Sailing Seas, Surveying Shores Comments on Bilha Aharoni’s Works
A man faces the sea. He stands upright, as straight as possible, staring at the disappearing horizon before him, hardening his body in a continuous attempt to maintain balance and stability against the cold wind that blows from the sea or breathes down his neck and back, trying to knock him down.
This is what a typical Bilha Aharoni sculpture looks like.
Unlike the “Angel of History,”1 her man has no wings to spread, nor is he aware of the dangers lurking that force his eyes open. His standing up against the sea is unlike that of a pensive hermit who observes and is overwhelmed by the power of the Elements, awaiting enlightenment or a miracle.2
Unlike them, he is an ordinary “gray” man, his world and its dimensions are narrow, and he is submerged and sinking in the grayness of his everyday life. Only his neck and gaze, stretched and sent across the sea, hint to the onlooker that there is still a spark of yearning throbbing within him, a yearning for more refined, colorful realms of another life, there, over the sea, beyond the dark mountains. But his leaden legs and the weight of his suitcases, or boxes, ground him, freeze him and fix him in place, preventing him from fulfilling his wishes. Within the wooden body from which he was carved, he will continue to wait for Godot, who will never show up and never respond to the signals of his heart beating with reddish light.
For twenty-six years, since 1978, Bilha Aharoni has been living in Michmoret. Her seaside house maintains constant eye contact with the movement of the water in moments of ebb and flow and with the cyclical motion of the sun, the moon and the planets, that alternately rise and set. All those years, while everything around her flowed and changed, her home remained intact, grounded, enduring, looking at the horizon. Its red roof signals like a beacon, flickering signs of being, signals of warning, distress and temptation, and a call for attention – the house and its owner.
Bilha Aharoni has no fishermen or sailors’ culture. She is a “sailor of the soul,” as she puts it. Her sea is not a “sea of love,” or “an ocean of tears.” It is a sea of existential depths and struggles, an ocean of Jungian femininity that obeys (female) cyclicality; that wraps and embraces, or alternatively floods and drowns one in its placenta fluids, concealing enigmatic secrets in its dark inaccessible depths.
Measure and Measuring
Bilha Aharoni’s sculptures are measured sculptures. They were clearly created patiently, out of considerable thought, encapsulation and refinement, in order to find the exact balance between the measure of (emotional) need and the extent of (intellectual) possibility Her sculptures – her “anti-hero” figures – attempt to remain composed and restrained, while walking a thin (existential) line, sitting or standing on the edge of an abyss that defines their bounds, distinguishing between the facets of severe judgement and merciful judgement. The onlooker cannot make up his mind: should he pity them for being the victims of their fate, aspirations and impotence, or should he condemn them as prisoners of their behavior and its creations? They are best characterized by the Hebrew word “shi’ur”, denoting a measure, quantity or size, as well as a lesson learned.
In her constant oscillation between being a prisoner bound to a static house that is grounded to shore and her motion on the boat (studio), the dynamic house that moves freely on water, Bilha Aharoni is aided by measuring devices in order to measure the immeasurable: the force of gravity and the floating capacity; the ability to stand guard and the ability to maintain balance in order to survive; the fine, fragile balance between the secret appeal of “walking on water” (spirit, art) and the anxiety of sinking in the deep waters (of life’s substances). Icarus, for example.
Bilha Aharoni inserts real measures into the body of her sculptures. At times, the sculptures themselves are akin to a metaphorical measure. A comprehensive scrutiny of her body of works from the 1980s to the present reveals that images of measures appeared in her early, minimalist, abstract-like works (Horizon, 1987; Floating Beam, 1989; Floating on the Waterfront, 1990; Floating Level, 1992). They resurface in her current sculptures, this time in a figurative, narrative and symbolic wrapping.
This reservoir of devices and fixtures includes:
I. Horizontal leveling, e.g.: ruler, spirit level, red buoys and gray-colored lead plumbs (one floats as the other sinks, while being attached and interdependent); seesaw/balance/boat (a man at one end, his belongings at the other); shoreline (like the skyline and the spinal column of a man lying down, a sailboat sailing on and within his body).
II. Vertical leveling, e.g.: plumb (held by a man sitting with bent back on a tall, narrow column painted with red and white stripes); offset staff (to mark the ebb or flow level of either the sea or the human soul).
III. Spatial orientation devices, e.g.: compass that gives direction and indicates routes in sea and on shore. A small house’s red roof functions as an indicating needle. Metaphorically, the house is also the compass (matzpen) defining the axis of the concealed (tzafun) conscience (matzpun).
IV. Existential navigation tools, e.g.: the flickering of a lighthouse as a metaphor for an existential condition, or the goldfish as a metaphorical expression of the call of one’s conscience (like the cricket in Pinocchio) or an inner treasure that must be guarded and protected.
The measured, restrained quality is also discernible in the color range of Bilha Aharoni’s sculptures. She restricts herself to a limited, ascetic, symbolic color gamut: black, gray, white, red and brown – the color of the old, recycled log with which she works.
Gray is usually the color of people. Anonymous and ashen, much like the underlying meaning of George Segal’s plastered white figures.
Black is the color of the petrifying existential distress that takes over or crawls upward, trying to destroy the body, to blacken and silence the soul.
Red radiates in its vivid intensity. It serves as a warning signal, a sign of danger and a decisive expression of totality, like the offset staff markings incised in red and white. At times it emerges as a glowing light, like beacons on ships or on top of a lighthouse. It is a red flashlight that moves in a rhythmic-rotary motion, concurrent with the rhythms of the human heartbeat, or the sirens of the “red lines” lit in one’s mind, warning him against an irrational deed. The lighthouse’s red, Cyclopean eye may be a blessed, saving eye, but equally so – it can turn out to be a dangerous eye whose temptations are as deadly as those of the sirens.
The measures often form an extroverted or radicalized indication for what occurs in man’s “inner sea.” They reflect his inner self, marking the psychic/emotional/suffering level in his body. In the 1998 piece The Surveyor, the offset staff attests to life’s grayness reaching the midriff, curbing and blocking respiration, the spirit. The offset staff becomes a grip. The head leans on it. The hands hold onto it like a balancing and supporting fixture, as a lifeline in the (naive) belief that it is not a broken reed. The ratio between the striped columns and poles and man’s height likewise functions as a real and a metaphorical means to show who is above and who is below, who is near and who is underneath, who is tall and who is short, who is standing and who is reclining, who is at the end and who is not.
Do these gray and narrow human beings, who are bound in the bond of life, indeed surrender to their fate, accept their nullity, endure torments and become annulled, or do they become alert, awaiting the right moment, the carefully measured moment when they might rebel against their fate and strive to change their situation. In this context, the Hebrew word denoting striving, khatira, is ambiguous: it attests to their desire to subvert, to undermine the hidden force (of gravity) that fixes them in place; it alludes to the possibility of being swept away, of rowing and escaping through the sea and beyond; it introduces the possibility of striving/rowing for something else, that can be obtained via great, prolonged effort, via Sisyphean activity that does not cease, that aspires, rebels, believes that “Eppur si muove!” (And yet it does move!); the striving/rowing introduces a solution, an alternative, against the dangerous, degenerate stasis. It offers movement, progression toward a goal, “with head above water.”
At the end of the day, when the sun sets in the sea, coloring the horizon with glowing red, does it signal to the man facing it: “You log-head, get up and make a move. Don’t settle for eye contact. Start rowing!”
This option is indeed implied in the later works: a small man pushes his ruler, trying to change the gradations, to push the beam (stone) beyond the boundaries formulated for him by other surveyors; another man, hands in coat pockets, observes a photograph of a mooring ship. The vessel’s name is written in English on its side: “Second Effort.” Is it possible that his standing is misleading, and he is, in fact, alert and ready for a “second effort” to take his second chance?
A house facing the sea.
The house (הבית) reversed yields an ark (תיבה). Is it a protective, wandering Noah’s Ark swaying on the flood of life or a tranquil ark, an island of silence at the heart of a storm?
In some of the works, the slanted house becomes a boat, a boat that is a house on fluid, unstable, unsafe ground with gaping abysses. Another inclined house is situated on a round surface strewn with orientation lines: north, south, east, west. It is a needle-house, a compass needle; a house that strives to be domesticated. Where should it turn? What is the “right path”?
A man facing the sea, a house on water, and an artist who endeavors to bind house, sea and man via eye-contact; an artist who knows that when descending into the depths of the sea one must equip himself with oxygen, measuring devices and navigation tools, to indicate when your time is up and how to re-emerge with your head above water. Ultimately, it is a story of confrontation and survival in a stormy sea.
1. Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (1940), in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, trans. Harry Zohn, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 1968).
2. As in the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, the leading 19th-century German Romantic painter.