Phenomenological Architecture in the Installations of Nadav Weissman

Baudrillard said that every architectural act can be classified as a simulacrum, since architecture will forever aspire to produce an autonomous reality of its own. According to Baudrillard, there is no single, superior and absolute reality, and therefore it is not the concrete dimension of reality that matters, but rather the synchronization of all the individuals in society on that same specific reality, even if imagined. Unlike the architectural simulacrum, art installations do not necessarily pretend to resemble, disguise, or replace some original. They remain on the level of representation, and therefore it is perhaps more correct to describe them as a simulation. However, the installation medium does aspire to create an alternative reality of sorts, one that exists physically in the substance of the installation, and metaphysically between the spectator and the space.

Nadav Weissman’s works contain this ambivalence toward the simulacrum. In his installations, Weissman occupies the entire gallery space, appropriates it, and turns it into a miniaturized world of surrealistic events. In his work, “Black Lawn”, Weissman turns a typical Israeli housing complex into an eclectic nightmare. He placed “models” of white buildings in the museum space - houses on stilts, decorated with plaster “shpritz” from the outside and whitewash on the inside - a typical Israeli architectural style from the 1970s. This Israeli building style stands in sharp contrast with its environment - black vegetation and baths or puddles of sorts, which, if they resemble any realistic landscape whatsoever, are more characteristic of a gloomy European landscape. Huge ferns of the kind that usually hang from the balconies of houses are strung from the ceiling, threatening to swallow the neighborhood and highlighting the distorted scale. Three hybrid figures, giant cocoon-like figures with human heads, are strewn on the floor helplessly.

The uniformity of the stilt-houses reminds us of the desire of modern architecture to achieve a universalism devoid of any local identity, and specifically Le Corbusier’s “Five Points” of modern architecture. But the fact that the viewer immediately associates the buildings with the Israeli context testifies to the failure of modern architecture to achieve its universal aspirations. The artist’s buildings are a cross between the buildings in which he grew up in Haifa of the 1970s, and the Tel Aviv buildings in which he lives today. It can be said that the buildings are icons, but their scale is disrupted; they are not small enough to be an architectural model and not large enough to function as real buildings. In both the real and the imaginary space between the clean and well-kept facades of the houses of the neighborhood, the contrasting surrealistic images and the distortion in scale create the gap between signifier and signified. The concepts of time and place are subverted, while horror and madness are created in the space between the substance and the viewer.

Lacan claims that the sublime traumatic takes place when there is a break in the familiar chain of signifiers. In visual art, this break is never absolute, since art, for the most part, does not stray from the symbolic level of the representation of reality, but it can simulate that same break, and thus cause the viewer to think about it from a rational distance. Weissman cuts short every familiar sequence and crushes the safest space—the space of the neighborhood. The inhabitants of the neighborhood are present and absent. The animation screened on the wall, containing images of people being swept up in a current, hints at an imminent disaster. Perhaps the inhabitants of the homes left the neighborhood hastily, out of fear of that same traumatic sublime, that same terrifying, vast, and quantitatively inconceivable natural force.

In another of Weissman’s works, “Winds”, the artist built the frame of a house out of bones, in an olive grove in Ein Hod. This work is also an icon of a real house, and perhaps even a universal symbol of a house - four walls and a triangular roof. The ever so familiar symbol from children’s drawings undergoes defamiliarization to turn into a ghost house, with no walls, whose inhabitants are present absentees. In the choice of bones as building materials, the house takes on human traits, and as such, it is mortal. The viewer enters the work; it surrounds him, but denies him the basic function of the house—shelter and concealment.

The work was shown as part of the group exhibition, “On the Spot”. One cannot ignore the political meanings of the specific place in which it takes place—an olive grove in Ein Hod (an Israeli artist colony established in 1953 on the ruins of an Arab village abandoned in the 1948 war). Weissman brings these meanings to the surface through the material he uses. The bones symbolize the life that was uprooted as a result of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the lives of people and of places, of olive trees - symbols of peace - that were torn up brutally by the aggressive act of occupation. In the terms of visual art, this hunted house is site specific. But if we wish to translate this principle to architectonical terms, we might say that Weissman’s house is built according to Kenneth Frampton’s principles of Critical Regionalism—it grows out of the place, it is exclusive to the place, it is done by hand, and the visitor who enters undergoes a phenomenological experience—a tectonic, bodily, sensory experience that is not exclusive to the visual medium.

Perhaps Weissman is calling here for that same “Dwelling” that Heidegger spoke about - the desire to return to a deep-rooted place, connected to the earth. But it should be remembered that, in contrast to the naïve and optimistic aspirations of phenomenological architecture, the work still carries the artist’s unique signature—defamiliarization, threat, alienation. The ambiguous meaning of the title of the work, meaning both “winds” and “ghosts” in Hebrew, testifies to man’s vulnerability to natural and supernatural forces, even within his own home. Perhaps the material-phenomenological aspect of the work tries to answer the basic human need that is generated as a result of the existentialist recognition of the absurdity of the world.

-- Keren goldberg

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