Zigi Ben-Haim and his "Elements of Survival"
The images that make up Israeli-American artist Zigi Ben-Haim's current exhibition at the German House are the product of a daily exercise over 90 days' time, which function as visual diary entries of his time in Berlin. Inside his SoHo studio, the constellation of images that Ben-Haim has created out of the many fragments of his life- including his Berlin residency- is striking. He is happy to introduce a sampling of them, though the names of the individual pieces don't all come to mind. But those are secondary; you can find them in the catalogues somewhere.
Much more interesting, of course, is the way Ben-Haim transfers his own enthrallment of the world around him onto his listener, unlocking- at least in part- the inspiration behind so many of his works, even down to the materials he uses to create them. This forms a large part of Ben-Haim's work, a characteristic he attributes to his interest in what he calls "environments," taking in both the physical and the societal. For his exhibition, "90 Days of Berlin," it was the environment of the German capital that provided him with the stream of impressions for his pieces.
Ben-Haim does not work with canvas, but instead has taken from his own industrial environment. Earlier in his career, he began painting on discarded scraps of paper he collected from the corners of his New York neighborhood, before transitioning to more industrial materials, choosing aluminium for its blank quality- which unlike canvas, has no texture, lacks the color of paper, and allows one to "start from nothing." Even the paint he applies to these aluminium surfaces is an oil-based, not acrylic, paint that is not typically used for art.
The theme of environment is evident in the recurring symbols in his work, including those in "90 Days of Berlin." Ben-Haim describes these as "elements for survival": a leaf, a basic symbol of nature that "lives, dies and migrates," just like human beings. A brick, an ancient symbol of creation and creativity in nearly every society. The combination of the two is necessary for survival, says Ben-Haim, and they come together in the figure of the industrious ant, which in nature is often seen shouldering the load of a leaf on its back. "There is disproportion in nature," he says, and points out that in his works, sometimes the leaf carries the ant.
"Take My Roots with Me" Enlarge image (© GKNY)
Ben-Haim has never been a stranger to exploring the environment; growing up in Israel after his family fled from his birthplace of Iraq, studying art in California, and settling in a SoHo studio in New York, he now divides his time between the US and Israel. His exhibition at the German House is further evidence of Ben-Haim's fascination with new surroundings, though he always takes care to "take my roots with me," as he puts it. In the "90 Days" series, many of these impressions are placed together in thoughtful combination with Berlin's most well-known and beloved sights: the Reichstag building with an emerging leaf, a striding Ampelmännchen being followed by an ant, a tiny sprout rising from Brandenburg Gate.
And then there are the words. Newsprint ,taken in clips and distorted on the aluminium, the publication barely recognizable but still present, forming segments and waves throughout his pieces. While the language is sometimes discernible, the content is not, and Ben-Haim is sure to adjust his sources according to the "environment" that each work of art is centered on. "This is culture," he says. One sees the unmistakeable boldface of Der Tagesspiegel, swirling around amidst an amalgam of Berlin-inspired images in many of his pieces from "90 Days in Berlin."
The three months Ben-Haim spent in Berlin in 2005, as part of an Artists in Residence Program grant from DAAD, continue to influence his work. One of his most recent projects, a series of surgical masks painted with a single word or image, bears such recognizable names as "Bio," the German word for organic. Again, the intersection of cultural environments pervades his work, as the 1,001 masks were inspired by the classic tales of 1,001 Arabian Nights and the storyteller figure Scheherazade. "She was saved each night by a single word," explains Ben-Haim, surveying the multitudinous references to Western popular culture alongside Israeli and other mainstream symbols. "And we are saved by a single image."
Exhibition "90 Days of Berlin" at the German House
The exhibition "90 Days of Berlin" will be on view from November 3-December 15. The accompanying catalogue will be available for purchase at the opening reception; 20% of the proceeds will go towards DAAD scholarship funding.