The borders of humanity

Gilad Ratman, representing Israel at 2013 Venice Biennale, presents disorienting films of human-beast hybrids.

Gilad Ratman’s ‘Multipillory’ 370 (photo credit: Courtesy of Gilad Ratman)
Gilad Ratman’s ‘Multipillory’ 370
(photo credit: Courtesy of Gilad Ratman)
Watching video and installation artist Gilad Ratman’s 588 Project is a disorienting though harmonious experience. A stream of water gushes through a thin, plastic tube nestled in a dark green forest. The camera moves to a bubbling, chocolate brown swamp. A face with a pained expression appears outlined in the mud, as a swamp figure starts to emerge. More muddy heads creep to the surface breathing through plastic tubes, and the screen splits into two simultaneous images. The mix of leafy, watery and smooth textures on either screen complement each other, the sounds of nature create a serene scene, as the dark figures lurk.
The 2009 video installation, filmed in Arkansas, garnered tremendous attention for the Haifa native, who will represent Israel at the 55th Venice Biennale in June 2013, a highly prestigious contemporary arts festival that draws over 30,000 visitors from around the world looking to see the most innovative artists of the day.
Ratman’s video installation Multipillory (2010) is based on a medieval torture instrument, and Give her back or Take me too (2004) is a seven-minute video showing a person struggling out of a swampy lake through a forest and carrying a heavy human-beast hybrid. Each step is painstaking as the viewer struggles to make sense of what is happening.
“It is a love story, but some love stories are very disturbing,” says Ratman in a telephone interview with The Jerusalem Post from New York City, where he lives when he’s not in Tel Aviv. “I guess I am going for the disturbing.”
The 36-year-old Bezalel graduate succeeds if viewers feel their understanding of the world collapse when they watch his films.
“The box of tools that you think you have to do something is no longer fixed and then you have to rearrange things,” he says.
Ratman doesn’t stop at subverting and undermining the viewer. He wants the the audience to then create their own unexpected meaning out of the chaos.
“My big call is to make this discomfort or this confusion or misunderstanding something positive, not as something that the viewer will think ‘I’m stupid, I can’t understand,’ but more like, ‘wow, I don’t understand it but I want to, and I can create something out of it.’” Ratman says that for the Biennale he’s working on a multi-video installation that will “tell the story of a small community on a long journey that ends up with a big surprise.”
In disorienting fashion, he cannot divulge any more details. While he is excited and honored to present, he says he’s also quite nervous.
“It’s a bit stressing because I feel that everybody’s looking to see what will be, what will I do.”
There isn’t any reason a critic would label Ratman’s work as “Israeli” or “Jewish,” but he says his sources of inspiration are naturally embedded in his identity, in the politics and history of Israel. And his work is highly political, commenting on societal power structures and the media’s role in creating popular meaning, though critics often read his videos and installations as non-political, he says.
“I think that the media and the people in power are trying to dictate to us what are the important topics we should deal with,” Ratman says. “I want to reflect things that are not dictated by this hierarchy or this scale of importance the media is trying to create.”
Strange, slow love stories and communities of mud people facilitate the viewer’s questioning of the relationship between the individual and the group, the self and the state. The community featured in The 588 Project does not base its belonging on an anthem, flag or government, he says, rather, they undermine the traditional social structure and are united as mud beings.
As a child, Ratman says he excelled in drawing and took an interest in cavemen and animals, influences and images he sees in his work today.
“What are the borders of humanity and what makes us human,” he says, of his work’s focus. “I think my role in society is not as a leader but more as somebody who asks questions and presents other ways of thinking.”