Venice Biennale Report: Interview with Gilad Ratman for Israeli Pavilion

Aesthetica speaks to Gilad Ratman, currently representing Israel at the Venice Biennale about politics, narratives and his project for the event. The Workshop is a five-channel video installation that interacts with the architectural structure of the pavilion to create an exciting work that draws the viewer along on a narrative journey. We are presented with video imagery, recounted in a non-linear chronicle, of a group of people tunnelling from Israel to Venice.

A: Your work has been described as “a utopian model of nations’ connectivity”, do you have any particular political project?
GR: So you mentioned two words, one is utopian and one is political and they’re two different words. In terms of utopian, I wouldn’t define the project as utopian, because that’s a very specific word, but I can say that I am working more with the potential of things or what they can be, rather than with a reflection of what there is. So in that sense it might be considered as utopian. You also mentioned political, I see it as highly political but not in the sense of taking a direct stance, saying this is right and this is wrong. I don’t appreciate work that does that. I see my task as a political artist to subvert and to present an alternative to the language that is being spoken, and in saying the language I don’t mean the physical language, I mean the set of values and terms that are being used by us in order to engage the world. In other words I think it is not by accident that we are being encouraged to think in a way that is binary, because in this way we are easier to control. I am trying not to resist a certain idea but to resist the mechanism that is producing meaning. That’s what I think is political and that’s what I think art can do in a way that is very special and unique. It is what I find is the most powerful thing that art can do. As a citizen and a political person I see it rather differently. I think there are many powerful tools to engage with a specific political situation and I think is is my responsibility as a citizen but not as an artist.

A: How would you relate these ideas specifically to The Workshop?
GR: I think they relate to what I said about politics. I think this is a task that I have been dealing with for many many years and it is embedded in the work, it is always there. It is something very general, like – your effort to try and provide something that will encourage a different type of thinking. Specifically for this pavilion, I think that what I am dealing with brings a lot of questions that deals with terms like boundaries, territories, nets, distribution of information, community, resistance. These are highly political tools that are related to whatever we want to think. Many people ask if there’s a correlation between the project and the situation in Israel and of course it is because I’m living there but it’s not like it’s referring to that, it’s not like I’m saying these are the Palestinians and these are the Israelis. I live in a certain reality that affects me and and I’m sure that is influencing but it’s not referring to a specific situation or referring to the terms that I mentioned before.

A: One thing that struck me about the work was its integration within the pavilion itself, the structure of the pavilion plays a large part in the piece as a whole. How much influence did you have over the curation of the space?
GR: When I got this invitation to do the project I realised I was in a very specific situation that I am not used to, I mean the biennale situation is very specific. It’s my first biennale and even my first time to the venice biennale, I was too embarrassed to come and I always said when they invite me I will come. It’s a very unique situation, usually I don’t do works that are situation specific, but this time I felt that it’s very connected. The first time I visited, I entered the garden, I didn’t know anything about it and I saw small structures with names of countries and it felt like an ideal world, maybe utopian, you can travel you know without passports, and I thought it’s ridiculous, it’s funny and it’s cute. It provides something that I really appreciate in art, because I’m not so interested in curatorial efforts, I’m more interested in what an artist can say. Here it’s the way I like it because you enter a space and usually there’s one artist and he or she can do what they like and this is what I like about art. Each of the spaces are different, so it brings a different type of engagement and that is interesting.

When I entered the Israeli pavilion the first thing I noticed was that the architecture is very strong, and seeing pictures of the last project that took place here, I understood that whoever tried to go against the pavilion would lose because the architecture is very dominant. So my first idea was that I’m not going to go against it and try and eliminate it. Then I thought it’s a better location for something to happen than a location of presentation. I mean the level and the complexity of the building is amazing for shooting so I said I need to do something here and then the installation will echo this. The second thing is the spiral nature of the pavilion. It stands against the very nature of video, which is linear, because it’s an accumulation of frames on a timeline, no matter what you do with that it’s always like this. So I thought I want to subvert that, I want to deal with that and create a situation where the editing is actually being made but the way the viewer travels and that’s the friction between spiral or round or non-linear movement. A linear movement is also echoed in the work itself because the trip the viewer makes is linear because they enter one point and the come out in another point, but the workshop is completely simultaneous and non-linear because everything is happening at the same time.

A: When I first came in I wasn’t really sure what to make of it, just hearing the sounds and seeing the DJ, then as you walk around you’re piecing together as you go along. do you see it as a story?
GR: In a way yes. First of all you mentioned something that I wanted to relate to, the fact that I realised that if I want to go with the architecture of the pavilion then my starting point and my ending point are the same. So how do you build something that when you go back to the starting point you will gain something. So it needed to be that you don’t really understand what’s happening in the beginning and then later when you come back you read it differently because I hope people realise that everything that the DJ is doing is made from the voices that the people are producing.

Now the question of narrative, I think I am dealing a lot with narrative but I hate narratives actually. I was never able to tell a story with a beginning, middle and end, I always slice something, you never know why it started and how it ended. I’m always eliminating the cause, I leave the cause unexplained and I think if you ask me what are my materials in regard to narrative, they are not sound and clay and video but rather time, space, cause and effect and chain of events. These are the ingredients that make the narrative and I’m trying to work with them in a different way because I think we are encouraged to think in narratives. Narratives are very explainable and otherwise it would be a mess, but I like the mess.

A: Which artists would you say inspire you, or have you drawn inspiration from generally in your work?
GR: I would say Werner Herzog, the German film director. The list of my favourites is very long but I think I had the longest romance with this guy.

A: You are one of the youngest artists to be invited to exhibit at the Israeli Pavilion, do you feel any pressure because of that?
GR: Yes enormous pressure, it’s been really difficult. I mean to do the work is easy for me, I enjoy every moment of the process but once the show opened I began to feel a lot of pressure but the responses have been pretty awesome so I am a bit more relaxed now.

Gilad Ratman: The Workshop, Israeli Pavilion, Venice Biennale, until 24 November.

Rhiannon McGregor

1. Gilad Ratman, The Workshop, 2013, installation shot, courtesy of Braverman Gallery.