"Everything is hanging by a hair's breadth" (1)
The Sculpture Installation, Protected Space, 2012, Ofra Zimbalista
In the sculpture installation, Protected Space, 2012, Ofra Zimbalista dresses/positions eleven figures painted in grey in The Artists' House, Tel Aviv. They are placed on the wall and in window barrier strips. Zimbalista skillfully succeeds in inducing the municipal, inconspicuous building to metamorphose into a universal place of refuge, both from a physical and an emotional perspective – unfettered by time and space and yet very location-specific, belonging to the here and now of Israeli reality. The sculptures look as though they belong to the place – to the wall. Her sculptures are made using a cold casting technique emulating the form of life-like figures – for the most part relatives and friends.
"The sculptures are my family", says the artist.2 Each figure is of a different body build, gender, and age; some are naked, some are dressed, some are wearing a turban, and the men are mostly bald. As a stage director,3 time and again the artist conceives a different configuration with the help of the same figures, to fit a new context and role. Using a limited vocabulary, Zimbalista creates a new and vibrant language. She asserts that "one piece engenders the next. The sculptures are my materials, I redirect them, lead them to a new place".
In this installation, there are two identically sized window barriers, and each barrier contains five latitudinal windows. On the lower window barrier we see groups of bald people (men, women and children), who are crowded together or standing alone within the space. The people are visible through four latitudinal windows, and the last window is completely sealed and painted grey. The artist photographed the sculptures (which were used in previous installations) in her studio against the backdrop of a shelter wall with a raw textured concrete finish, and printed them on pieces of cloth, in complete synchronicity with the building's window openings. The people are caged in/imprisoned within the narrow space generated between the building wall and the shelter wall in which they are confined. Their capacity for movement or motion is very restricted. In fact, the figures appear to be trapped within themselves.
In the upper row, the windows are deep and penetrate into the interior, creating a sense of depth and inner light comprised of nooks and crannies, which furnish a hiding place and provide protection. The three-dimensional figures appear to be in different stages of ascension, trying to climb upward, some of them are seated, or enter or lie within the window alcoves. The upper row of windows, contrasts with the crowdedness and narrowness of the lower row of windows. The woman sitting in the window to the right greets the spectators with sign language signifying peace. In the third window is a woman in a turban, leaning downward, as though peeking out onto the street to see what is going on, and to her right is a figure (only her legs are visible), who just succeeded in ascending to the longed-for refuge. In the third window lies a female figure with her back towards us, and in the fourth window there is a nude female figure lying on her back, trying to pick herself up. In the last window, we may discern the figure of a young woman trying to exit and move on.
On the incline wall, next to the third and fourth windows, are two male figures climbing, and holding bicycle horns ("zambouras"). In this art installation, the horns, which normally represent sound, movement and tumult, and are associated with football matches, bicycle riders, festivals and parades, are transformed into an element capturing both sound and silence. On the one hand, the horn has a loud ring that is heard from afar, as though it has come to send out a cry for help into the distance. On the other hand, in this installation the horn is mute, frozen in time and inert. According to Zimbalista, the horn's role is to "expel fear".
On the roof of the building, next to the right hand corner, we see an angelic female figure. This is Esther, who has a voluptuous body and is bald; she is lifting one leg up, and stretching her arms out to the sky. She has a pair of wings like an angel, suggestive of her super-human powers, and she effuses happiness and warmth, as though she were seeking to console, lifting people’s spirits, and hugging each and every one of us. In this setting, Esther, according to Zimbalista, exemplifies madness. She is different and improbable in her dimensions and pose; “insanity leads her to this state". On one end of the spectrum, Esther represents the involved in daily difficulties and distress; and on the other end of the spectrum, she embodies the humor, hope and a different possibility – the attempt to take off and fly off the roof, over the building, beyond the hardships of reality. Gideon Ofrat writes about the desperate attempt of the figures to fly, rise up, and ascend and states: "However, Zimbalista's response to the desire for takeoff lies in nailing down, fastening in, secured immobility, and hence, "non-flight". …..thus, Zimbalista, throughout this journey, invites us to take part in rituals that have been botched up, to behold the miracle that has failed to deliver, to witness the magic that has been broken".4 Like Esther, the rest of the figures also find themselves in contradictory situations. From one perspective, they are in flight, seeking a place of refuge, trying to climb upward, and are in motion in alternating directions, representing life. Conversely, they are trapped in a shelter, frozen in time like a memorial monument, representing death.
The name of the installation, Protected Space, is taken from everyday Israeli reality – the concept of space in the spheres of architecture, social welfare, politics, diplomacy, and even financial conditions in Israel. A protected space is a type of refuge, which is built within the building designed to serve its inhabitants. Protected spaces are designed to provide shelter against air and missile attacks, as air-raid warning sirens sound too close to the attack, and consequently, people do not have enough time to access a bomb shelter. In the wake of the Gulf War it was decided to build protected spaces in every new construction project in Israel.5 The shelter, both as a tangible physical building, and as an abstract symbolic image, is not only a formative concept in the national collective conscience, but also in space design in Israel. From a physical point of view, the shelter is present in every possible facet of constructed space: from apartment criteria (the protected space or shelter in a private home), through building and neighborhood standards (the underground shelter in residential buildings and neighborhoods and the protected spaces in large public buildings), to the national scale (in the form of "Iron Dome" anti-missile system).6 "The two words protected space, constantly hover in the air, and the sentence 'enter the protected space', is the call upon each and every one of us via the radio and TV, dictating to us how we, as citizens, should behave, and prepare for times of trouble", says Zimbalista. More than anything else this compound noun represents the anxiety and pressure of daily life in Israel; as such, this art work gets spectators to focus on the refuge and the manifestations of civil self-defence within public space, hence making the security threat and military violence embedded within Israel's routine ever present.
The figures hide beneath the roof, make a stronghold in the space, and the more "protected" they are, the more intense the feeling of existential threat becomes. They must maintain balance and equilibrium (for fear of plummeting) and any wrong move may end in collapse; "everything is really hanging by a hair's breadth" (elements that were emphasized in the circus figures). All figures have closed, tranquil eyes, painted in a uniform grey. The grey color lends simplicity, and highlights the classic quality of these figures7 and transforms them into a group. The significance of togetherness may also be discerned in what Zimbalista says, "the protection is the group". Conversely, the grey color creates an abstract dimension, unfettered by time and space. "Grey is not a loud color, it is not rebellious, it accepts its fate", adds the artist. In the first outdoor sculpture by Ofra Zimbalista, "Walking" 1987, which was on display in the sculpture garden in Tefen, she used grey sand to create the figures. The expression "grey existence” is indicative of boredom and lack of glory, however, somewhat ironically, "grey" or "tones of grey", also serve as a manifestation of diversity, in contrast with the sharp dichotomy of black and white. In the discussion regarding grey morality, or "grey zone", the color symbolizes areas that are not easily resolved. Hence, Zimbalista's grey encompasses all the possibilities.
Emulating Zimbalista, Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz casts human sculptures from jute, using grey-brown colors for her sculptures and creating complex installations that relate to the human condition and the existence of mankind in modern times. Magdalena Abakanowicz's sculptures are for the most part coarse, headless and hollow as an empty shell, as opposed to Zimbalista's figurative-realistic aluminum casts. Both artists deal with the human figure as lost, requiring protection, and yet possessing the possibility and capacity to demonstrate his/her presence and stand on his/her own two feet. In both artists' works, the figures, despite their tranquility, have a hidden side comprised of death and anxiety. According to Zimbalista, the ongoing engagement in the human figure in her works derives from her desire to engage "in human weaknesses, not out of criticism, but rather by demonstrating the situation". "Her sculptures do not present the local or historical hero….their form that lacks any clear affiliation makes them a symbol of man, any man. The sculptures engage in human weaknesses and fears and tell us something about ourselves, about how we cope with reality", 8 writes Mendelsohn. Tami Katz-Freiman adds that Zimbalista's sculptures are "a melancholy allegory of the human condition and man's pointless Sisyphean attempts".
Zimbalista injects art into the protected space, and through this space she examines the social implications of the presence of protection in day to day life and the build-up of the perception of threat to Israel's existence. Any way you look at it, protection and sheltering awareness is a built-in part of the Israeli story, and unintentionally, a significant portion of daily civilian activity in Israel is carried out under the auspices of these and other protected spaces. In Israel a bomb shelter operates on two levels: in times of war it is a place of shelter and protection, and in times of peace and tranquility – an art studio, a place for leisure and sports activity, a community center, a synagogue and more. This complexity that prevails in Israeli society encompasses a basic polarity, where destruction and creation converge - and also interchange very quickly. The shelter is built inside of us and we are found within. Zimbalista engages in the haven from a unique perspective that is influenced by the reality in which she lives and works (her studio is in Ashdod, under the threat of rocket attacks from Gaza). "My life is here, when I look back, this land is the land that gave birth to these works".
The figures are concurrently amid the public domain (outside the shelter) and private domain (inside the shelter), up, and yet down, [may be observed] from a physical and spiritual point of view, represent a universal human situation contrasting with local-Israeli circumstances, attack vs. protection, despair as opposed to hope, day to day life juxtaposed with a state of emergency, and life/peace in contrast with war/death. "Through the human figure…..Ofra creates complex constellations, whose figurative concreteness and tangibility converge in a world of metaphor, culture and ritual" (Pinchas Segan Cohen). "Even though each one of Zimbalista's figures has its own clear and definitive position, together, they all take part in one huge play. The building serves as the backdrop and the plot is the set and constituent at once" (Adam Farkas). 9
Zimbalista presents the spectator with a reality in which the protection, the shelter and the protected space become central,10 and emphasizes the absurdity in this existence, an existence filled with anxiety and feeling over the edge, in an attempt to maintain an everyday routine (see the girl spelling out the word peace in sign language), and even hope (in the form of Esther). She refuses to accept war as an integral part of our existence. "Ofra's world reveals a new truth, a huge and bold truth that is oh so human, very sad - and touching. We are left with good angels with floating wings on the roof tops…." 11
The story is perhaps simple and naïve, however, Zimbalista's sculptures stem from a formative-childlike outlook. As Agi Mishol defined it, "Who will protect me?" – the wish of a boy and girl for protection - a desire which never dissipates.12
Agi adds and writes about their mutual work "and who will protect Ofra?".
1. Zimbalista, from A quote from Zimbalista from "Needed: Angel in Jerusalem", Tower of David, Jerusalem, 2002.
2. The quotes from a conversation with the artist, April 2012.
3. Elaboration see: Meira Perry Lehmann, from: "Ofra Zimbalista – Sculptor and Stage Director", Szentendre, Hungary, 2007, and also Tami Katz-Freiman, "Ofra Zimbalista’s Choreography of the Absurd", Blue Garden – Sculptures by Ofta Zimbalista, The Open Museum, Industrial Park, Omer (Israel), 2000.
4. Gideon Ofrat, "Static Cyclicity", Ofra Zimbalista, the Joseph Constant Gallery, Ramat Gan, Israel, 1995.
5. Merhav Mugan îřçá_îĺâď (Protected Space he.wikipedia.org/wiki/
6. Excerpt from the Eretz Miklat (Country of Refuge) Exhibit text, The Genia Schreiber University Art Gallery , Tel Aviv, 2010.
7. Elaboration on the connection between Zimbalista's sculptures and classic sculpture, see: Amitai Mendelsohn, "Ofra Zimbalista's Sculptures at the Tower of David", Tower of David, Jerusalem, 2002.
9. Michael Sgan-Cohen, "Ofra Zimbalista 1999", Kunsthalle Schwaben, Germany, 1999; Adam Farkas, "Ofra at St. André", Hungary, 2007.
10. "We won't protect ourselves to death", said former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in December 2007 at a meeting in the State Comptroller's report on the protection of the home front during the Second Lebanon War. Despite the fact that Olmert called for a review of the realistic protection needs instead of evoking national hysteria, his government authorized unprecedented protection programs in the settlements around the Gaza Strip due to public pressure and the ruling of Israel's High Court of Justice on this issue.
11. Excerpt from Moshe Gil, Architect, "Sculpture as a theatre", St. André, Hungary, 2007.
12. Agi Mishol, from the Exhibit "Written on the Cloth", 2011, Hamisrad Gallery, Tel Aviv, 2011.