At the beginning of your journey at Yad Vashem, you expressed your trepidation but you still decided to go ahead. Why?
Because I’m a person who likes challenges, they interest me. It piques my curiosity to place myself in new situations – it rejuvenates me. In my creative process, I’m the type of person who spends all day alone in the studio. That is a situation that has to be constantly revitalized, otherwise you’re just replicating yourself. So, when an offer like this comes along, I go for it. I guess that’s my personality. I imagine that there are artists who would say that they can’t do it, it frightens them: who can compete with the art at Yad Vashem? In hindsight, after completing the process, I see it as something that filters down, like a conduit. That’s the kind of person I am.
Let’s talk a little about the process. What was your first reaction on hearing about the Residency Program?
Inbal [Kvity Ben Dov, Director of the Cultural and Public Engagement Division] came to the studio, and told me about the program. She consulted me, and we were both very excited about it. After she left, I made all sorts of sketches. We had spoken about many things, including [my] Eastern culture, and the indirect connection to the Holocaust through Israeli identity. After she departed, I wondered where I fit into this topic, how I can 'step into its shoes'. I consulted with people: Should I be focusing on the Israeli aspect or the Jewish one, on the connection between the two, or on my criticism regarding the concept of memory? And then I went ahead with it, and everything as if electrified, connected, the threads became interwoven, and I didn’t have any more questions. I signed the contract on 10 October, after the devastating events of 7 October. Suddenly I felt as though those events had transported me to the Holocaust; I felt as though a magic wand had taken us and put us in that time period, with those same feelings. It’s different, of course; today I don’t really think the two events are that similar, but that’s what I felt at the time.
When we met inside the art storage rooms, at one point you said: 'That’s it, I’ve reached saturation point.' Did you have that experience with the other collections too? Or was it specifically the encounter with the Art Collection that you found overwhelming?
When I viewed the Art Collection, I felt like I understood the language - I felt familiar with the artworks Suddenly I saw the colors. Oil paintings have a particular power. I saw oil paintings in the art storage rooms and at some point, I said 'I can’t anymore.' I couldn’t look at any more artworks.
You said, 'enough' and I thought that you had seen too much for one day. But in terms of the process, I understand now that you had reached the end of the stage of viewing the collections. So, after that, you went to the studio and started to paint?
I went to the studio and started to create art. My studio is like a big ship, which can sail in many different directions. I felt as though I needed to stop the ship, change course and adjust the sails in the direction of this project. I was paralyzed by the situation, like everyone here. We wept, we were in pain, overwhelmed, on the brink. Even now. But it pushed me to get up and start working. At this stage, I already had a painting in mind. On one of my tours, I saw little Hinda’s shoe, and suddenly I saw a cat inside the shoe, and then I saw myself inside the shoe, in the midst of all this stormy red. This piece became a contemporary blend that also moves backwards: connecting with what had happened to us here now, but unexpectedly veering between two worlds, two time periods.
That’s interesting. You just used the metaphor of the ship for your studio and spoke about sailing. You also painted a river of blood, you are actually continuing with the image of setting off on a journey…
Yes, and many of my past images feature the figure of a man in a boat. The boat and the water are recurrent motifs in my work.
Let’s look at the sketch for your first work. The drawing is actually in black and white, without the red river. Is that how you started?
Usually, when I have an idea, I make a pencil or ink sketch, which I then make as a small oil painting, and then I feel confident enough to start on the larger painting. When I drew the sketch, I knew it was insufficient, I knew that I needed to add some drama. I was filled with the urge to take the color and rub it on the canvas with my hands. There are many hands at work here. There is a common thread running through all these works, now that I think about it in retrospect. The last time I visited Yad Vashem, I saw lots of children, and I thought, what will they experience when they see this? What connection will they make to this work? All the works have that link between past and present: the Jewish eyes, the shoe, the Torah scroll, the third generation and the floating figures – it is as if they are all contemplating this experience, because the artifacts have anthropomorphized. For us, for a younger generation, for a kid of 12 or 13, the artifacts are like people whom they are meeting. They see a yarmulke, a shoe, for them these are things they will experience. They won’t be able to meet the people themselves, except perhaps on video.
Yes, that creates a tangible connection for people. In which order did you create your pieces?
'Bigger Than Me' was the first, then 'Jewish Eyes', and thirdly, the floating figures. They were created after I was invited to see the Hall of Names, which I visited with my wife.
That image of you and your wife floating is, of course, a reference to Chagall. As opposed to Chagall, who portrays a romantic experience, you are depicting yourself from the back floating with her in the Hall of Names at Yad Vashem. There’s a very strong emotional connection here: you embark on this journey together, and we follow you. It’s as though you are inviting us on this voyage.
Exactly. There was a moment when we were there, just the two of us, and we were looking at the pictures. And I saw us – it was as if I already had it somewhere. I saw us both floating upwards, trying to reach, to see and identify the faces, the people, looking for someone familiar. This quest of course reminded me of Chagall. There’s his painting, 'Above the Shtetl', another classic.
Yes, 'Above the Shtetl' and other works by Chagall. It’s interesting that you consciously make use of specifically this image. With Chagall, its related to an outburst of emotion, full of life and joy. And you take that representation to a hard place, heavy and challenging. There’s an interplay here between the immense weight of memory and the identity of each and every person in relation to it, as against the two of you floating, braving the laws of gravitation.
And the colorfulness, because she is wearing a red garment, and he is in white, suddenly there is life in a place that has frozen over. We always say about oil paintings that they are 'here and now', they are alive. When you reach the end, the climax of the museum, it’s dramatic, there’s a kind of silence that envelopes you. Usually, when I talk about artworks, I need a little bit of distance from them, but I’m talking about what I feel right now.
Tell me about the 'Basad' piece.
That was the fourth artwork. I thought about the idea of a figure facing a mirror, and about the concept of 'Basad', with God’s help. I wondered where I stand on this issue, and I spoke to my son [Simcha David], who studies in a Yeshivah (Talmudical college). He attacked me a little, saying, 'All of a sudden you’re looking for God?' We had a conversation, he came to the studio. He asked: 'What are you actually asking?' I didn’t have an answer. I was addressing this to a blank mirror. When you look at a blank mirror, you see a reflection of the sky. Where does the light come from? Where does the sky come from? Where does it all come from? We always talk about God in Heaven, we look up at the sky, and then we write 'Basad' on every letter, every note. The 'Basad' is always the first thing we write. And I’m asking an open question; it doesn’t have a reply. You can ask where was God in this story, and where was He then. An observant Jew has explanations for this, but they have never fully satisfied me. How can we, as human beings, live with it? I don’t know.
Like the title of your painting, 'Bigger Than Me'. Ultimately, this question is also bigger than all of us.
'Bigger Than Me' means it’s beyond me, because that’s my feeling. It connects with every moment and every time frame. The present too. And then I thought about the figure with the enormous shoes, who tries to walk. The figure holds a Star of David in the small picture, but in the big artwork, it didn’t look right to me, and I wanted the figure to hold a Torah scroll, which again forges a connection between present and past. Because a Torah scroll evokes Simchat Torah. This piece is called 'Simchat Torah'.
Chagall and other Jewish artists have depicted this image of a Jew holding a Torah scroll, the figure of the refugee before the Holocaust, or the survivor afterwards. You called this piece 'Simchat Torah', but can it also be interpreted without any connection to current events? When I look at your work, I get the sense that the figure you have painted is kind of your alter-ego. The large shoes into which you step, as did your forefathers – could we also understand these shoes independent of everything else? There are several layers of interpretation here. We can also draw parallels with the death marches and how hard it was to walk then.
The difficulty walking; it really is like walking with weights on your feet.
The painting 'Three Generations' resonates with your work 'History Upon Me' from 2009, in which we see the figure of an artist sitting on the shoulders of another artist, who, in turn, sits on the shoulders of another artist. The English title for the piece is particularly relevant for our purposes. It seems as though you have switched the weight of art history for the weight of Jewish history or Jewish destiny.
The artist is always influenced by another artist, who is influenced by another artist in a sequence of this nature. Those are the three generations. As a member of the third generation, you ask yourself, what is this chain of Yellow Stars? For me, it symbolizes the 'pop' aspect of the Holocaust that has developed. It’s already an installation, these hanging stars. Like the flags on Independence Day, there to provoke an emotional response. Here there are lots of hanging stars; it’s like a party – a bereavement party.
Like the rituals of Jewish holidays, here we have the rituals of Holocaust remembrance. The question of how we should mourn. And the fact that Holocaust Remembrance Day is a week before Independence Day totally reflects that. The figure hangs or adjusts the Yellow Star, it’s an event in the making. In other words, the story doesn’t end with the third generation; it’s an ongoing trauma, and it’s heavy. Although the figures themselves are light, the subject is heavy.
Yes, it’s 'heavy dressed up as light', because the figures are schematic. My painting isn’t heavy, it’s light, but the message is a little heavier.
All the paintings invite discussion, dialogue and contemplation. Perhaps the most enigmatic of your pieces is 'Jewish Eyes'.
I think that this painting depicts me most accurately. When I saw the room designed by Chanan de Lange, the 'Book of Names' a room with the pages with all the names – I didn’t have anyone to search for in the Book of Names. Who should I look for? I don’t have anyone. What to do? I felt as though I was looking for eyes. Who has eyes like mine? Where are my eyes? I meet someone and I say, these are eyes that I know. This is called 'Jewish Eyes', because he is using his eyes to look for someone. The figure is complex because behind him is a pile of shoes, he is barefoot, his trousers are transparent and his hand is frozen. I’m afraid of what he might hold, but I don’t want him to be empty-handed. This is me exactly. For the first time, I’m painting my current self, not the familiar alter-ego, but the current figure with the yarmulke and beard.
Have you never painted yourself as a religious Jew? Because bearded men do feature in your work, but you are saying that they are not you. They could be you?
And here it is you?
Here it is definitely me, and you said [earlier] something interesting: that this portrayal is a kind of maturity. He stands and looks at this pillar, and looks for eyes on the pillar. I can’t really explain it, but this painting is the closest I can get to expressing how I feel.
Perhaps it’s also connected to how you viewed the portraits in the Art Museum. You really looked those people in the eye. You came with the perspective of an artist who observes and understands. You were amongst friends. I remember you looking at the portraits and connecting with them. When I saw this painting for the first time, I thought that perhaps it was conceived after that encounter through your eyes, the eyes of an observer, a painter? What do you think of that interpretation?
You’re right, every time I came, I was looking for myself, where I fit in here. You know that terrible expression, 'This is not my holiday'. That’s how the 'Number' piece came about. Most of my classmates were Ashkenazi Jews, so every Holocaust Remembrance Day, they all had some kind of connection but I didn’t. I had to search, because socially, and ideologically, it was important to have a connection. You think that perhaps someone in your family has a tattooed number, maybe you have one grandmother who is connected – but you don’t. Like an artist or an artwork that is searching for its identity. I tried to create a number in the same way I would invent a secret code for my credit card, so I took the numerical value of my name in Hebrew: Shai – 310, Azoulay – 55, and together, they made up the number I wrote on the arm: 31055. Whom do I belong to? Walter Benjamin has the figure of the 'Flâneur', the wanderer, he always belongs and yet doesn’t belong, always part of the family but not, always on the inside but actually outside.
You embarked on this process with many doubts, and in the middle, it connected to current events. Perhaps you can expand on the creative process that starts out with Holocaust memory, that historic national trauma, and ends up forging a connection in you with a new, contemporary trauma.
We live in an age of covers. We make covers of everything: music, food, we are always in a vintage period, things become fashionable again, but in a sample. We experienced a Holocaust cover, a sample of the Holocaust. We got a sense, as a people, of what it means to experience a pogrom, and we were in shock, as though our limbs had been amputated, and it was a wake-up call. Obviously, there is no comparison between 7 October and the Holocaust – we are not talking about six million people here. But the sample gave us an inkling, it’s like a cover, that’s what this period gives us. All of a sudden, the Jews have woken up, the ghetto is back, the isolation. Suddenly we are asking those questions again: Who are we, who is on our side, who is against us, who is giving up on us, who is turning his back on us, who are our real friends, what agendas are at work here? All these issues are relevant now, and in relation to the Holocaust, and if we go further back, also to Pharaoh and the exodus from Egypt. Jews were always persecuted. Within this absurd situation, Yad Vashem motivated me to create art again. My encounter with Yad Vashem pried open a deeper level within myself. Even I have no idea where it will lead me. It’s like discovering a new part of myself, and far from being over, I see this process as just beginning.