Grains of truth

Artist Micha Ullman, whose exhibition is showing at the Israel Museum, is fascinated by the fragility of his own work.

Micha Ullman 'Day' 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Micha Ullman 'Day' 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Walking through Micha Ullman’s “Sands of Time” installation feels like strolling through an archeological dig. The exhibit, which features nearly 50 sculptures made of sand and iron and more than 70 works on paper, is reminiscent of a desert landscape, evoking memories of a wandering history.
One of Israel’s most renowned artists, Ullman addresses such universal themes as place and home, but he achieves this by highlighting that which is absent.
His most famous installation, Bibliotek – located in Berlin’s Bebelplatz – is made up of bookcases with enough space for the 20,000 books burned by the Nazis during World War II. Ullman explains, “The lack of books, the void, is an energy. You know what had been there before, or what should have been there.”
At a recent press tour of the exhibition, James Snyder, director of the Israel Museum, called Ullman “the statesman of Israeli art to the world.”
In “Sands of Time,” Ullman draws inspiration from his homeland, using red sand from the Sharon area, just north of Tel Aviv.
He says of his country, “I think everyone would agree with me – it’s not a boring place to live.”
Through his use of everyday objects – houses, tables, chairs, glasses – Ullman creates a world that is both timeless and fleeting.
This type of contradiction is a recurrent element in his work.
In an interview, he refers to this installation as “an attempt to create a situation of living in contradiction” between stability and instability.
For the artist, sand serves as a symbol of time, as if passing through an hourglass. Ullman has been using sand in his art since 1970. “My beginnings were digging pits in my neighborhood. Then I started photographing them.”
Ullman was then invited to show his work at a museum in Tel Aviv. “How do I move pits to a museum? The sand provides a way.”
For the artist, this challenge was reminiscent of the struggle of his countrymen. “People are trying to get hold of a piece of land without moving to another. It is, for me, a very Israeli experience, the idea of somehow binding their fate to a place.”
Perhaps the most striking characteristic of Ullman’s work is its fragility.
The very notion that all his hard work could be dispersed by a sudden gust of wind or a careless museum patron heightens the sense of impermanence. This is no coincidence, says Ullman.
“I’m interested in the risk associated with creating something so fragile… It depends on the will of the spectator. I rely on the goodwill of the observer. I am dependent.”
For a moment the artist looks contemplative. “The fragility, maybe it has something to do with a personal feeling.”
For the highlight of the exhibition, the artist invited 100 volunteers to participate in the creation of his 200-sq.m. installation, The Wedding. “There was a bride and groom. The rabbi was [Israel Museum chief curator-at-large] Yigal Zalmona. The volunteers were arranged like a traditional wedding, with guests around tables… I am functioning as a wedding photographer. ” Only instead of a camera, Ullman used his signature sandthrowing technique to capture the ceremony. Rather than the instantaneous clicking of a shutter, the scene took about an hour to capture.
The footprints of the guests can be seen, positioned in circles, as if surrounding a table. The only object in the room, except for the sand, is a broken glass representing the destruction of the Temple.
“The installation gives precisely the situation of the event in this hour.”
Yet that feeling of impermanence remains. “It’s possible that here, it will be swept away with a broom. I am playing the role of a composer,” explains the artist. “My part is just to give a sort of proposal, to give people a feeling, to try to catch the interest, the imagination.”
That is why the unseen or, as he calls it, the void, is so important to Ullman.
“In The Wedding, I think you can feel the missing, the void…I’m interested in the space between things and the relationship between these things, between people…It is an endless thing, what happens in between.”

“Sands of Time: The Work of Micha Ullman” opened at the Israel Museum on June 22 and can be viewed through November 12.