Interview with Oren Eliav, as part of How to Disappear Completely at IMJ
How to Disappear Completely, Oren Eliav’s first solo exhibition in the Israel Museum is a fascinating artistic journey in the footsteps of a small and strange 15th-century painting, hanging in the core of the exhibition. “The painting hit me like the white billiard ball that smashes into the other balls,” says Eliav. “The exhibition is the result of a collision between the original painter and myself.”
The painting, The Death of Lucretia which was on permanent display in the European art galleries at the Israel Museum, sparked the imagination of Oren Eliav, a prominent Israeli artist.
The small painting, attributed to 15th-century Italian painter Giovanni di Paolo, depicts a tragic scene in which Lucretia, a Roman nobleman’s wife, summons her husband, her father and their friends to inform them that the son of Rome’s tyrannical ruler had raped her – and then proceeds to kill herself. According to the Roman historian Livy, who wrote the story in the painting, Lucretia makes them swear that they avenge her death and indeed, they fulfill her wish. They topple the regime, exile the royal family, and establish the first republic in Rome.
In his exhibition, Eliav deconstructs the original painting in an unusual way. The 20 large-format paintings focus on different sections of Di Paolo’s painting; each representing a different perspective of the event – distorting the proportions, the angles, or changing the color.
What attracted you to this painting?
It’s a very strange painting. Normally, when a small painting depicts a scene with many participants, the artist tries to use the space ‘efficiently’. In this particular case, three quarters of the painting are taken up with arches, towers, staircases, and other architectural elements. Since the work was painted before the rules of linear perspective were fully established, it does not represent the interior logically, depicting space from different angles that do not coalesce.
There are two different versions of the story with several gaps in the plot, and there is no way of knowing whether it is based on historical truth, myth, or a combination of both. One of the two known works depicting the subject is the painting in the exhibition, while the other is located in Avignon, France. I alluded to them both in the exhibition.
Beyond that, the very fact that this 15th century painting evokes issues that preoccupy us in 2018, such as government corruption, society’s attitude to rape, and the validity of testimony, shows that painting can be contemporary, regardless of the period in which it was created.
I had discovered that the original painting decorated the side of a marriage chest that was eventually dismantled and its decorated parts were framed and hung as separate paintings on a wall. Therefore this is the third time this painting has changed its context. At first it adorned a functional object, and later put on display in the Israel Museum European Art galleries as a framed painting; and now it is the focus of the current exhibition. Although a painting is a static object, it changes like a chameleon according to the context in which it is placed.
The exhibition curator, Aya Miron, wrote that you worked on this exhibition “like a crime scene investigator.”
I think she meant that the investigator’s goal is to investigate the truth, and find out, “What really happened?” I have been asking a similar question in my work for quite a number of years. “What do you see?” The answer is always more complex than what meets the eye – both of the investigator and of the painter. We do not always see what we believe we are seeing, and the positioning in the exhibition makes sure that at no point does one see the full image, and your perspective from any point in the exhibition is never identical to that of the person standing next to you. An equivalence is created between the viewers in the exhibition and the witnesses hurrying into Lucretia’s room, where she tells them about the crime that just took place there. I too adopt the witness’s standpoint, not seeing the full picture, allowing new meanings and connections that could not have been foreseen, similar to those we hear from the viewers in the exhibition. Di Paolo’s painting hit me like a white billiard ball that smashes into the other balls, and the exhibition is the result of this collision between the original painter and me, and of course, between the paintings themselves.
How did you create the special 3D design of the exhibition?
The process was very different from the classical model where the curator selects the best works in the artist’s studio, and goes on to hang them in the gallery. In this case, Aya Miron, Eliran Mishal – a young architect and exhibition designer at the Israel Museum – and I, built a 3D computer model, taking into account perspectives, spaces between walls and various viewpoints. The model and the paintings were developed in parallel, the space, and the works are interwoven, and the exhibition is, as far as I am concerned, one big painting.
After two years of work investigating the painting by Di Paolo, what is your attitude toward it today?
What surprises me is that at this stage, instead of being satiated, the mystery in the painting still persists, such as the strange object on Lucretia’s bed, half pillow, half fetus. I decided to paint it, and called it Nameless.