Lit up faces are sneakily on display. Glowing blue, green, red, yellow, they can be seen peering out from behind gates, walls and doors, or from under roads and metal structures. They are trapped within boxes, with stories to tell passersby.
These faces represent all of us. All around the world, people face the same struggles, shoulder the same baggage and overcome the same problems. These faces are the portraits of real people that Ariela Wertheimer has preserved in her Light Boxes. Her exhibit, The Freedom to Let Go, on display at the 2017 Venice Biennale, encourages us to listen to the stories, but also to let go of the problems, break through the insecurities, and simply connect with other people.
“People are people are people all over the world. They have the same problems, the same issues, and you can leave those problems here,” Wertheimer said.
Wertheimer’s kind eyes and open smile radiate in the Alfa Romeo Exhibition Hall in Tel Aviv, where some of her Light Boxes and Rope Series paintings are hanging for the opening of a new Jeep car model. They asked her to show some of her work because its message connected with Jeep’s marketing strategy: freedom, activity and letting go.
“Life is not still, like we are not,” she said. “We are always us, but every day we are slightly different. We feel different things, we are a little different.”
To show her work at the Jeep opening is a professional leap for Wertheimer, who only began displaying her work three years ago, in the Farkash Gallery in Jaffa.
She and her husband moved to Tel Aviv in 2013 after all of her five children had left home, and this motivated her to start working on her art more seriously.
“Moving to Tel Aviv was a big movement in my soul,” Wertheimer said, eyes sparkling. “I always lived outside of cities in small places and suddenly I’m in the big city and I’m seeing all this street art. It was very moving. In the beginning I couldn’t do anything – there were so many good artists everywhere. I was quite paralyzed.”
But she soon began photographing, painting and creating again, inspired by the people around her and their stories.
“I’m inspired from life,” she said with a smile. “I like to empower people, and help them if I can.”
Wertheimer has a wide variety of life experiences to draw from. She is married to Eitan Wertheimer, the son of industrialist Stef Wertheimer and one of the wealthiest men in Israel.
While she always wanted to be an artist, she first studied to be an X-ray technician at Rambam Hospital in Haifa, and served in the IDF for 12 years. After her service, she began to wonder what she wanted to do with the rest of her life and came back to art. She still volunteers at Rambam Hospital in the oncology department and is dedicated to philanthropy movements for health and education. Now, she uses her art to help people.
“I don’t sell them very expensive, so that young people can buy them and begin collecting,” she said. “All of the money I receive goes to the Rambam Hospital Cancer Department.”
She has a room at the Venice Biennale this year in a palazzo organized by the European Cultural Center, which provides additional exhibition venues so that more than one artist from each country can present their work. Wertheimer is excited to be in the same palazzo as Yoko Ono.
Her Light Boxes are, literally, boxes. Wertheimer prints black and white photographs on transparent plexiglass that become the front image, and paints a colorful acrylic portrait on wood for the back wall. The box is lit up with LED lighting, and with this box she tells a multilayered story of the person in the portrait.
“If you come close, you can only see the front picture,” she said, pointing at a green portrait of a woman peeking through from behind a photograph of the metal skeleton of a building.
“But if you move far away from the picture,” she said, walking away to view it from the opposite wall. “You get much more depth.”
This painting, on display at the Alfa Romeo Exhibition Hall, tells the story of a woman who built a shelter for women escaping domestic abuse. The building in the photograph is only a skeleton of what it will come to mean for the women it protects.
All of the stories she portrays are real; from real people, television shows or newspapers. While the boxes share these stories, they have also trapped the characters inside.
“Each person and their own small or large prison, each with their own story from the past of present,” Wertheimer wrote in her catalogue. “Once we recognize our problem and embrace it, we will embed the railings as a basic element in our personality and come out of the experience reinforced.”
There are 14 light boxes from Jaffa and 16 from Venice in her exhibit at the Biennale. The stories are truthful, uplifting, serious and beautiful. Independently, they tell personal stories, struggles and triumphs. Together they say, from Jaffa to Venice, we are the same.
“These stories together form a unified world where power is measured in human frailty and strength all at the same time no matter where you are,” she wrote.
While the Light Boxes may be Wertheimer’s main attraction, she has three other projects on display at the Biennale that connect with the theme of the Light Boxes. The Leaders is a series of three portraits painted behind photographs of palm trees. The trees represent the qualities of a leader.
“Some people think they are strong. The palm tree grows everywhere; it doesn’t need any special climate, and people can use everything in the tree,” she said – the leaves can be made into ropes, the trunk can be used for building and the fruit can be eaten or made into oil.
“You take everything from [the leaders],” she said.
But The Leaders also pose the idea that it can be dangerous when people are too dependent on their leaders.
“There is a worm that goes into [the palm tree] and cuts the head off so there is only the trunk. Maybe it is an allegory of something that has happened in the world. Maybe some of our leaders don’t have a head,” she suggested with a laugh.
Wertheimer also has her own rendition of the The Last Supper; a landscape of 12 figures that tells the story of modern-day connection: the era of the cell phone. An era in which we know so much more about each other, but connect in person so little. An innovation meant for progress that has instead boxed us in.
“We are trapped, depending on what we do with it, how much we use it and how much we want to be under Big Brother’s eyes,” she said. “With the phone, with Facebook – everyone knows everything about you.”
The last piece in Wertheimer’s exhibit at the Biennale is a two-meter by two-meter chandelier, which hangs over the center of the room, titled The Institute of Marriage. It is made up of separate panels that hang from a plexiglass loop. Together the panels display the portrait of a man, but they are separated by several inches from each other.
“Even in a relationship you have to give space,” she said. “As you walk around it you see a different part of the man. As time passes, you see more things. Over time, we discover something new in our partner.”
Fragments of glass hang from the center of the chandelier, symbolizing the glass broken under the Jewish wedding canopy. The idea is that relationships are fragile but can be strong.
These four different projects all tell different stories of individuals, but they come together with a shared message: people are people are people.
While her art is making strides around the world, Wertheimer was never looking to be famous. She loves creating art and helping people. These two dreams came together in her art, and have attracted people from all over the world. In telling truthful stories, her Light Boxes, and the rest of her exhibit, do exactly what Wertheimer set out to do: empower people.The Freedom to Let Go will be on display at the Palazzo Mora in Venice until October 31.