When you walk into the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art’s new exhibition “Freigedank” (Free Thinkers) by Israeli multimedia artist Guy Goldstein, you are immediately confronted with the notorious opera Rienzi by German composer Richard Wagner, played by a ghost orchestra of transistor radios, while a grid of coded dots projects onto the surrounding walls. However, with Goldstein’s work, nothing is as it initially appears.
The multisensory and evocative installation marks the inauguration of the first-ever artist prize awarded by the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art. As the first recipient of the Keshet Award for Contemporary Art, sponsored by the Bar-Gil Avidan family, Goldstein was selected by renowned curator Louis Grachos to realize his exhibition.
Grachos, who is the executive director and CEO of The Contemporary Austin in Texas, was tasked with choosing the prize winner from a group of 10 finalists previously determined by the Award Committee.
“It was a hard choice. There was an amazing amount of talent, and I enjoyed the work of all the artists. They were well informed with work that was beautifully, technically executed, and I could have worked with a handful of them,” says Grachos. “What impressed me about Guy was his use of multimedia and sound. He presented a rich, complex idea, which came out of the context of being an Israeli artist, yet the concepts are relevant anywhere in the world.”
Goldstein was born in Haifa in 1974, earned a bachelor’s degree from the NB Haifa School of Design and a master’s degree from the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem.
“Goldstein is known as a sound and installation artist, whose unique language translates visual image into sound, and vice versa, through innovative technological means,” says Aya Lurie, director and chief curator of the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art.
In his installation at the museum, Goldstein expands upon themes reflected in his previous works, delving deeply into the social and political aspects of sound and music.
“I found this idea to be thrilling and rich with potential…to create a truly inspired and experiential exhibition that could engage audiences in a visceral way,” says Grachos.
As an Israeli, and as the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, Goldstein does not shy away from “off-limit” ideas like Wagner’s infamous opera Rienzi, the Last of the Tribunes (1838-1840), which was banned in Israel due to its use in Nazi propaganda. Instead, Goldstein intentionally concentrates on this controversial piece in an attempt to spark a dialogue about censorship and how it can define social, political and cultural identities.
“Just like any other art form, music and sound are products of their cultures and tied into them very intimately,” says Goldstein. “For me, it isn’t about returning to the ‘pure’ original piece; that isn’t interesting.
Rather, I would like to look at these layered meanings as separate from the music and meaningful in themselves.”
Goldstein’s installation references the propaganda utilized by the Third Reich, while also cautioning about the dangers of censorship and art used for sectarian purposes.
“I have chosen Wagner’s opera as a symbol and a specific case study to raise the larger issues of artistic freedom, freedom of speech, and public discourse, which I think are extremely relevant in present-day Israel and around the world,” says Goldstein. “For me, Wagner’s music is an instance of how a complicated body of artistic work can be stamped with a single label – in this case, Nazi – for a variety of political and social reasons. Over generations, this categorization becomes fact, the historical complexity is forgotten, and even though banning artistic content today is meaningless because everything is available online, Wagner’s music is still a strong taboo in Israel.”
The installation fills the entire gallery space with 20 chairs arranged to mimic the spatial experience of an orchestra. The chairs have been disassembled and reassembled to appear standard at first glance, but they have been modified in a way that eliminates their traditional function.
Atop every chairs is a radio transmitter, each of which is set to broadcast a single station, and each station plays a separate instrument section. Together, the radios form a full orchestra playing Wagner’s opera.
“He uses the medium of sound – specifically, pirated radio transmission – to disassemble and restructure Wagner’s opera, converting illicit text into music and transforming the physical space itself into a music box,” says Grachos.
Goldstein’s meticulous attention to detail is once again visible in the Morse code-like dots, projected onto a grid, moving across three walls of the gallery. This is, in fact, another deconstruction of the opera; Goldstein breaks down the libretto into a visual code of analog data, which can be read only by a machine.
“I wanted to create a space that has multiple inputs – including sound, visual, and informative – that viewers can move through, a space where the materials are available but their reception is not enforced,” says Goldstein.
The artist also aims to provide visitors with a comprehensive, multisensory and spatial environment, which he says should be “experienced through many senses and levels of engagement.”
“The installation is truly experiential – to stand in Goldstein’s ‘music box’ is to absorb through the senses the emotional intensity of Wagner in real time,” says Grachos.
Through his installation, Goldstein forces thought-provoking ideas about societal responses to collective trauma and the intricacies of cultural censorship and sensitivities.
“I think it is essential for artists – and for anyone living in a democratic society – to continue finding new meanings in the images, sounds and signs around us, and not to subscribe to one version of their meaning because that should be something that always keeps changing, evolving and expanding,” says Goldstein.
Following the exhibition in Herzliya, Grachos has invited Goldstein to exhibit at The Contemporary Austin in 2019.
“This exhibition is especially important in today’s climate. With what is going on with Brexit, the immigration situation in Syria, and the US post-election, Guy’s ideas are becoming even more relevant. But that is what great art is – an idea transcends borders,” says Grachos. “I am excited to bring his work to Austin. It will resonate beautifully, which is the true genius of the work.”
The exhibition “Freigedank” (Free Thinkers) is on show at the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art through February 3. For information about the museum: www.herzliyamuseum.co.il