INTERVIEW / GIL MARCO SHANI / ART IS FREEDOM
Gil Marco Shani is a painter and installation artist. Born and raised in Tel Aviv, faculty member and senior lecturer in the Department of Art at Bezalel Academy of Art and Design. Shani has won many awards: the Gottesdiener Foundation Award for a Young Israeli Artist (2008) and the Sandberg Award for Israeli Art for 2018. His paintings are in the collections of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, the Israel Museum and others. His work scrapes the surface of a satiated, self-satisfied society to expose what goes on underneath. Violence, sexuality, fear, and horror emerge from ostensibly naive depictions, unearthing Israel’s anxieties in 21st century. He visited Belgrade several times and inspired by it had exhibition in Tel Aviv called “Belgrade”. This October while we were talking in his studio in Tel Aviv, he’s working on a new exhibition of photos which he’ll be glad to share with Belgrade audience…
1 / Let’s start from the beginning of your career. You graduated from the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in 1994. as a painter, but since then you have working in four fields: drawing, painting, photography and installation? What can you tell us about the relationship between them in your art?
For people generaly it’s difficult to understand, they want to know if I’m a painter or installation artist, but I can’t define myself just as a one of these. I am an artist and that’s the way I like to see myself. It’s about changing dynamics, changing temperaments. I don’t work in those mediums at the same time. I have periods of withdrawal. Every time I take one medium, I’ll try to go deeper into it. These days I’m only taking photos. But I don’t know how long this phase is going to be and what I’m going to do next. Yes, I did graduate as a painter, but after my first exhibition in a private gallery, I went into Museum and made an installation, which was my first big project.
2 / That first installation in a Museum on some levels looks like it was created by a designer – it was represented by two series of shoes, from childhood (shoes size 31) to maturity (shoes size 46). How design is connected to your art?
I don’t see any differences between these two. Design includes art, and art includes design, even though I know some great artists who are horrible designers. Fortunately, I’m not one of those. I’m not a designer, but I can use it as a language. My installation came out of modern design, not from painting. My engagement with design is interwoven in all the installations including the architectural ones.
3 / You did a few big installations, but Buses are the last one, and by many opinions the most impressive one. Can you tell us something more about it?
Buses were an ambitious, multi-layered architectural intervention in the heart of The Israel Museum in Jerusalem. The viewer was led to a framed display – a kind of full sized diorama behind a glass pane, which functions as a large display cabinet. The viewers stand on one side of the glass, looking onto the sight set with buses before them. The buses were my design, made with the help of my team. I didn’t make drawings, though I’ve used some I’ve made in Belgrade long time ago as inspiration, I start with making sketches, not like a designer but like an engineer. I created a prototype of a seemingly generic bus; in reality, there are no such front panels, or mirrors, headlights or seats – it’s all made from scratch. The readymade objects are limited and not suited for my story, so I have to create a substitute. I don’t want to bring materials from the real world into my work. I create an environment that doesn’t exist, that is only based on the real world – environment where no one has ever laid a foot before. I invent a place. The everyday world that I build is concise, cold, clinical, sterile – even metallic. When you see this bus out of expected environment then it’s not a real bus, it starts to have another kind of level. Artificial places that I create come from reality but once you realize and construct them, they are not reality, they become something else. Some people get it very strongly and some people don’t understand it. This is something I like? I like to be in a situation that people suspect, they don’t know what it is – is this art? And I think when you go to an artificial place something happens to you. You don’t walk normally, the sound is artificial, everything is in the delay and it creates a kind of very strong impact to some people.
4 / It seems like a feeling that one gets with a computer game – a sense of alert exploration, of constant threat, of a place that is familiar yet unknown, without knowing where it leads or what will happen next?
In sort of way, yes. I remember the moment at the Safari installation. I was standing outside the fence, in the artificial garden that I had created, in the artificial cold coming from the air conditioner – and I heard a cat. It worked on me – on me, who had built the thing… It was a Pygmalion moment. I had created something that had come back at me and managed to work on me. There is life in artificial. I create vacuum inside this safe place that is the museum, and implant the loneliness, the anxiety, the criticism. When it works, it triggers a kind of anxiety in the viewer, a more subtle sensation than fear. Real fear is hard to create in a museum, since it’s a sheltered place. Interesting fact about Buses is that people felt in this installation the feeling that you have when you go, for example by night, into collective place and there is nobody there, very apocalyptic moment. And then this vision become real, because when we removed Buses from the museum, corona has started and my vision became reality, because there were empty buses in front of the museum, in real life, buses with no tourists in them.
5 / So, the conclusion is that the future is always firstly imagined in the minds of an artist. And while you mentioned corona, lot of artists say that the pandemic have changed their art, what about you?
I am pretty agoraphobic. I don’t like places with lot of people, I don’t like a collective, masses. So, corona and lockdown were exciting for me, but only at the beginning, very soon it became boring. Not enough apocalyptic as I expected. I was there already in my thoughts before, lot of times, in that world with no people. Like in my photographs where are usually frames with no human beings, the structure that is isolated, the emptiness. Suddenly the world became like this but it was not strong enough for me I needed like REALLY apocalyptic moment.
6 / Your origins are from Yugoslavia, from Skopje mainly, how do those particular circumstances manifest themselves in you and your art?
My grandmother is from Skopje. They came to Israel before the Holocaust. There was a Zionism here in that time, and it erased for lot of people their origins. I remember I never heard my grandmother talking about her past life in SFRJ. I only remember she was praising Tito.There was a picture of him in the house, and she admired him, but I didn’t know much about culture or Yugoslavia at the time. I thought about it, it occurred in my mind that there is something I’m attracted to, especially when I went there, but without knowing much about that.
7 / You said that some drawings from Belgrade inspired you for Buses, but in fact the city inspired you to make a whole exhibition in Tel Aviv?
I made some drawings of bus station and near places because I stayed in hotel Bristol. I can’t explain exactly what happened, but it was something there. I felt something strong which I can’t describe with words and I wanted to make images of it. As you said, maybe it has something with my background that goes there, but not at the first line. It was, I think, also the romanticism of soviet times. When I came there for the first time it was almost as it was during the communism, everything was very black and gray, the black monuments, brutalism by itself. And it was winter. When you come in the winter, especially from a hot place like Israel, it looks apocalyptic and that kind of places attract me. I remember when I came to Bristol, the place where generals used to stay because the hotel belonged to the army, and looked through the window I felt like spirits are coming, I felt something that I’m communicating without understanding, it was very, very strong impact on me, and then I created these series of paintings that were part of the exhibition I called Belgrade. I’ve visited it several times after that and every time it attacks me in another way. It always was strong, but never the same.
8 / Nowadays if you’ll look through that Bristol window, you’ll see Belgrade which is different like the one city is dying and the other one is getting born? Did you have a chance to see how Belgrade has changed in last few years, visually and what’s your opinion on that?
I’ve heard that, I haven’t seen. But I think I can understand what is going on, because I think it’s parallel to Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv was the city with the great architecture in the 20s, 30s, there were Bauhaus buildings with balconies, very modest small town with no big buildings. And suddenly, in the last few years it became a monster, it’s a place of the rich, it’s noise, it’s nightmare. No modesty, no air. Everything looks the same, it’s generic. It becomes a city of building contractors, a city of cynicism and money. In today’s Tel Aviv, history is being erased and I’m fiercely critical of that. There’s total destruction of Modernism. The old buildings are being debased at the material level – from the notion of modern buildings to a world of cheap contemporary cladding, such as a ceramics, aluminum, plaster walls. It’s horrible, it’s a monster.
9 / You were born and living in Tel Aviv for more than 50 years, but now you have moved to Jerusalem? Why?
Jerusalem is a difficult city, very tense. Conflict is there. Very provincial, in the level of the mass people, but at the same time there’s also a sense of cosmopolitism, there are Arabs. Christians, Muslims, Jewish, everything is melting to one part. The history is great, inspirational. And it’s a mountain. For me as an artist I need a mountain, I need a change.
10 / Jerusalem is place of terrorism, what is your opinion on Palestinian Israeli crisis?
It’s a tragedy for both sides. Occupation is very bad, so I’m against it and I think it should stop. Morally it’s not good. It’s depressing. Also, there’s still a big discrimination of Israeli Arabs. When I was a student at Bezalel Academy, you could hardly find any Arabs studing, today when I teach there there are lot of Arab students, but situation is still not good as it should be. And, unfortunately,I have no hope that in my life this situation will change and that this conflict will be over.
11 / Does the politics of the day influence your art?
Not consciously. I am not a “political” artist in the usual sense of the word. There’s no activism in my art, I don’t send messages. Of course sometimes it gets into my art, because I live in a place that politics exists everywhere, but not as a purpose. There are lots of political artists that I can appreciate, but if you ask me personally it’s not the DNA, it’s not the first thing. Even though, I have a feeling those curators who come here, when they look for Israeli artists, they look for the artists who are political and who criticize the politics of the day.
12 / And what about freedom today in Israel, or in the world generally? Do you feel free? As a human being, as an artist?
No, I don’t feel free. Because today that’s not easy. Everything should be politically correct. And that’s not good for art. For life it is OK to be politically correct, but for the artist that’s horrible. It’s a disaster. You have to think not to offend anyone, the images are not free. You are very much limit. Every step you want to do, somebody could get offended, and you’ll have to explain yourself, which is not good for the art. Artist shouldn’t explain himself. And also I think that in the world there are so many horrors. I don’t feel free and neither protected, the world is not protected. The world doesn’t go to a good place. Sadly, as a human being I don’t feel free.
13 / Your art emits a lot of sexuality, sometimes it’s homoerotic and sometimes it’s in the same line with violence? How and to what extent is sexuality important for your art?
It’s important, because it’s part of the life. I never wanted to provoke, I’m not that type, and I don’t like the provocation, but I think art has to ask questions, to disturb. I’ve never spoke about community. I am gay but I was never close to community. There are some artists, especially in Tel Aviv, who are close to it, they have a role. I never had a role. I’m not a preacher, I don’t like community in any sense. This is me. In some way I was a pioneer, I always expressed images which show that I never hide this. And it’s good that I live in a country where I didn’t have a problem to express myself in that way. Israel is the country that has so many problems, but political situation for LGBT+ people is good, comparing to some other countries, like Russia or Serbia for example. Because of our history we understand everyone who is marginalized and persecuted. Even though sometimes this high level of LGBT+ tolerance seems like something that the system uses to send to the world an image of Israel as a tolerant place and at the same time there is occupation and a lot of discrimination towards other minorities. I think that in big part it’s a commercial.
14 / You’re a lecturer at the Academy, so what is, by your opinion, the most important for artists who start their career?
To create! This is the first thing I think is important. Before lecturing and becoming international, popular artist, it’s important to be loyal to your ideas. To work! Go against the system. Understand the system, respect it, but try to go against it. Not just to be admired by a lot of people. Today lots of artist act like they are agents, copywriters… Maybe they have a good career, but they lose their authenticity. That’s not good.
15 / And after all these questions, I think it would be interesting to know what your definition of art is?
Art is freedom, freedom of expression. It’s my way to exist, there’s no other way.
Tel Aviv / October 2022
interview by Bogdan Petrović
published by NIN magazine
Gil Marco Shani is a painter and installation artist born and raised in Tel Aviv. He is also a faculty member and senior lecturer in the Department of Art at Bezalel Academy of Art and Design. Shani has received several awards, including the Gottesdiener Foundation Award for a Young Israeli Artist in 2008 and the Sandberg Award for Israeli Art in 2018. His paintings can be found in the collections of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, the Israel Museum, and others. Through his work, Shani exposes the violence, sexuality, fear, and horror that lie beneath the surface of a seemingly self-satisfied society, unearthing Israel’s anxieties in the 21st century. Shani has visited Belgrade several times and was inspired by the city to create an exhibition in Tel Aviv called “Belgrade.”
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