joshua neustein texts
What Did I Forget
by Drorit Gur-Arie

"What Did I Forget," exclaims Joshua Neustein, referring to a frustrating, at times embarrassing experience, touching a sensitive, existential nerve that leads directly to the heart of forgetfulness, the province of loss; that which has crumbled and was left behind the barriers of time. A huge electric barrier at the entrance blocks the way of those who wish to enter the installation space. The rising barrier moves slowly, opening-closing-opening the space, trapping behind it the spectator who invades the work. A strip of bubble wrap ascends, rising like a canopy towards the ceiling, falling back to the floor, rising once more, finally gathering in the shape of the letter "M" onto a nylon tube lying on the ground. On the axis created by the folding of the bubble wrap strip lie wrinkled leaves made of ordinary torn wrapping paper in shades of yellow-brown. The leaves fall to the ground; Autumn.

Images of autumn are usually drawn into Israeli literary reality from different climatic-geographic reservoirs. In many cultural spaces, in canonical and non-canonical corpora, autumn is depicted as an ambivalent metaphor; at its negative extreme, it stands for human conditions such as death , illness, melancholy, yearning, or destruction, while at its positive extreme it is perceived as the ultimate season of abundance and ripeness. Neustein exploits this seemingly-exhausted convention's whole range of possibilities. The faded "Autumn leaves" are placed on the bubble wrap as a lifeless entity, falling dead on the ground, but the strip of bubble wrap grows as an energetic vertical vector. Ebb and high tide, flow and withdrawal — contradictory emotional connotations come together in the paper leaves that cover the installation floor.

The use of material as metaphor is repeated in the plastic sheeting, which is usually used in commercial packing. Bubble wrap, often used by Neustein as both concept and support in his work, embodies temporality, transience, annihilation. In contrast to the sensual, historically laden ashes used by Neustein in some of his works, the transparent plastic is almost without presence, non-material. There is a material-conceptual tension in the installation between the elusive non-substantial raw material and its rough, bubbly, tactile quality, involving a potential for nullifying sound. A slight pressure on the air units trapped within the sheet of bubbles — pop, and it all vanishes, evaporates like ether capsules in the installation space. Is it possible to extract a likeness of a past memory? Pop. On the non-support of the bubble sheet geographical maps are placed/drawn, outlining physical and mental landscapes: border lines, seas, streams, roads. The forms cover the bubble-wrap sheets, invading the tube, extending the support; is Neustein steadily marking territories? The barrier opens and closes, opens and closes. Perhaps drawing an elusive time-line in a routine, indifferent continuum. The plastic's transparency erases-conceals the eroded geographic landmarks, raising question marks. Pure suppositions, possibilities of places that seem to be worn away in a slow process of erosion.

Unmapped territory? Lines, enclaves, ranges. Formal similarity implies brain mapping: chasing lines like nervous systems — axons, synapses, neurons; running around like electric conductors, seeking to collect, store, and pass on information, sensations, scenarios. Messages dispatched from nerve to nerve, beating like vital pulses against the twists of the fleshy plastic sheet, which functions like a cerebral cortex of sorts. And for a moment the transparent, light-spotted plastic strip seems to be a bustling representation of an operating table. Like a postmortem report, Neustein writes a text that must be read beyond the words; concepts, images, memory banks — branching abstract systems, activated and stimulated by a perceptual simulator (transformer). An Odyssey of sorts is written between the countries he has passed through and the territories where he has acted, between his parents', his own and his children's birthplaces — a collection of experiences, dreams, life celebrations. The regions and the people that he remembers, that he is still able to remember, as well as those who remain momentary flickers, imperfect images in forgotten physical or mental spaces.

How are the territories of our conscience mapped? "Occupying a space allows the possession of a name, a basic space," as Neustein noted, "an enclosure that affords the occupier a shell, a nest, a territory."1 The work What Did I Forget comes into being in an intangible territory as a phantom presence touching on conditions that fleetingly make contact, brushing against the past without encountering it, examining the survival capabilities of memory nerves and the changes they undergo in states of disturbance or amnesia. In past works, Neustein examined traces, especially exploring geo-political and cultural residues of memory. Thus, in the project The Possessed Library (David Koresh) (Venice Biennale, 1995) he associated the fragmentation of language, the destruction of memory and the disintegration of cultural information with evil and anarchism, and in the series Five Ash Cities he covered, blurred, and replanted landmarks in historical territories. In the present installation, Neustein suggests possession and loss in a different sphere, striving at a metaphorical mapping of basic perceptual, personal relations and affinities. The simultaneity established by the different components is intensified vis-á-vis an additional element permeating the installation — a sound-collage bursts forth from the loudspeakers into the installation space, spreading through it. A lyrical soundtrack of guitar music from a sentimental Paul Simon song about the forgetfulness of old people competes with frightfully loud synthesizer music. This mixture of sound is overlaid by Neustein's own humming voice, la-di-da-di-la-di-da, trying in vain to recall or dredge up a lost tune and to follow the rhythm. His soft, Hassidic sounding mumbling interferes with the sequence of Pop sounds, amusingly interrupting it; a broken string, perhaps a nerve that has snapped, disrupting the proper flow. Cryptic humor, bitter-sweet — pop — and the barrier opens and closes, opens and closes; perhaps an appearance of rightness, a protected space of sorts, a domain of sanity, and perhaps a hostile, foreign element, surreptitiously scheming.

Like the full-volume soundtrack, the space works at a high-tension frequencies, allowing no division between itself and the installation's various elements. One object penetrates another, both in terms of physicality and as virtual potential, reflecting in it, breaching it, disrupting and recombining diverse options of exterior/interior, open/closed, formal/abstract, physical/metaphysical, remembrance/forgetfulness. Neustein creates a conceptual picture of shades of forgetfulness in the gap between the prominent architectural presence of the installation and the latent mass inherent within it, and the opposite impression embodied in it — lack of gravity, fragility and instability. The installation materials act on the space, setting in motion a process of expansion and contraction. The vertical physical dimension of the plastic strips, stretched like a quivering line drawn between the ceiling and the floor, is extended by the transparent plastic sheet — a hybrid creation of sculpture and architecture — that by enabling light to penetrate "perforates" the space around it. The maps drawn in its indentations are in fact placed on a non-surface, a hypothetical homeless memory. The torn leaves act according to a similar rule — shifting from retaining their primary identity as wrapping paper to being representations of leaves, spilling over from actual time into a metaphorical dimension of accumulation and temporality. Thus the horizontal quality of the floor also enhances awareness of the expanding space while manifesting the duality connection-disconnection, embodied in the line that ascends from the ceiling, touching, not touching the floor. In his Library project, Neustein installed transparent Perspex sheets signifying the transparency of cultural spectacle, on which he only inscribed titles, printed words with no contents. He now similarly uses transparency and permeability to present processes of disintegration and erasure of names, people, and places. The choice of "low", anonymous materials, used for packing merchandise and discarded once they have been used, establishes an ironic reality — seemingly deciphered as emotional, while in fact it is a fictive existence that operates as a consumer-marketing tactic, enabling the sale of merchandise as images and that of images/memories/intellectual assets as merchandise.

The cold, alienated metal barrier stretches across the whole entrance, like an enigmatic organism with an almost independent presence. It moves back and forth as a determined pendulum, closing and opening the entrance to the installation and its space, dictating rhythm, shaping movement. The barrier imposes discomfort, physical shrinking that acts on both the emotional and the symbolic level. The barrier's geometrical-architectural language refers to borders and border-crossings, accompanied in contemporary, especially Israeli, reality by feelings of fear and anxiety that conflict with the sense of security inspired by sterile spaces. The barrier's status raises a question regarding the spectator's place in the installation space. As mentioned above, the barrier blocks access to the artwork, rejecting the viewer as a disturbance, preventing those standing outside from gaining access and imprisoning those who dare to enter. Is an installation possible without spectator presence in it? The spectator's claustrophobic double bind, both outside and inside the work, causes confusion and arouses anxiety. Should one enter or not? Will the barrier open? What is to be expected? What may be observed? The experience of being in the space is layered: the entrance via the barrier and walking through the paths scattered with leaves recalls, ostensibly, a stroll through a park; however, the unexpected juxtaposition of visual and aural components removed from their usual contexts causes a physical and cognitive disorientation, undermining the spectator's ability to construct a coherent reality. The spectator is present in the space as an immanent part of the installation, alongside its other incomprehensible elements. The spectator's body, the various physical sensations awakened by the mutual effects between him and the other installation elements, his frustrations and the "history" brought to life in his consciousness — all these become the installation's subject matter. What has been forgotten and what has not. The barrier opens and closes and opens, and perhaps something is unraveled, indicating a changing emotional course: "Open for us a gate at the time of closing the gate, for the day has turned "2 — and directly the gate displays a metaphysical presence of sorts, enabling metamorphosis.

Anamnesis, notes Lyotard, "is guided by the unknown, since it is engagement with unpredictability and invisibility that allows the even to happen", unlike the act of remembrance or history, which attempt to attest faithfully to what has actually occurred. In the anamnesic procedure an associative chain is activated, the "reason" for which "is never presentable in terms of a past event (originary scene)". However, although the "reason" "is absent from memory, unpresentable, it has 'presence'. It is condemned to be forgotten not in the way that an event that has occurred may not be remembered, but because there has not been a site or a time in which the event could have been inscribed".3 What Did I Forget comes into being as an anamnesic state, signifying an elusive net of affects, entrapping by means of representations and screens that cannot be remembered, forgotten or definitively delineated.


1 Kristine Stiles, "Mapping Joshua Neustein's Art," in the exhibition catalogue Five Ash Cities, Herzliya Museum of Art, 2000, p. 127.

2 From the Neilah (Closing) service, Yom Kippur liturgy.

3 Jean-François Lyotard, "Anamnesis: Of the Visible," Theory, Culture and Society, vol. 21, no. 1, February 2004, pp. 108-109.

Drorit Gur-Arie, director, chief curator, Petach Tiqva Museum of Art, Time Depot "What Did I Forget", p. 67-73.