Fitzcarraldo Joins a Kibbutz: Oded Hirsch at Thierry Goldberg
Oded Hirsch: Nothing New at Thierry Goldberg
March 4 – April 15, 2012
103 Norfolk St, between Rivington and Delancey
New York City, (212) 967-2260
Almost a century ago, a small group of Russian Jews migrated to Israel’s Jordan Valley. They named their new home Tochka—’dot’ or ‘point’—because they thought it wouldn’t last. But it did, growing around an intense work ethic and powerful communal bonds, like other kibbutzim, and is known today as Kibbutz Afikim. In 1976, it would also be the birthplace of artist Oded Hirsch. Even though he left the kibbutz and now lives in New York, he has profound connections to the land and people of his formative years.
While Nothing New is Hirsch’s first New York solo exhibition, his work has already made an impact in the U.S. and abroad, perhaps most notably in The Workers at MASS MoCA and The Young Israelis at Lesley Heller Workspace. It is only at Thierry Goldberg that Hirsch’s video trilogy—50 Blue, Tochka, and the show’s eponymous piece—finds completion. This third video, based on a story by Amos Oz, The Way of the Wind, foregrounds differences between generations of kibbutzniks, between tradition and change, between ideology and practical action. These themes, all set against the embattled but stunning backdrop of Israel and its history of utopianism, are threaded throughout the show.
In each of these impeccably produced documentary-style videos, Hirsch stages seemingly pointless physical ordeals sharing some of the kooky compulsion depicted in Werner Herzog’s film, Fitzcarraldo. Hirsch doesn’t gather a cast to pull a steamship over a mud-slick mountain, but the dream behind that effort—to bring opera to the Amazon—is not unlike Hirsch’s desire to unite people for the purpose of making art; both put art under scrutiny while locating it outside traditional comfort zones.
In each case also, the earth is both help, and in the form of mud, hinderance. In 50 Blue, Hirsch’s brother struggles through the muck-thick obstacle course of rural hill and dale as he pushes their wheelchair-bound father to a watchtower. Once there, he’s hoisted up to appreciate an anticlimactic view. Likewise, in Tochka, workers wrestle with a giant, mud-encrusted spool en route to the construction of a rickety bridge over a barely perceptible ditch. And in Nothing New, a parachutist caught on an electrical line is brought down to earth, but not by a ladder. Instead, a frenzied tug of war with the electrical towers slackens the lines enough so that the trapped man’s feet reach a mound of dirt piled beneath him; a roundabout solution but the only one seemingly accessible to the people on hand. With such dubious end results, especially under such absurdly strenuous conditions, the drive to achieve is called into question.
Like other task-oriented artwork, process is the priority. Precedence for this can be found in the performance, participatory, and video art of late 60s, early 70s America. However, unlike Bruce Nauman, Vito Acconci, Richard Serra, or even a contemporary like Kate Gilmore, Hirsch does not focus on hermetic, individual efforts. He makes everyone pull together both literally (on ropes) and metaphorically (as a support system), but the actions are so stiffly stylized and methodically choreographed that aspersions are cast on the ties that connect but also bind. Of course it is exactly those bonds of faith and place that enabled Hirsch to recruit the volunteers essential to his artistic endeavor. This feat is mirrored in the clever projection of the trilogy. A specially built triangular screen, centered in the back space of the gallery and showing a video on each of its sides, gathers gallery-goers around it like kibbutzniks at a campfire. Even the intermingling of soundtracks creates a simultaneity which enhances the experience by injecting recollected content from one video into another.
In fact, it is never entirely clear what time it is in this work. The bland, utilitarian clothing does not reflect contemporary fashion while intermittent dips to black and apparent continuity errors in the sky’s shifting light confuse a straightforward reading of real-time progression. In some cases, things even come to a standstill. Not only do workers seem locked in a freeze-frame when they stop to rest or contemplate, but the parachutist and man-in-the-wheelchair are so inert it’s possible they are ‘no longer with us.’
There are actual photographic still images in the show serving mostly as production souvenirs, but a richer stillness is given voice in a fourth video, Habaita, fittingly situated in the passageway between the gallery’s front and back areas. Here, a group of men and women stand in a motionless rowboat as though posing for a photograph. This is not the intergenerational mix in Nothing New; it is an exclusive group—all over sixty—which includes Hirsch’s parents. Although the itinerancy suggested by the boat is incongruent with its immobility, these cultural sentinels exude a stalwart dignity. There is no dialogue in this piece or in any of the work, but the exhibition speaks volumes.