Raw Romanian underground sounds

Gilad Ratman’s new art installation can be witnessed – both visually and orally – at the Israel Museum.

March 28, 2015 20:41

band. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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The basic premise of Gilad Ratman’s latest art installation is, surely, totally ludicrous. There are plenty of musical acts that pump out the decibels, with heavy metal bands among the loudest, but Ratman chose to get their rough and ready musical word out to us by burying the very means they use to pound our ears deep in the ground.

The results of Ratman’s surprising artistic enterprise can be witnessed – visually and aurally – at the Five Bands from Romania work, part of the 6 Artists 6 Projects exhibition currently in progress at the Israel Museum, which is contributing to the institution’s jubilee year festivities.

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Last summer Ratman popped over to Romania and tracked down five of the wildest and wooliest bands the country has to offer. He then, somehow, managed to persuade them to gather in an open field just outside Bucharest, dig a deep pit, and play their music with all their amplifiers well and truly interred.

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What, exactly, was Ratman’s thinking? Why should he put together such a contradictory piece? “The idea was to produce a rock performance with the sound buried in the ground,” he states simply. “Put concisely, I would say that the principle behind this is the idea of compression.”

It seems that muffling the sonic output of bands, whose very raison d’etre is loudness, is in fact perfectly in keeping with their artistic ethos.

“When I say compression, this project addresses that on various levels,” continues Ratman. “For a start there is the musical style, heavy metal, which makes a lot of use of distortion, which is actually compression of sound. Then you take the compressed sound and place it underground, and when something is highly compressed it turns into vibration.”

Ratman’s approach is that in order to fathom the essence of an artistic creation you have to take the oxymoronic route.

“I believe that when you apply forces to something, which are not natural to it, you end up with something that attests to the thing itself. In order to understand something you have to use contrary elements.”

It is the principle of antithesis, says Ratman, that reveals the core. Much of that is down to the way we to tend to just go about our daily business, without giving too much thought to the sights, sounds and energies that are constantly around us.

“I believe that when things are in their natural state we are used to them, and we don’t deconstruct them and, as a result, we don’t understand their essence,” notes Ratman, adding that the same goes for our emotional state.

“If you apply pressure to someone you will see all kinds of emotional reactions that you don’t normally see. In this case, in Romania, a change in the conditions generates a new perspective on some phenomenon which, in this instance, refers to the phenomenon of sound and of music culture.”

Ratman says his subterranean musical mystery exploits were never going to be about a more gentle form of sonic expression.

“When I pondered the question of the musical genre I decided it would be heavy metal because the music is the most highly compressed and produces the strongest vibrations, and also in terms of the content and the style it felt right that those sorts of mythical, existential, fear-oriented sounds should come out of the ground.”

The choice of geographical location, it must be said, seems a bit whimsical. Surely, there is no shortage of heavy metal bands in the Western world. Consider the likes of Metallica, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and ACDC , and you won’t find any iconic acts of the genre form outside the English-speaking world. Ratman has a different take on that.

“For me, heavy metal has always been associated with Eastern Europe,” he declares. “I tried to work out why that is. I remembered that when I was around 16 years old there was a very significant historical event, the fall of the Berlin Wall. Around that time, by chance or otherwise, between 1989 and 1991, after many years of being sort of underground music, suddenly heavy metal peaked in the popularity stakes.”

The first and to make the giant leap across the East-West divide was LA-based Metallica, and it was smash hit.

“There were more than a million people at the concert in Moscow,” says Ratman.

“It was a very emotive event and an historic moment. It was a moment of freedom, and of tearing up the old identity [of Communism].

You see the army there and the soldiers don’t know what to do in the situation.

Soldiers take off their uniforms, climb on people’s shoulders and whirl their uniforms around.”

For Ratman there is clearly far more to heavy metal than just the music and the decibels.

The artists feels that the Metallica and its ilk ply the twilight zone between the political and apolitical spheres which, to his mind, conjures up questions about the choice of the first Western band to span the post-Berlin Wall cultural divide.

“It is curious that, at the most ultrapolitical moment of the second half of the 20th century, the most apolitical music around serves as the soundtrack for these events,” he muses. “It’s not like reggae that comes from the ghettos, or punk music which is about screwing the system.”

That enlightenment led Ratman straight to Romania.

“For me, Romania has always been the backyard of the backyard [of the Soviet world],” he says. “I looked for a place that is still a bit neglected, and is still searching for its own identity, and still feels the pain of the wounds inflicted on it by the Soviet Union, and doesn’t know how to deal with it.”

The confluence of heavy metal and this still struggling part of the world seemed like the perfect mix to Ratman.

“I wanted to meet the people who listen to and play possibly the most unpopular music in a place that is still fighting for its identity.

And none of them really makes a living out of it, so they are fueled by their dreams.

They all have 9 to 5 jobs, and they play their music at night. I wanted something on the margins.”

The result of that marginal endeavor is powerful in the extreme, and the dichotomous fusion of feral – albeit muffled – sounds and the bucolic surroundings is impressive.

For more information: (02) 670-8811 and www.imj.org.il

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