'King Bibi is on American soil'

The sculptor behind the controversial statue presents an 'Ego Show.'

On December 6, 2016, Tel Aviv residents woke up to see a huge golden statue of Prime Minister Benjamin NetanOn December 6, 2016, Tel Aviv residents woke up to see a huge golden statue of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Rabin Square (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI)
On December 6, 2016, Tel Aviv residents woke up to see a huge golden statue of Prime Minister Benjamin NetanOn December 6, 2016, Tel Aviv residents woke up to see a huge golden statue of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Rabin Square
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI)
 One morning in December 2016, residents of Tel Aviv woke up to see a huge golden statue of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu standing smack in the middle of Rabin Square.
The public quickly learned that the young artist who created this provocative statue, which came to be known as King Bibi, was Itay Zalait, 39, whose intention was to get his message across as clearly as possible. An intense public debate ensued involving politicians and citizens; then, as happens with most issues, the public eye moved on to the next item.
Zalait is currently showing his artwork at the Fresh Paint exhibition at the Tel Aviv Convention Center. His collection, titled “The Ego Show,” seems to be somewhat connected to his previous work, with series of artworks that were made from readymade objects Zalait found on the street.
“Fresh Paint is the largest art exhibition in Israel,” says Zalait. “About 30,000 people will come to view the show, including all the big names in the Israeli art world. My work is divided into political exhibits and sculpture and painting. The connection between them is simple: my search for freedom.”
I must ask: Where is the statue of Netanyahu now?
“It was sold to an influential American collector. A representative of his called me a couple days after the statue was stationed in Rabin Square and told me that he had a client, a professor of history, who’s been researching and collecting historical specimens from around the world for the last 30 years.
“The client was interested in acquiring the Netanyahu statue. The next day, he landed in Israel and sat in my house for over eight hours, telling me story after story about hair-raising incidents that he’s now compiled in a book. I was absolutely astounded by everything I heard.”
So, did you end up making any money off of the sale of the statue?
“He asked me what my price was and I told him with a straight face that I had inside information that in 20 years the statue would be worth $20 million. He leaned his head back and laughed. Then he took out his iPad and showed me a simulation he’d prepared for the statue. It was incredible. Right away I knew that this was the right home for my King Bibi statue, to be displayed in this crazy place with all those other historical statues.
“In the end, after a long and harrowing negotiation, the statue sold for $60,000. We agreed that I would retain the rights to produce additional similar sculptures.”
So I’m asking you once again: Where is the statue? Can people go view it?
“The King Bibi statue is on American soil, but I cannot yet divulge any other details. What I can tell you is that the bronze statue of Benjamin Netanyahu, which weighs 300 kg. and is painted gold, will be displayed alongside other statues with historical and global importance that are not necessarily flattering.
“It’s absolutely mind-boggling to see the King Bibi statue among the other items in the collection. Soon, these photos will be available to the public. In my opinion, this collection makes an even stronger statement than the placing of the statue in Rabin Square.”
What is your opinion about the way the investigations of Netanyahu are progressing?
“Since I have a really big mouth, I’ve decided to restrict myself to expressing my opinions through my artwork and my statues. What I can say is that I expressed my feelings in the ‘Flag 2018’ exhibit that I constructed in Rabin Square [an eight-meter high flagpole with a slumping Israeli flag].
“The developments that have taken place over the last year have been so volatile that it’s been practically impossible to comprehend what’s going on. And that’s why so many of us have chosen indifference. When you take a bite of a jalapeño pepper, you scream out that it’s overwhelmingly hot. But when someone shoves an entire handful of peppers into your mouth, you remain silent.
“That was the impetus behind my Flag 2018 exhibit, which was meant to offer a glimpse of what’s going on in Israel in 2018: Half of the country doesn’t have any idea what’s really going on, the economy is strong, there’s security, and traffic isn’t so bad. The other half of the country is biting its nails and worried that our country is going to totally collapse. Only in 10 or 20 years down the line will we be able to look back and really see the depth of distortion and corruption that’s going on. It might, however, be too late by then.”
So what should we do?
“So that we don’t wake up in 20 years’ time and ask ourselves how we just sat there quietly and let this situation unfold, I decided to create a piece of art that would serve as a wake-up call to all the people who love this country like I do. I wanted them to feel something when they looked upon this crooked flag, and to wonder if there’s something they personally can do about the situation we’re in. It has nothing to do with being right-wing or left-wing – the flag belongs to all of us, despite what some people say.
The foreign media have had a strong impact on what’s happening in Israel, and on the structural changes to our democracy. At the end of the month, a team from TRT World will be coming to my studio to film a docu-series about political art in Israel. Their emphasis will be on the moving of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. They asked me what I thought about it and I responded that I hadn’t thought about it much. Then I realized why it hadn’t been an interesting subject for me. All of a sudden I had an image in my mind from the movie, The Matrix, where Morpheus explains to Neo what the matrix is: ‘It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.’
“This is what we’re experiencing now – a parallel reality that consistently distorts our consciousness. We have so many problems that need to be fixed, but they’re all being ignored. It’d be like treating a heart patient by offering him a chance to go bungee jumping. He might forget about his failing heart for a few moments, but it might also bring on another heart attack. On the other hand, I totally get why the current administration has taken these steps.”
What do you think about Israel’s 70th anniversary celebrations?
“I’m trying to ignore what’s going on, but that’s practically impossible to do. These farces occur on an almost daily basis. We have an interior minister who was convicted of bribery, sat in prison, and then went back into politics and is once again serving as interior minister. It’s like an animated movie come to life. It’s just a shame that we’re the ones footing the bill for all the production costs.
There’s no doubt that each provocation is planned ahead. [Culture Minister] Miri Regev is an expert in this field. Our prime minister is more of an artist than a prime minister. He’s constantly creating illusions and alternative universes that are completely detached from reality. It’s incredible to watch as this happens. Maybe that’s why half of the country celebrated the move of the embassy to Jerusalem, and the other half sat in horror watching the effect it had.”
 Translated by Hannah Hochner.