The 10th installation of Experimental Israel was a real Greek feast, as our guest was one of the leading figures in the Israeli art scene – Uri Katzenstein. Katzenstein, a true multidisciplinary artist, features works that range from the strictly plastic, to film, installation, theatre and sound art. But it is in fact the latter that intrigued me most in Katzenstein’s opus, as it seems to play a pivotal and unique role within his works. Katzenstein, who claims to have never been officially trained in music, has also dabbled in his career in proper music performance, but the bulk of his work features or is accompanied by soundtracks that are in many ways the epicentre of the entire creation. Accordingly, his closest collaborators are artists who, like himself, find themselves at an intersection between genres and mediums, or encompass more than one artistic world and thus defy a concrete definition. However, one of the arguably most interesting facets of his work are the many instruments he has built and displayed throughout his career. These instruments vary in shape and format – at times they can be found objects that Katzenstein modifies unrecognisably; at others he presents complex mechanical systems that play and improvise on their own accord. Katzenstein relates this fascination to his days as a young artist where he simply wanted to be in a band, but there was no one to play with, so he started designing instruments that can play on their own. It was with a selection of these instruments that Katzenstein came into the Halas studio, and set them up upon my request of him to improvise for us. Uncharacteristically for our broadcast, Katzenstein suggested that I join him in his improv session, an invitation I extended to Daniel Meir, the director of Halas radio. Together we sat and talked and listened and played, and partook in an atmosphere of sharing, openness and wonderment brought into our studio by Uri Katzenstein.
In trying to define experimentalism, Katzenstein seemed to me a prime candidate, as his entire approach is teeming with a “stepping out of bounds” attitude; an attitude I believed could illuminate for us the meaning of experimental trends as we march into the 21st century. Katzenstein relates to experimentalism first and foremost as a process. He claims it is shaped primarily by the personal attributes of the person carrying out the experiment. It’s a way to escape one’s boundaries, to refine and improve, and most interestingly, is, in many occasions, a consequence of mistakes made. I query whether the richness one finds in Katzenstein’s works can be attributed to experimentalism, a question that sends him down a long trail of thought: As the avant-garde movement doesn’t exist anymore, or as Katzenstein puts it – its main works can be found in illustrious collections, he feels a calling to reinfuse the tenets of this ideology with meaning. Katzenstein also claims to prefer the “fast trains” – those that shoot forward with speed, not taking into account the “stations” left unchecked, or the “passengers” who weren’t quick enough to board the ride. It’s as if he has a clear destination and he welcomes you to join along with open arms, but you must be aware that this won’t necessarily be a comfortable journey. The redeeming factor is that Katzenstein himself is always there with you throughout the journey. This is made evident by the fact that his own image (whether in figurines, statues, or characters in his films) is a defining motif in his work, or even more importantly, the fact that he himself partakes in the artistic experience as a performer during his shows, or simply as an invigilator or regular visitor. I mention to Katzenstein that the first I’d seen of him in person was during the closing day of his latest Tel Aviv museum exhibition. Seeing him there amongst the many figurines of his likeness made me believe that he too, that is, the living and breathing artist in person, is the centrepiece of his entire show. Of course, this idea must be partially true, but it is aided precisely by the evocative nature of his work that seems to immediately target emotional reactions rather than unanimous meaning.
This thought leads Katzenstein in a vehement reaction in opposition to the “instant” culture; a culture that suffices with second hand experiences and cannot tolerate long arduous processes. He claims that as a professor of art he sees too many examples that are a consequence of this practice, which he simply refers to as “lazy art”. It’s as if people are willing to suffice with being close to, or in proximity of the experience, but not in any way truly in it. Having said that, none of this criticism finds its way directly into his art. Katzenstein prefers to show the other cheek and presents his art, and indeed art at large, as an act of therapy. If the art instigates, if it raises complicated questions and thought processes, if it deals with topics that the viewer cannot afford to, then it is doing a service. And then there is of course the question of trust: whether one truly believes Katzenstein when he presents his boundaries, seeing those are, as he claims himself, quite screwed. But to Katzenstein, even if one is confronted with a work that prompts negative responses, what’s important is that the work is there and that it wasn’t before; the topic is being dealt with now, and only time will tell whether the work lingers on. In a sense, the art as a mirror – art as therapy, and hence, not dealing solely with the artist’s musings, but with whatever it is that’s being set at his table by society; and what is society if not the individuals is comprises.
A prime example of all this is given to us by Katzenstein as he describes one of his works: it’s a performance piece where the artist himself, dressed up as a sort of mad doctor, with huge shoes, sat on a bed, uncharacteristic mouth guard (disabling him from speaking properly), suggests a treatment to the museum visitors. The treatment consists of holding hands with this somewhat intimidating and dubious looking practitioner, which by doing so, closes an open ended electrical circuit that slightly electrifies them both – the doctor/artist and the viewer/visitor. A wonderful illustration, as it acts like a treatment where, if the visitor is willing to trust the artist and join hands with him, s/he creates a bond that signifies crossing a boundary of fear (of boundaries at large, if you will), celebrated by the mutual electrocution of artist and patron alike. The reactions, tells us Katzenstein, were predominantly emotional and grateful.
And what of sound? Katzenstein tells us that all the sound objects he creates illuminate a facet of a world. These might be ideas or objects that do not give out sound information, but maybe a fantastic sound can be tailored for them and thus illuminate them further. Maybe we discover that an object, unto now innate and mute, reacts perfectly to sound? And what of objects that are so drenched in meaning, that tagging a sound element to them would simply create an unbearable harshness, or worse yet, a cliché? These objects too can benefit, as they then evoke the sounds in the viewers mind without ever having been presented.
The many figurines in Katzenstein’s likeness mentioned earlier present the artist in his various and most personal guises. They are perhaps polished, ageless versions of himself, but they are also bare, part man part woman, sexually aroused and sometimes erect. He uses his art as a means to allow us, the viewers, to deal with these same issues in ourselves, and by doing so does us a huge service, whether we like it or not. This generosity, embodied in Katzenstein’s works with their abundance of details, showing us their entrails without embellishments, is as true of the man himself: his is a spirit of giving, of taking you along for the ride always as an equal, always attentive, always respectful.
Later that evening, after having left the studio, I find myself at a friend’s improv gig. The gig itself was, at least as far as the audience was concerned, on the demanding side of the spectrum. During an intermission I spoke to another audience member I didn’t know, who seemed quite perturbed. The rhetoric on his side was of an ilk I’ve by now grown quite accustomed to – making bold sweeping statements such as: “this isn’t music”, or “I like to see people play, not make noises on a turntable!” I found myself, at the end of an emotionally packed day, replying to him with a voice that was almost from a different world: “Whatever you do or think, you must be generous with these people. This music demands it of you. Imagine those performers going on stage, trying to reinvent the wheel, not knowing where they’ll end up, and needing the courage to do so fully, all the way, and in front of an audience at that. Be generous with them… suffice with a moment or two that you did like, and believe that they didn’t reach that place on their own – they did so with you… they’re sharing it! You have to be generous… you have to be generous”. The voice was my own perhaps, but the day was Uri Katzenstein’s.