An artist explores the versatility of space

Micha Ullman, best known for his sand sculptures, has spent nearly 50 years learning to balance the stability and fragility of his favored medium.

Ullman, chair_521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Ullman, chair_521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Artist Micha Ullman – who last week opened “Sands of Time,” his first career retrospective exhibit, at the Israel Museum – has spent nearly 50 years mining the space in which opposite forces intersect, in which traces take the place of objects and in which implied movement is no less important than still meditation. Yet he does this concretely, using forms and ideas that are basic to a person’s everyday life.
“For me, abstract means being far,” says Ullman, who was born in 1939. “Then you no longer see. And sometimes you get so close that you also don’t see. I look for the area where the far meets the near – and you can see.”
Ullman, whom Israel Museum director James Snyder calls the statesman of Israeli art, is best known for his precisely executed sculptures. In addition to his “sandcontainers” – which appear in geometric shapes including houses, tables, beds and books – he is known for his outdoor “pit-sculptures.” Perhaps the most famous of these is the underground library in Berlin, built underneath the Bebelplatz square where the Nazis began to burn books in 1933.
“Pits and containers are always made from material, but also have an internal space,” Ullman says. “There is a relationship in this from which I try to learn.”
The material with which Ullman is most closely associated is red Hamra sand, with which he fills his rusted iron-board sculptures. The oxidized sand, which has iron particles, receives a hue similar to that of the rusted iron, so that from a distance the sculptures seem simply to be shapes made of a single metallic material.
Once the sand is discerned, the rigid shapes become half-open shells and the sharp angles turn into fragile, unstable slopes. The sand is free-standing, gathered near Ullman’s home in Ramat Hasharon, and he explains that 35º is the maximum grade at which it is stable. Hence, he adds, most of the angles in the exhibit are at about 33º, with a few at 34º, as close as possible to the point at which it can flow like water.
“These are two different materials: sand and rusted iron,” reflects the artist. “They try to speak one with the other. There’s a collision. And the stability or instability is is highlighted.”
The fragility also complicates the museum’s installation, with the sculptures constantly in danger of spilling, a tension which emphasizes the collision between art and institution. “I’m not prepared to give up this tension,” he says.
On the whole, Ullman’s sculptures deal with basic subjects: “houses and things we find in houses.” Their placement throughout the museum is his “attempt to make a one single large sculpture in parts” out of the whole exhibit. The two largest sculptures – Midnight (1988), in the shape of a house, and Day (1992), in the shape of an inverted house – stand in the middle of the largest space in the exhibit. From them, on either side, the works get smaller and smaller, along a virtual slope recalling the slopes of the sculptures, and in a sense “disappear” into the concrete floor itself. The perspective on the exhibit, then, recalls Ullman’s notion of seeing – the viewer looks from up close, then backs up to get a larger view, and between these movements, this viewer may begin to see.
THOUGH HE is widely recognized as a sculptor, Ullman started his artistic career in painting, drawing and engraving – which he studied at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in 1960-1964.
“I came from these,” he reflects. “This was my start, and my love to this day.”
He has never stopped drawing – he often goes out into the fields to draw the landscape – and the current retrospective includes works on paper from as early as 1970 and as recent as this year.
“I always draw from sight,” says Ullman. “This is the basis of what I do. This is why in every work there is a connection to reality.”
These include drawings that illustrate some of the more enigmatic aesthetic and spatial effects and principles behind his Berlin library sculpture. And though they seem like sketches or studies for the sculptures, they are in fact separate artworks created after the fact – reflections on paper that relate to his experience of building the sculpture.
“I draw to understand what I did,” he says. Hence, one of the drawings shows the pit within the context of the deeper earth layers surrounding it, and portrays the groundwater that surrounds the underground walls just beyond the empty library shelves – though a viewer will never see this in life.
Another series of pencil drawings, which look like landscapes of empty fields, actually turn out to be exercises in control – and the inevitable loss of control around the fringes. These are drawings in which Ullman gave himself arbitrary rules – as, for example, in Border (1975), in which he drew thick rows, using the same movement, up and down a large sheet of paper, each one smaller than the one before.
“I try to be like a machine,” he says. “Of course, I fail, but I succeed better than others, perhaps. I try to be as objective as possible – yet reality shows that I can’t. This is the part that interests me.”
Though many of his works are based on a scientific kind of preparedness and planning, he says, the other side of him comes out despite the side that’s prepared. “These are the places I believe in. Where things happen without my authority.”
And perhaps the highlight of the exhibit is an early painting, Apartment Building (1970), of the nearly identical repeating balconies of a standard block apartment house – the kind of Modernist architecture that has shaped Israel’s landscape since the early 1950s. Some balconies are open, some have drawn curtains, and their similarity is executed with precision and depth that border on frightening.
The paradox behind the painting is one that Ullman would mine throughout the rest of his career: “the expression of humanity without painting humans.”
IT IS from his drawing and engraving that Ullman reached his first sculptures – the pits he dug into the earth, which would eventually turn into containers to hold the earth he had dug up.
“I did drawings of fields,” he remembers, “then I photographed them and made copper prints. Then I would do deep etching directly onto the copper. At some point, I realized I could let the copper board go and dig directly in the field.”
The engraving, which was a representative object, became instead a model. As he’d gone to an agricultural high school, it was a question of going back to the earth.
“Sand, as earth, is connected to the landscape,” he says.
The distance between drawing the land and digging in it collapsed, and in the early 1970s Ullman – who often jokingly refers to himself as a frustrated farmer – began to dig pits.
“At first I did this without documenting the work,” he explains. “Then I was asked to exhibit a work at a museum.
I wanted to bring a pit. How to do that? I built a container.”
These “containers” were like model pits – forms with sand as well as open spaces. “Material and spirit,” says Ullman. Much of his gallery and museum work has followed from the transformation and transposition of this basic relationship.
The outdoor works, as the source of the dichotomy, remained no less important.
“At first it was intuitive, but later I understood that a pit is connected to the environment. You can’t move it.” This, he says, is connected to our situation in Israel: “We’ve decided to connect our destiny to this place and not another. You can even say that we fight over this land.”
Ullman points out that the move from landscape and ecology to politics and society is that swift. “There’s also an existential position,” he adds. But the origin of the compulsion is first of all personal.
“What’s strong is the direction of up and down. A pit means going down – I’m pulled there, gravity pulls me there.” Indeed, his recent sculptures, which are like pieces of icebergs sticking out of the concrete floor and showing only a fraction of themselves, seem to suggest a subterranean existence. “But I’m also interested in going up,” he insists. “It depends on how you look at it – whether you see it as drowning or ascending. This is one of the things that pulls me to pits: You can put someone dead in them, this we know, but you can also put the foundations of a house or the roots of a plant.”
Two works of opposite proportions hint at this additional dichotomy: one the tiniest in the show, and the other an outdoor work.
The smallest “work” in the exhibit is a single grain of sand – called Until the Very Last Grain of Sand (2011), a title borrowed from Anwar Sadat’s famous phrase regarding Israel’s return of Sinai to Egypt – installed in a special glass-and-iron table with built-in light source and magnification. The viewer brings his or her face to the glass plate and, with the help of a lens, sees a single, illuminated red-orange grain. The work not only makes the unnoticeable perceivable, but alters the imaginary scale of Ullman’s work: He gives the viewer a kind of magic key into how even the largest sand works in the exhibit function – by the interlocking nature of these tiny rocks.
The largest work – Equinox (2005–2009), installed just before Ullman received the Israel Prize in 2009 – is a pitsculpture in the museum’s sculpture garden. Looking into the underground pit-room through a square window portal, the viewer sees a dark doorway and corridor on the south wall leading to or from some unknown place. The north wall is bare and gray, like the rest of the room, except on the spring and fall equinox, when sunlight from the window creates a rectangle of precisely the same size opposite the dark entryway. The result, viewable twice a year between 11 a.m. and noon, is two doorways at the bottom of the pit, one light and one dark.
While Ullman admits that some of this may sound banal, he insists that “the best artwork starts from the banal, but takes you to new places.”
IT IS this meeting of opposite directions that most interests him. “The point where opposites meet – this is a fragile place,” he says.
The fragility embodied in the sloped sand of the monumental- style sculptures has, in recent years, turned on itself into the fragility of that which is absent.
“I developed the technique of sand-throwing,” says the artist, “but I didn’t invent it. It’s basically a kind of print or photogram – only instead of light I use sand.” The sand, rather than being contained, is now the container: It presents the viewer with a trace of objects and events which are no longer present to be seen.
These sand-throwing works exploit “the ability of sand, in the language of traces and hints, to make the imagination work.” Looking at Wedding (2011) – which was especially commissioned by the Israel Museum for this exhibition and involved the participation of 100 people – one can see circular traces of tables, of shoes, of people.
There are also signs of movement detectable in the center of the large space: the spot from which Ullman threw the sand around the room. All of this is suggested as much by the sand that is there as by the wedding ceremony that has passed.
“It’s an important experience,” says the sculptor. “The situation of lack, emptiness, the part that’s missing from what happened here.”
He feels that an image of a wedding, which is part of the basic system of home and its objects, is a radical subject.
It’s the beauty of love in an environment that is turned on its head. A moment of personal commitment witnessed by a crowd of others. In Jewish tradition, it also includes the breaking of a glass to symbolize the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. In this way fear enters the ceremony.
“Between love and fear I arrive at the place where I stand,” says Ullman about the work.
The lack of any physical object – something that is present as early as the pit-works – is the emptiness that continues to interest him. “Behind the emptiness there is silence. It’s the empty space between the objects, the walls, or – in life – between people.”
This space is not material, but it is relational. “Life is built on relationships between things,” says Ullman, and when he deals with the meeting of forces, he is also dealing with what happens between the things that meet.
“To offer the immaterial, you need material,” he says. “But it’s the immaterial that interests me. Not only in the abstract sense – in the distance between people.”