Disengaging out of convenience isn’t possible for the visual artist Amir Guberstein, whose compelling identity-based practice is largely informed by the complex and morphing realities of his native Israel in relation to Palestine and the long-term conflict. We asked him to explain further
In light of our times it seems the political will increasingly claim centre stage in contemporary art, with a shift away from post-internet art and an echo of societal changes and challenges occurring. With the recent outcome of the US presidential elections, it was interesting to see art taking to the streets in the form of protest signs and the like. How do you see your artist peers in NYC responding to what’s going on?
“Art in the service of social movements has been a pretty reliable companion throughout the past century. I would like to see artists translate their vigour not just into creation but action and organisation. Whether we like it or not, the discourse has changed tremendously almost overnight. It’s almost as if we don’t speak the old language any more. How do you stay adept at processing this new configuration when you’ve momentarily lost the battle over language? I guess you gotta approach this in ways you don’t find immediately conducive to your creative process.”
Your work is very intriguing – intricate and visually titillating at once, even independent from a given context. But reading into your artistic statement, there’s really an extended breath to your work and you can see all the elements start to unfold. Notably, you address the influence of the geopolitics of Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories and reflect on land grabs and borders.
“Yeah. I moved to Berlin when I was 21 and it was there, at a relative distance, where I got a better understanding of where I’m from. I also met my future husband there who’s a native New Yorker – he’s half-Palestinian and grew up on the Jew-y Upper West Side in Manhattan. So over the years, self-definition and political responsibilities changed for me and I came to terms with – but also started challenging – certain aspects of the narrative I grew up with. That meant that I had to reconcile my undeniable love for my homeland in spite of all its problematic aspects. And I’m not just paying lip service saying that – there are actual consequences to partisanship in this conflict. Opting out of studying the history of the two peoples because it’s inconvenient or doesn’t sit right with your beliefs makes you complicit to varying degrees in this situation. Disengaging is just not possible.
“After I got my MFA in Berlin we moved to New York, where once again my Jewish and Israeli identities had to reconfigure themselves. Shortly after that, I started volunteering at Jewish Voice for Peace, a grass-roots organisation that calls for peace and social justice in the region, and I’ve also been teaching kids at an after-school programme at a Reform Jewish congregation in downtown Manhattan.”
The notions of collecting data and creating maps to chart the flux of power is omnipresent in your work. Tell us more about this process and how it’s carried out.
“A few years ago I started researching and navigating through databases of several independent Israeli monitoring agencies that operate in the occupied territories and track anything from borders in administrative shift to statistics reflected in maps. For example, you’d have these maps showing which parts of cities are off-limits to Palestinians, or you’d see bypass roads for Israeli use only that create these meandering choreographies that hug and bisect Palestinian villages, and so on.
“Most people know what their home countries look like on a map – they know the shape of the US or Manhattan, or the different continents. What does it feel like, though, growing up deprived of such a pillar of familiarity, when everything you know is constantly morphing? This is the reality for both Israelis and Palestinians. Coupled with my own childhood memories of growing up in Israel, I wanted to create this hybrid that’s part the story of people’s loss, and part my own history. I use black and white gesso that contains sand that I bring from the West Bank and Ra’anana, my hometown in Israel, and I paint in fragments and use silkscreens to have the paint sort of struggle to make it onto the surface. I guess these landscape abstracts are a reinterpretation of maps and the visuals that made an impression during my early years, whether they be accurate or romanticised memories.”
You paint more or less exclusively with gesso, right?
“Yeah, I love gesso – it can take a figurative beating. It’s a primer so it’s made to withstand lots of layering and is great for having stuff mixed into it, such as the sand I bring back, and still come out kind of graceful. I use both black and white gesso and mix them, trapping gradations that I then unfold and spread from the core outwards.”
What’s the story behind the series of monotypes called Excerpts from hate mail and conspiracy theories sent to the East End Temple in Gramercy, Manhattan?
“Religious institutions have always been a venue for people’s airing of messianic grievances and hallucinations, no matter their faith. The institution where I teach the after-school programme occasionally receives visually fascinating mail with anything ranging from ‘truths we all have to open our eyes to’, to illuminati-themed theories, to straight-up pulverised substances. Whenever a new one comes in, the school gives me access to it and I scan it and make large-scale monotype abstracts and small-scale zines out of the original materials.”
You were recently showing at Samuel in Chicago in a group show where each artist was invited to submit a flag based on the Earth Day flag, which makes for a symbol of environmental protection. What did you present?
“I showed one of my micro-suede pieces, an abstract made with my gesso mixture containing sand from Palestine/Israel. In many ways this regional dispute is emblematic of what typifies almost every conflict in the world – a land grab, born out of different circumstances, which then seeks justification for itself, be it religious, nationalist or survivalist. In almost all cases, the occupation radically redefines the occupier over time. Land grabs tell a story that covers a people’s past, present and future, and contains all the elements of the human psyche – from our capacity to hurt each other to the ultimate devotion to our origins and this earth.
Lastly, what’s coming up for you in 2017?
“I’m a member of the artist council at Jewish Voice for Peace so we’re in the process of figuring out what the cultural legacy of this grass-roots organisation could be. There are a couple of publications in the works. Other than that I’m in a couple of upcoming group shows in Europe and America, and a residency later this year. Stay tuned.”
Interview by Ashik Zaman