YOU CAN'T PUT IT IN A FRAME | April 4th 2008
David Rubinger (courtesy Tel Aviv Museum of Art)
Dani Karavan is a master at constructing grand, site-specific works of art. James Woodall sees currents of pain and loss in the artist's retrospective exhibition in Berlin ...
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
Dani Karavan's art is not for galleries or collectors. It is far too bold and takes up far too much space. Rather, he creates site-specific art for the outdoors, typically for public institutions, either in Israel (his home country) or elsewhere around the world. And when a city--or a museum, international ngo or garden--calls him, it's usually with a request for something grand, abstract and meaningful, like his "Square of Tolerance" (dedicated to Yitzhak Rabin) at the Unesco headquarters in Paris, or his three-kilometre, column-lined "Way of Peace" in the town of Nitzana, near the border of Egypt and Israel. Dividing his time between Tel Aviv and Paris, Karavan is in constant demand.
Perhaps his most famous project is the "Negev Monument" (pictured). Built between 1963 and 1968 at the edge of the southern Israeli desert, to commemorate those who fought in the 1948-9 war of independence, the giant sculpture put Karavan on the map. It looms spectacularly out of barren soil, like a research station on some lonely planet. Concrete tubes, whorls and sharp angles, through which a visitor can wander about and climb on, undulate over 100 square-metres. From space, it might resemble a spider in aspic.
The art of this singular 77-year-old is now being celebrated at Berlin's Martin-Gropius-Bau. (A version of the show premiered in Tel Aviv earlier this year.) Karavan had long shunned contact with Germany, owing to the loss of family in Poland during the Holocaust. But in 1977 he was invited to participate in Kassel's documenta 6 exhibition, a show of modern and contemporary art that takes place every five years. He travelled to the exhibition and discovered he found it easy to relax among young Germans, particularly in the art world. Since then, more than half a dozen Karavan projects have been commissioned by German cities, each of which touches (inevitably, perhaps) on aspects of memory and destruction. Three are in Berlin: one illustrates laws enshrined in the 1949 German constitution; another is a waterside ring of nine marble chairs, inspired by words of Einstein; the third, ongoing, is to be a memorial to the wartime murder of Sinti-Roma people.
That Germany--and Berlin above all--so readily welcomes a Jewish artist of Karavan's stature makes some sense. But he brushes off the weight of history. "This thing is talked about too much now. I work anywhere I'm invited to," he explains.
With his bald pate, big hands and lively brown eyes, he looks a little like Pablo Picasso. He shares the Spaniard's sense of artistic mission, though shies away from claiming the same inner drive. "I look for somewhere to place my ideas," he says. "I don't sit in my studio and think, 'I have something to say', and then do it just because I want to. I start work only when I'm asked."
Entering the Gropius-Bau's reception hall, the eye is drawn upwards to an inverted olive tree, leaves hanging down like an explosion of misdirected nature. There is an element of Karavan's work that recalls Chagall's, with images cast in a topsy-turvy third dimension. The show offers an interesting contrast in the way it brings the wild exterior into a calm interior--domesticating it all, somehow. The show's 20 rooms include sand sculptures, cacti in water, and drawings from the 1940s and 1950s, which have an openness and boldness of line that give a sense of the artist's early fascination with natural space.
Karavan's outdoor, site-specific projects are represented by photographs, films and models. These include an extraordinary three-kilometre-long outdoor axis, "Axe Majeur". Begun in 1980 and still in progress, the work runs between Paris and the satellite town of Cergy-Pontoise. It is surely the most ambitious project in landscape gardening ever undertaken. (Karavan's father was himself a landscape gardener in the Tel Aviv area.)
Another famous work€”this one indoors€”is the wall at the back of Israel's Knesset, or parliament. Entitled "Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem" (pictured), this bas relief of intersecting slabs of uneven sizes runs across an area 24-metres long and seven high. To the right of the speaker's chair, an eye-catching, cubistic design of circles, semi-circles and diagonals breaks up the wall's monumentality.
"The architects working on the Knesset [built between 1958 and 1966] were fighting among themselves but, for the wall, managed to agree on me," explains Karavan, who was 34 years old at the time. "I asked myself, What will happen if I fail? This is the heart of the Parliament of Israel! Well, it's been there for over 40 years. No-one wants to change or cover it up. Some Knesset members sit there and don't know what it is, or who did it, and they don't ask."
Karavan will not say whether he, or his art, have become embroiled in his country's turbulent relationship with the Palestinians. He keeps his politics oblique, even as he explains the meaning behind the upside-down olive tree at the show's entrance: "Good government conserves and bids for peace; bad government separates and destroys. An uprooted olive tree for me is clearly a result of the latter."
Describing a potent symbol of pain and disorder is the closest Karavan will get to political comment. His art speaks for itself.
"Dani Karavan: Retrospective" runs at Berlin's Martin-Gropius-Bau until June 1st.
(James Woodall is a writer based in Berlin.)