenty radio transmitters will broadcast the part of one instrument section each, and the twenty radios will each pick up and play one channel. In this way, the arrangement of the chairs recreates the spatial experience of an orchestra, but of course on a smaller scale and with the sound quality of a radio.
LG: Why was it important to broadcast a component of the project into the public airwaves? How does the audience connect to the public broadcast?
GG: I have worked with radio as a medium before, and I am still fascinated by its possibilities. Radio transmits sound spatially; it is available at a certain radius from its source, so it also delineates borders of sound, or can cross physical borders. It has changed immensely since the Internet, which has personalized listening, but it is still important as a public resource for sound and music as well as meaningful content. These days, the radio is once again implicated in a political conflict in Israel – about the public broadcast, with a number of politicians looking to gain an advantage from limiting or prescribing what should be on the airwaves.
Radio is also tied to the history of Wagner’s banning in Israel. One of the few ways of hearing it was on the classical-music radio channel, as I learned from Sheffi’s book. It was never banned from private hearing, only from public venues, so the radio was a weird middle ground: on the one hand it is publicly available, on the other hand you listen to it privately, at home or in your car. So I like the idea of circumventing this ban on a public activity by bringing together lots of private events: if each person tunes in to a single radio station, he or she can hear one instrument play its part; but if a group of people each tune in to a different station at the same time, in the same place—technically creating a public gathering—they will be able to hear the whole piece. So the gesture is somewhat ironic, because I know that it’s not likely to be realized anywhere other than the exhibition space, but it’s meant to make us think about the differences between what is legally defined as private and public behavior, and how arbitrary this can be.
LG: Describe the visual of the mural scale wall projection and the movement of the dots and bars. What does that represent?
GG: On three of the gallery’s walls I am presenting a video that is a result of decoding and encoding the libretto of Rienzi into a set of visual signs, and then translating them back into music. The text was converted into musical notes, which were then arranged on punch cards meant for knitting machines – an analog form of encoding data to be read by a machine. This grid moves across the wall, and a white bar meets the points and “reads” the information, translating it back into music, which is played on an electronic Glockenspiel (a kind of xylophone). The result is an automatically generated musical interpretation of the Opera’s text. Visually, I was drawn to various sources from the pre-digital age—machines such as a piano roll or a knitting machine, which abstract the information in a way that is visible yet inaccessible. I am interested in the transmission of information in forms that were created by people but are not accessible to us; they move like secret communications between machines, before they are transformed back into words, music, or patterns that we can make sense of.
LG: In what way is the historic reference to Wagner’s writings and music relevant to contemporary culture at large and to our lives today, in Israel and elsewhere?
GG: I have chosen Wagner’s opera as a symbol and a specific case study to raise the larger issues of artistic freedom, freedom of speech, and public discourse, which I think are extremely relevant in present-day Israel and around the world. We are at a moment when information is being purposefully obscured and managed by political actors, and although there is an endless amount of information out there, the effect is the erosion of truth and criticism, and their replacement with rhetoric and extravagant factless claims.
For me, Wagner’s music is an instance of how a complicated body of artistic work can be stamped with a single label—in this case, Nazi—for a variety of political and social reasons. Over generations, this categorization becomes fact, the historical complications are forgotten, and even though banning artistic content today is meaningless because everything is available online, Wagner’s music is still a strong taboo in Israel. The same process could easily be repeated with other cultural sources, and to my mind this is a very dangerous social environment to work in. Therefore, I think it is essential for artists—and for anyone living in a democratic society—to continue finding new meanings in the images, sounds and signs around us, and not to subscribe to one version of their meaning, because that should be something that always keeps changing, evolving and expanding.
IMAGES: Guy Goldstein: Freigedank (Free Thinker), 2017. Installation view, Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art, Israel, 2017.