Israeli creative force Kutiman: Thru the looking glass

Israeli musician and Internet sensation Kutiman’s new exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art showcases a full sensory experience.

OPHIR KUTIEL, aka Kutiman, has grown into one of the world’s most acclaimed YouTube musicians. (photo credit: HAIM YAFIM)
OPHIR KUTIEL, aka Kutiman, has grown into one of the world’s most acclaimed YouTube musicians.
(photo credit: HAIM YAFIM)
It’s nearly impossible to define Ophir Kutiel, more commonly known as Kutiman. The Israeli creative force is a musician, composer, producer, animator and more. His widely-celebrated online music video project Thru You eventually led to the new exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art called “Off Grid Offline.”
Curated by Tal Lanir, the exhibition runs through January 7. Lanir sat down with The Jerusalem Post to discuss how she was inspired to approach Kutiman about doing the exhibition, the role of museums in today’s world and the often overlooked good side of social media.
What was it like putting this exhibition together with Kutiman?
Working with Kuti was a pleasure. It was amazing. It’s very different working with a musician rather than working with a visual artist. He was very flattered and surprised that I came to him to ask him to do an exhibition in the museum. He doesn’t know about the art world very much. It was such a pleasure to go through this process with him. He came with something and I came with something. Another thing is that he’s very busy, so it was unusual for me to work with someone who is not always around. He is going this weekend to Moscow, then to Los Angeles. His schedule is crazy because he’s such a popular musician.
But this was really his thing, I just guided him. We started it about two years ago, but we began meeting every other month to really work on it about a year ago. We talked a lot about what we were going to do, which changed from meeting to meeting.
He wanted to put all of these psychedelic visuals in the videos and to really take it to that place. I think it ended up being great and really interesting. We initially wanted to do just one screen, and then we decided on multiple screens.
So you approached him with this idea for the exhibition?
I’ve been interested in the relationship between visual art and music for a long time. I saw his work years ago and the minute I saw Thru You, I knew that this was something that had to be in the museum.
For me, it was so important; it’s an iconic work. For me, it is super contemporary.
He talks about our lives and the way we live them today with social media and free knowledge, and how we use that knowledge.
The first idea that I had was just to put Thru You in the gallery space, but he wanted to do something more interesting, which I thought was great.
How did that manifest specifically?
I don’t have the words to describe the exhibition; it’s very sensual. You go into this square space and there are three screens on every wall, and on each screen, a different musical instrument is playing.
It comes from all around. I can look at a trumpet in front of me, and then from behind me will be drums and from the left will be a saxophone. It changes all the time; it’s very dynamic. It’s like watching Thru You, but dissected into 12 screens. So the music that you’re hearing is like a symphony that is all around you. With that are the visual effects, which are very colorful. It’s very flashy. Kids love it. For me and a lot of people, you just want to stay there. I’m not very objective of course, but it’s really cool.
What has the reaction been like from museum-goers?
They love it. It’s different from what you usually see in a museum. You want to stay there for the whole thing, which is 38 minutes. It sounds long when I say it, but if you’re there, it passes really quickly. It’s fun, but not only that, it’s a really important piece. He’s taken all kinds of videos that people upload themselves of them singing or playing music, and he turned it into this collage. He created a new musical piece from other people’s music. It’s really interesting to talk about the social media stuff and how we consume pieces by other people from all over the world. Someone from Israel can see something from across the world and take it to create a new work of art.
It’s like the documentary Princess Shaw.
The director took one of the videos made by Kuti and met one of the female singers, Princess Shaw. He found this amazing person who lives in New Orleans and comes from a low socioeconomic background, and he follows her around. He told her that he found her on YouTube and wanted to do a documentary, but he didn’t tell her what it was all about. She’s this amazing person, who’s living in a very poor area and just wants to succeed. She has a Youtube video blog that maybe 800 people subscribe to. In the middle of the movie, the director shows her Kuti’s clip that has two million hits. She had no idea that she was the star. She was of course very excited and couldn’t even believe it. She came to the opening of Off Grid Offline here in Tel Aviv and everybody knew her. Everyone hugged her and took selfies with her. What the documentary showed is that sometimes we talk about social media as bad, but here someone from a kibbutz in Israel takes someone from New Orleans and makes her a star without her even knowing about it. It’s really so touching. To use this information that is endless for something that is really good.
You can tell from the movie that Kuti is so humble, with no ego. It was a first for me to work with someone like that. He actually listened to things that I had to say!
What is the message of the exhibition?
First, that a museum is not only for paintings or works of art, it’s about our culture and the world that we live in. A lot of things can be considered works of art if you open your mind. People like Kuti change our culture and the way we look at it. Second, to see someone like Kuti as a serious artist and not just a musician. I hope people come to the museum and have this complete sensory experience from art – you can have that. I hope that it makes people think about social media and the world we live in now. There’s a term called “consumer/ producer.” Every one of us today consumes and also produces culture. If I go to You- Tube and watch a music video and then make my own playlist and add that video, then I am both consuming and producing.
We live in this era where every one of us is a miniature artist for our own and other people’s works.