Rachel & Israel Pollak Gallery (Kalisher) | Tel-Aviv, 2004 | How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare
Curator: Naomi Aviv | Wall work and objects | oil-tempera, powder pigment, mason plummet, on wall | 4.00 x 6.90 m. | Wood bench | Arm plaster casting | Video piece.
Story: 35:00 Min. video monologue.
“…I would see him in a thousand forms, and with a thousand
diabolical expressions. Now the leg would be cut off at the knee,
now at the hip; now he was a monstrous kind of a creature who
had never had but the one leg, and that in the middle of his body.
To see him leap and run and pursue me over hedge and ditch was
the worst of nightmares. ”
R.L. Stevenson, Treasure Island
And for this house, I likewise fell on account of its symmetrical, tranquil façade that promised order. It also promised law.
It was not a big house. Its two sections were identical, its façade flat, shaped like a gate. The middle staircase was seen through a terraced sunken relief girded by a narrow belt of glass shutters. I looked at this house and my heart was about to break. That was it, it was about to break.
Such buildings, symmetrical, are everywhere, by the thousands. They stand in place as though they have been there forever, recognized at once by the power of symmetry, comprehended thoroughly at a glance. Those that my heart fancies are public and commercial buildings in the main; I cannot say why, perhaps it is their large size that is so luring, or maybe their apparent stability. They are mounted on broad entrances, their equal counterparts spread out like heavy arms stretching them further sideways, here and there. Order, yes, and law, the two of them, yes, no other thing, declares the façade of such a house. Facing it, I am filled with racing expectations that sicken my heart. The rigor of its symmetry attests to the best of prospects. Too ideal, its mark is but a delusion exclusive, a fiction infusing some vain horror that makes your heart ‘drop’.
I am addicted to symmetrical façades of public buildings. In any weather, I cross streets and cities for them. Each building has its special symmetry. I search for it even in inferior buildings, and when it is not there, I invent it. I want to behold that bright, balanced, promising tranquility, and then – the fall: I am the moor whose most beloved, his fair shape has been ruined. I reconstruct it over and over again, so that it may ruin me. And when it is finally there, accomplished and infinitely lovely, even then I see how in perfecting it further, it could still be bettered, so as to make my heart ‘cork’ and ‘drop’.
The symmetry of the façade fronting me has been severely damaged over the years. The ground floor was covered with tiles sized in apparent defiance of the clear rule introduced by the façade. The frames and blinds shielding the windows alternately, changing on every other floor, from wood to plastic, to aluminum, to stainless steel. The building’s water and electric lines have been plucked from the walls and transferred to external pipes replaced many times over, whose ramified wanderings record the punctured route of open drill marks. An abundance of jutting plaster, mortar patching, and plenty of rusty hooks were strewn across the entire surface of the three-story house, further accentuating the exceptional pockmarked appearance of its façade.
But the truly grave offense to the symmetry of the façade was caused by the disproportionately huge signs and air conditioners.
And yet, despite all its addendums, the building still kept its gate-shaped façade. Albeit deformed, its principal symmetry survived, innocently undefeated. The façade remained grand and regretfully heart-sickening. I noticed it at the very instant my eye spotted the building. It was the last, rather solitary house at the end of Port Street.
I easily restored it to its former glory, when impeccable, cream-colored plaster disclosed the earnestness of its clean, modern, lateral shape, and the light breaking through the geometrical glass bracelet endowed its symmetrical façade with an appearance somewhat feminine, respectful.
I would have died in front of it, ‘heart cocked’, had I seen it then.
On a second glance, I discovered it was a Mandate period building, and then I learned that in the thirties it housed a British luxury import shop best provisioned to meet the needs of the commissioned rank and administration of the shopkeepers’ regime. The glitzy shop had played, as it were, the role of the “Gates of Europe” in the Port of Haifa.
I should not have been too puzzled to realize it was a public building I had chosen once again.
The very thought that there was a need for such a store, in Haifa, carried a certain burden. As if some trace of the gigantic looting of Asia had found its way back home through the Levant’s entrance, the emptied Levant, the one that had been looted already before the arrival of this new conqueror. In the course of two hundred years, royally-accredited British spice-entrepreneurs, the cinnamon, vanilla, and pepper specimens busied themselves with the erection and management of a mighty maritime force fit to wage dozens and hundreds of small and big battles against competitors, against themselves, against pirate gangs assembled from amongst themselves, their competitors and their Asian adversaries. Together they all fought against the rulers of Asia. They butchered, raped and enslaved many millions of human beings, and all that while, the transport of the Asian bonanza, piece by piece, to Europe never stopped. Its remote scent has now returned to Haifa in the form of silk kerchiefs made for the officers’ necks and some perfume.
I look upon what was left of the Mandate period shop. Even after I reinstated the building, renovated its façade and faithfully restored all glasses into the bracelet, it was still but a small shop, an import business on the eve of the Empire’s decline. The officers controlling the quarrels among dirty Jews and dirty Arabs had been accustomed to duties more prestigious. They trained their unruly successors and were soon to depart. Had only someone bothered to ship them, once again, far away, east of Suez, back to Mandalay, “where a British soldier could raise his thirst”.
Under the above circumstances, it was a magnificent building. Symmetry had lifted its entire front surface, most powerfully working its spell, on me. This building undoubtedly magnificent once had overlooked the waters of Haifa Bay. Its layout had been conceived and fully sketched on a London drawing desk, by the hand of a British architect who had never left his capital. He had considered everything down to the last detail; “to its last sink and lavatory!” thus swearing allegiance to Colonial Reform and to the New Urbanism the Empire had intended to establish in the Levant as well.
I glanced at the beautiful building with the same vain hope and split heart any perfect symmetry excites in me.
I wanted to eat a white cake. My eye, my one eye, rolled up and down over a wonderful Copenhagen postcard-accordion dangling from the wall of the Shalom pastry shop on Independence Boulevard. The print was poor, its colors over-saturated.
This building was a modest one as well, three floors, roof, and cellar. Its elegance was restrained, rigid, and it too had a symmetrical façade that one could behold as distinctly from afar as from up close. It was a building in another city, positioned similarly to my Mandate period building, the last house at the end of a city, at the end of a port. One of its wings – the ‘Palais’ – was built in 1738 by architect and contractor Philip De Lange, and in 1781 an eastern counterpart with an identical façade was annexed to match it, the two connected by a wall and a convex gate.
The Pendant was the name of the twin that had popped up east of the Palais. “The Pendant of the Gates of Europe,” or was it “The Pendant Gates of Europe”? One of these two was its nickname, used by the merchants who shipped with the brand new galleys successfully adjusted to the complex sea raids in the West Indies, then.
I ate three white cakes and the waiter helped me tear the accordion off the wall.
The Pendant was but a huge stock warehouse, and it was a shop, one shop of the many shops of what had once been the Danish Asiatic Company in Copenhagen. This mobile settlement company was modeled after the British East India Company, and in the latter’s trail, it sailed to buy the world. From an ocean transport business, it rapidly developed into one of the leading world sea-trade companies. It owned and supervised a giant, modern fleet, clever weapons and a well-equipped, highly trained army numbering thousands of seamen and soldiers.
It exclusively owned more than a few of the Danish colonies in Asia and Africa.
I laid the late-baroque façade of the Asiatic Company Building on my knees. It was a somewhat complicated maneuver. I had to toss the entire accordion high in the air, hook the Asiatic Company Building just as the accordion was folding back, and clasp all the other postcards to reach the one I desired… People take pleasure in such performances. I find them vain.
In any event, it was now spread on my knees, façade pretty, flat, and almost clean of fop. The simple, heavy pilasters that emphasize the middle part and the mansard roof were already inscribed with the taste I favor – modern. I admire it. My heart expires as it recognizes that this façade also sets the folly of equivalence in which all prospects and delusions are leveled. Except here an additional mirage duplicates the trick: Behind its doors, there hides a wealth of a scale unknown to Korach, to Aladdin, to Ali-Baba himself… but the aspect of this façade remains poor; somewhat ascetic.
In a hundred, a hundred and fifty years, poverty will be adopted as a piece of business: sincerity and hypocrisy will merge to create some such ascetic splendor. This bond will be dense, definite, efficient, and impossible to crack. A single face will mask all the tools and houses surrounding us, it will invade everywhere… the deserts, the jungles… nothing will stop it…
Ah… but this had already happened long ago.
As my heart broadens in front of the beautiful façade of the Asiatic Company Building, its fair cast, all harmony, and innocence, strikes its phony modest smile, and my heart resumes its sinking. It is good that since Samson one cannot go around strangling buildings with one’s bare hands. On the other hand, you can blow them up. More and more I consider this option. When perfect beauty takes over me and I can not have it anymore, and no new ideas inspire me as to what else can be added to make it more refined, then I consider this option.
With a melting heart, I see how all the classical lines and cuts of the Asiatic Company Building façade powerfully preserve to the grandeur that had slowly migrated from the European palaces to its opera houses, and from the opera houses to the façades of the big companies and banks.
Perhaps it was never possible to fathom the figure of respectability? Perhaps it has always been like this, bewitching, deluding. Let it blow up, then.
The afternoon light from the south of Haifa Bay spread gently, lighting the crown on top of the Dagon silo, and the Mandate period glass bracelet as well. Focused on it, I crossed Independence Boulevard towards the building, crazed by the symmetrical façade and by the gate in the center of the Asiatic Company Building in Copenhagen, the gate between the Palais and the Pendant.
Today the building houses the notary of the Danish Foreign Office. It is called the Protocol Building. It deals with cultural relations of sorts; architecture, import and export of painting exhibitions, musicians, etc. Regardless of how very much I would like to require the services of this building in the future, in Haifa, I did not think of the Protocol Building of Copenhagen. Even in its refurbished form, its windows’ bracelets unorphaned and polished to shine – even then, I did not think of it. I was thinking only of how it was back when the Asiatic Company worked there, and of the gate that opened to a rear dock nearby the mooring where trade vessels unloaded their cargo directly into the company’s warehouses. Forty-three years before the Declaration of Human Rights in Paris, the Asiatic Company achieved astounding prosperity. There were about twenty-nine cargo ships, thirteen frigates, and thirty-four other small vessels in its service. All in all this armada carried two thousand five hundred and eighty guns, and personnel of over nineteen thousand seamen. Protestant, Calvinist and Catholic merchants set this titanic enterprise in motion. They dragged the Kings after them and eventually had them overthrown.
It was as clear as daylight that European humanity was advancing toward democracy at a dizzying speed. I look at the gate, at the heavy pilasters drawn upward as in a priestly blessing, at the blocked entrance – the Pendant. All of a sudden I notice a semblance between the Pendant and a guillotine. But I do not know why the merchants called the eastern wing of the Asiatic Company Building the Pendant. Perhaps they meant to say ‘The Pennant,’ as a twisted salute to the Asiatic Company Building. What were they implying? Perhaps it was the ocean that had made some of them into seamen, disclosing new secrets to them.
I do not know, nor have I ever set my eyes on that building before.
But I came to know it through a very special acquaintance. I knew it long before I found the accordion-fold postcards at the Shalom pastry-shop. I knew it from a painting.
The painting was created in 1902 by a beloved, famous Danish artist called Wilhelm Hammershoi, of whom, much like the building he painted, I had never heard before. After I saw the building painted, I thought I knew it perfectly.
In point of fact, the Asiatic Company Building was never painted. Only the gap – the sky – between its two identical counterparts was painted; the gap between the Palais and the Pendant – yes - it was painted, and the wall between them, it was painted, and the gate set in it, it was painted.
No. Half a Palais, half a Pendant, the wall, the gate, and the sky – only these were painted.
Had I rolled the painting to form a tube, or had I peeped at it through an optical device, such as one of the perspective toys admired by the merchants from the Asiatic Company Building, then half of the Palais and half of the Pendant together would have formed one piece, making it impossible to tell which is the Palais and which the Pendant. Then the wall would have extended and stretched further and further, to encircle an entire yard. In the depth of that yard, inlaid in perfect symmetry like a precious stone in the center of a ring, there, inside – who would have bothered to remember that there had once been a difference between the Palais and the Warehouse? There, inside, some ‘Palpendant’ or ‘Pendanpalais’ would rise, breaking forth as a new mode of settlement – I jest.
But what would I have done with that new settlement; it would have probably declined rapidly just as well, leveling itself on the scale of symmetry, diminishing into fiction. And it too would have corrupted the silent splendor of symmetry, leaving behind not much more than vain horror, and the still blood in a heart that had fled.
Hammershoi stood at the end of the street, looking into the sky that terminated the deep perspective, and blocked it frontally like a check-point, stiff, sand-colored, sealed more than any wall, imprisoned between the half Pendant and half Palais.
So it stands, the Asiatic Company Building; solitary at the presumed edge of a city, on the edge of the harbor, the two halves of its wings perfectly symmetrical, and it is cut off from its surroundings, packed in one box, with its sky.
As far as I was concerned, this acquaintance had introduced a special intimacy with both the building and its painter. I felt for certain that Hammershoi’s knees, much like my own, shook on account of that hallucinated balance; the absolute equivalence that the building’s symmetry decrees upon the promise and disappointment it induces, upon the hope and upon the despair.
Hammershoi painted the building in two states, once with its gates locked, and once again – with its gates wide open, a ship anchored behind it, or perhaps about to set sail.
Many painters have lingered on an object, a building, or a landscape, twice, a few times, and even many times. But for me, Hammershoi chose a unique situation: he chose to halve twice that which appeared before him twice. Twice he chose to capture on the painting plane the façade plane of the building’s two identical counterpart halves. As if it was not the building he was painting, but its plan, superimposing the two fronts in the painting. He held them tight as if the painting was his own chest. He embraced the two halves that came to a conclusion only outside the painting, infinitely. He packed them for me. So I felt. He dissected and strangled and resurrected the perfect façade of the Asiatic Company Building, that luring safe with its many promises, launching its prudish smile.
On the day Hammershoi finished his second version of the Asiatic Company Building, he wrote in his diary: “O MA.”
My intimate relation to the Hammershoi’s grew into a sort of gusto at a certain point, and one day I found the pretext to execute their linear scheme on a growing scale twelve times successively.
My eye caught the Haifa building on sixty-three Port Street from the far bank of Independence Boulevard sometime after I finished re-doing Hammershoi’s paintings. The perspective that opened before me was deep, and where it terminated it was blocked by a single building whose façade was symmetrical. The sight was outrageously familiar.
I had never passed that way before.
Closer to the building, on the far left corner of its façade, between the electricity and water pipes, I found a metal sign painted intense yellow. It was faithful to the color used to mark border signs and minefields. I spent most of my military service dismantling minefields, and it was there that I lost my two legs, my two arms, and that other one-eye. My wheelchair, I operate it effortlessly; with great dexterity, in point of fact. Likewise, it has always been my opinion that the roads of the State of Israel are filled with courtesy. Never have I accepted, and never understood the harsh blame put on the drivers in this country. I bring my wheelchair down to the road, raise a white hand – it was on my order that they cast it in white – and all traffic stops!
In this country, there is great respect for war heroes, even if not much is left of them.
But let me return to the case in point: The sign on the Mandate building. I know for a fact that this and no other is the yellow used for minefields. Projecting black letters introduced the name on the sign: The Corporate Near-East Company in Israel. For a reason entirely unclear to me, I had no impetus to find out what the deal of that company was. I did not ask myself nor entered the building to see for myself whether any company at all existed behind that sign. But I listened with great attention to a story told by a loafer who positioned himself by my side, studying me and the building through the camera’s viewfinder that I set in motion. It too I can operate effortlessly, with great dexterity, in point of fact.
‘Spins,’ he said, was the name of the British Trade Company in the Mandate days that had taken care of the wellbeing of the regime’s upper echelon, and of the Haifa Casino, he added. In fact, there had been two buildings, almost identical, planned by one of the British architects on either side of the street, as if one reflected the other, and one of the two was indeed a casino. One of them survived. He said I could find it on Bat Galim, number seven, where he himself lives. On that same building, he added, inviting me to call on him.
The idea that I could, if I only wanted to, set my foot – that I once had – that is, set my entire self into one of those symmetrical phantoms that haunt me in every city, inspired me like a plague.
The man was about to take off, but the furor with which I rearranged the black patch on my eye (I learned how to move my ears efficiently) and banged the cover of the camera lens, and perhaps it was also the gloom that surfaced and covered my face, made him stop in his tracks. He turned to me defiantly, almost in a rage, answering a question I never asked:
Haifa is not a city of the Muslims, it is not the city of the Jews, and hardly the city of the Christians. Neither Alexander, nor the Egyptians, nor the Romans, nor the Crusaders, nor the Templars had left any significant impression on it. Not Napoleon, not the Turks, not the British people, not us, not the Palestinians will leave any article of interest in it. Haifa has always been a harbor city, and it had what it has – prostitutes and a casino.
It’s Jerusalem you mean surely, I said. Haifa was not even there that long. I turned my chair with a swing. He managed to toss back at me: “What difference does it make? Seven, Bat Galim, Pirate, be my guest.”
He dragged one leg, I remember him. He later studied history.
I searched the web for information on an import company, Europe to Asia, named ‘Spins’ that had operated in Palestine during the Mandate period. I found nothing. It occurred to me that the name may have been distorted. Indeed, I was told rather explicitly that unlike what the name ‘Spins’ brings to mind, not only weaving materials and loom products were on sale there, but rather all that had gone for the officers' good fling. I checked anything that seemed plausible, or close enough to fit a seductive title for indulgent Mandate shopkeeping: ‘Spans,’ ‘Spend,’ Specks,’ ‘Spens’… With the same search method lacking any research value, a method that was more reminiscent of a game, I added to all these names the abbreviations: Ltd., Co., Assn., Corp., etc, but I did not get very far. One of the first addresses on the list aroused my curiosity so much, that I almost abandoned the initial purpose of my exploration.
At the ‘Spens & Campbell’ family site I found a sun print of a man, his face somewhat effaced, named Nathaniel Spens who was, as I am, an amateur painter. He left four paintings behind him, all viewable on screen.
The first painting, of epic proportions, addressed the Bolshevik Revolution. It was an exceptionally bad painting, ghastly populated by human and cattle cadavers, all, piece by piece, turned on their right side. In the second painting, Nathaniel Spens went a hundred years back to the Battle of Trafalgar, and it too was a dreadful painting; its horses and riders appeared like flat shadows, this time leaning on their left side. Moreover, I could not figure out why paint horses, when someone had already gone into the trouble of inventing the torpedo. Perhaps he wanted to suggest once again that all the modern wars, from the very first one, and more than all primitive wars ever, will ultimately be conducted over the body. For me personally, this was not without a point. In a letter from a family friend that for some obscure reason had not been included in the site, however, it was said that Nathaniel Spens mistook the shadows of mountains for mountains and the shadows of mountains for men. To me, it seemed that Nathaniel Spens’s friend considered Mr. Spens to be a real ‘chicken,’ and indeed such a coward, that on last account he mistook people for mountains too. But it seemed that the site builder, one of Spens’s great-great-grandsons, took this for a description of his achievements as a painter. This was presumably the reason for quoting the letter under the painting entitled The Battle of Trafalgar, and why it was placed so close to its caption.
The Indian Sentinel, the third painting left by Nathaniel Spens, was even more embarrassing. The Indian’s two legs, as well as the feather stuck behind his ear, were bent for no apparent cause. The pinkish rock on top of which Nathaniel Spens sought to position his likewise bent hero was also askew; the sentinel’s too broad a stride made the failure of this painting truly overwhelming.
Spens’s fourth painting featured the fair countenance of his wife Mary Campbell, her face wondrously symmetrical. It was an elaborate painting, ambitious, stunningly beautiful and utterly modern.