Smoke of smokes
says Qohélet
Smoke of smokes
Everything is but smoke

Ash and its volatile greyness. Lime and its desertic, dazzling whiteness. These are the materials, both fragile and strong, which have always formed the mental and physical landscape that welcomes and envelopes both the Israeli people and the travelers who cross Palestine. The stone they are built with is the same they rest upon, and this brings to mind the words of Heidegger about the Greek temple – that it is erected on rock, that it opens up a world and at the same time brings it back to Earth, which only then is revealed as the land of birth. Unlike the metaphysical peremptoriness of the Greek temple, Israeli cities, although solidly built, do not seem fit to challenge time, on the contrary, they seem to suffer its action, or at least to bend down at its passage. The white limestone, of which everything is built, produces dust that collects on the tongue, providing the raw material for an architecture of words. The wind carries it, along with the singing, and condenses it into the forms, both simple and ramified, of sand crystals.

Death Fugue

Black milk of daybreak we drink it at sundown
we drink it at noon in the morning we drink it at night
we drink and we drink it
we dig a grave in the breezes there one lies unconfined
A man lives in the house he plays with the serpents he writes
he writes when dusk falls to Germany your golden hair Margarete
he writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are flashing he whistles his pack out

In the introduction to his translation of Qohelét (1988), Guido Ceronetti says that the character-narrator “Qohelét”, translated as “Raccoglitore”, or ‘gatherer’ (which in the Christian Bible becomes Ecclesiastes) is in fact a Disseminator “… one who offers treasures of wisdom that turn out to be nothing but pots and broken alarm clocks of absurdity, figures of disconnection, figures of the titanic, indecent Absurdity that is life? …. A writing … that can compare with the waste produced by a metropole of today, with its infinite death flies – this is what is needed, this is public need, social merchandise, offer …”. Collecting and dispersing in the same moment is a complex process. It seems to me that this complexity is the main feature of the artists I met in Israel, in particular of Etti Abergel. All too often, criticism has emphasized the role that historical or individual memory is supposed to play in their works, and even contemporary or modern art is used as a warehouse, from which to draw forms and contents that can historically legitimize what seems to lack such legitimization and, in the absence of a historical-artistic identity, that can affirm its non-peripheral originality. Artists such as Etti Abergel, who constantly collect and disperse without finding the origins of this practice, or the achievement of its vision, solely in the act of digging into collective memory, into the time that is represented by the Shoah – taken (rightly and dramatically) as the paradigm of general memory -, nor into the personal history of an emigrant family (as in the case of Etti) that moved from Morocco towards the promised land. Even the Western artistic practices, also those that belong to the most recent historical avant-garde movements, turn out to be inadequate when trying to categorize her work. Rather, if we want to talk about memory, we should go back to the “Collect-Disperse” duality I hinted at, which precedes everything we know, and generates the other dualities that can be found in her work: “Protect – Dismember”, “Tie – Untie”, “Love – Betray” etc. These dualities are the foundation of both her art and of the people she belongs to. They can hardly create any formal or artistic identity (at least as we have always understood it) because they tend to generate literary questions rather than condensed images. This is why people like Etti, who succeed in extracting form out of these dualities, usually reach very high results.

he whistles his Jews out in earth has them dig for a grave
he commands us strike up for the dance

Therefore, Etti’s works are, in my opinion, independent of both mnemonics and of historical-artistic practice – above all they don’t seek to justify their existence through the former or the latter. They are organisms poised between life and death, between a thing that is about to disappear and another that is about to manifest itself. They are interrupted or jammed circulation systems, where the vital sap can hardly flow, constantly encountering knots, hitches, deviations, and anything that serves to represent, and give the feeling of, the gravity of a body that wants to lift itself up, almost to evaporate, in order to become pure language, white light, blurred greyness. Etti’s works are figural because they are real, which means that they highlight the authenticity of matter, of creative processes – and yet in our perception of them we are not led to lose ourselves inside the work, in its folds and shadows – in short, in its form and image. On the contrary, that matter, so evident and pregnant with weight, invites us to look for its origin, its source of inspiration, elsewhere. But where? Not in mysticism, nor in aesthetics or ethics (or in the union of the two, which is so prevalent today). I think it leads us towards that ‘indecent, absurd’ life Ceronetti talked about. A life made of glass-shattering screeching noise that can wound you just by approaching it.

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink in the morning at noon we drink you at sundown
we drink and we drink you
A man lives in the house he plays with the serpents
he writes he writes when dusk falls to Germany your golden hair Margarete
your ashen hair Shulamith we dig a grave in the breezes there one lies unconfined.
He calls out jab deeper into the earth you lot you others sing now and play
he grabs at the iron in his belt he waves it his eyes are blue
jab deeper you lot with your spades you others play on for the dance

Pregnant. This is a word that really makes sense when talking about Etti Abergel. Her works are pregnant and give birth by parthenogenesis, which means that they are not ‘fertilized’ by reality but reproduce spontaneously in a sort of constant, ceaseless storm. They look like a cocoon wrapped in protective silk, as resistant as it is wiry: likewise, the material ‘protects’ the work by constituting an intimate part of it. What does it protect the work from? Maybe from time, which enters into things like the corrosive wind that comes from the desert, rich in silicon, like abrasive paper; from excessive heat and cold. It also protects the work from the eyes of the spectator, for they, too, are corrosive and often indecent, just like those of the military man, of the professional politician, of the Kibbutz chief, of the whistling projectile, of the eridute critic… Years ago, her works were generated inside a temporarily abandoned underground concrete bunker in the city of Jerusalem. Going out of it and closing the big iron hatch behind, the works remained as if severed from the world, waiting to go out in the open and walk about, like phantoms reconciled with sunlight.

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at noon in the morning we drink you at sundown
we drink you and we drink you
a man lives in the house your golden hair Margarete
your ashen hair Shulamith he plays with the serpents

He calls out more sweetly play death death is a master from Germany

The filaments that often consitute her works hold things, humors, air, judgments, color, desires, inside compact forms. These threads look like amminoacid chains that she secretes to protect her potential tale. The threads are thin but strong, they draw their strength from the tangle and build-up in key spots of the work, right where they hold the cocoons of tales. Scientists analyze this way of producing something resilient from a substance that by its very nature is frail, trying to create materials for military use etc. Wouldn’t it be high time that even critics, or art writers, applied this same criterion for acquiring knowledge, that they looked into the role played by materials in the development of a form, based on the feelings they generate and their ability to tell stories?

he calls out more darkly now stroke your strings then as smoke you will rise into air
then a grave you will have in the clouds there one lies unconfined
Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at noon death is a master from Germany
we drink you at sundown and in the morning we drink and we drink you
death is a master from Germany his eyes are blue

Stories, like threads, hold us back and, at the same time, they push, tighten, disaggregate. The house, and spaces in general, are their natural framework – especially edges. The objects that characterize the house: the bed where you were born, where you love, and die; the table on which you share your evenings, the dish that measures power, the lamp that lets you rest your eyes.

he strikes you with leaden bullets his aim is true

The environments we live in build the narrative foundation of every art, even ‘abstract’ art: an apparently formless spider web, based on accurate geometry that is invisible as it is necessary to itself and its own survival. This geometry of the soul is the foundation of every environment. Just like in the Cellules of Absalon. Comparing Etti with Absalon is apparently impossible. And it is true, it would be like calling for the fusion of female and male, proposing the disappearance of the sexes as a solution to their conflict. What, on the contrary, makes Etti and Absalon akin is that both have the same panting, claustrophobic breath. The solidified air in the modern forms of Absalon is the same air Etti breathes, only she has pierced its snow-white surfaces, hoping that they would explode like an air-inflated balloon, creating a regenerating wind – although what it actually created was a corrosive wind. Both have sought a hideout, to shelter and move their gesture, the agile one of Absalon and the uncertain one of Etti.

a man lives in the house your golden hair Margarete
he sets his pack on to us he grants us a grave in the air
he plays with the serpents and daydreams death is a master from Germany

Their movement is never linear, it does not move in a straight line at a military pace, it does not connect distant points – on the contrary, it leaves them to their loneliness. They move like the child in the title of Grossman’s novel: zigzagging. Like the movement of their people… Maybe this could be the title of a novel that has yet to be written: “There are zig zag people”.

your golden hair Margarete
your ashen hair Shulamith

Paul Celan

I want to close by saying that now everything fits: Etti, Absalon, Qohelét, Zig Zag, Jerusalem, Capelli, Bunker, Periferia, Gilad, Larry, Rothem … they all come back to reclaim the place they have had in me since I first saw and experienced them. They are back to say that everything takes shape inside the air we breathe, the air we build our home with.

And man leaves
For his indefinite home
Among the ritual whining
of the souk’s women

Alfredo Pirri