joshua neustein texts
Mapping Joshua Neustein's Art
From a lecture by Dr. Kristine Stiles at SECCA, North Carolina, 1995

The leit motif of my comments is 'authority'. Joshua Neustein's art - for some thirty years - has been, in large measure, a meditation that questions the various authorities that control meanings. He has mapped the objects and materials of authority into pictures of the territories of law and its functions. His work addresses who determines meaning in a work of art and how authority is established both locally and in larger global contexts. He questions how meaning maps behavior in the world; how that authority and its laws determine the contractual agreements that govern the particular ways we live; and our mind's eye map our own territories. Whatever the differences of interpretation that emerge between artists and writers, the differences between the "two cultures" of word and image (to draw on C.P. Snow's famous identification of the division between the humanities and the sciences) turn on the third culture of the viewer's mind's eye.


Regardless of the medium, Neustein has been consistent about one concern: the power and authority of mapping - both in terms of cartography and the literal shape of spaces, as well as in terms of the visual signs that distribute meaning by metaphorically mapping relationships. His art constructs visual parallels to relationships of authority, the contexts within which that authority is exercised, the boundaries demarcated by sovereignty and the objects, architecture, and social positions that fix power and establish dominions of control. But while he questions the relationship between authority and meaning in his work, as one critic has noted, he "stacks up his layers of visual information to scramble all their claims of authority never entirely obscur[ing] or eras[ing] any of their possibilities."

In Territorial Imperative of 1976 and 1977, Neustein executed a performance with a dog in the Golan Heights, on the German-Danish border near Krusa, and in Belfast, Northern Ireland, near the peace line. At all these sites, Neustein took a male dog to the border to urinate and mark off his territory. The areas that the dog marked with his scent

were labeled by a poster showing the photo of the dog with "territorial imperative" stenciled onto the poster. Neustein then created a map of the area that showed the territory marked by the dog next to the political territory marked by nations.

In 1977, Schneckenburger visited Neustein's studio and invited him to do the piece for Documenta 6 in Kassel, itself on the former border between East and West Germany. Neustein was provided with a flight ticket, an assistant and a dog and re-enacted the piece. The work was "withdrawn" from Documenta 6 after government objections. Neustein was advised that his piece caused "consternation among specialists" regarding what was described as "our complicated relationship between West Berlin and the German Democratic Republic." That Neustein's work ultimately was not exhibited testifies to the power of visual images to inform sight and alter mind.


The theme of war has appeared in many guises in Neustein's work. Neustein (with Georgette Batlle and Gerry Marx) filled a gallery space with 20,000 used army boots, in (1969). The boots mapped a history of recent war, of past war, of future wars. They were maps of the spaces where feet simultaneously followed authority, fought for it and against it. In The Sound of Pine Cones Opening in the Sun (1973), Neustein commemorates the Yom Kippur War in Israel that broke out on the Holy Day of Atonement. Neustein gathered up what he referred to as the "fall" - a term that conflated the season of the year with the fallen soldiers of war – from his backyard. The collection of materials - pine needles, cones, and branches - was done with the proviso that after the war he would separate the leaves, cones, and branches and exhibit them. The war as condition, as an intervening element was crucial to the conception and exhibition of the piece.

Ten years later, in an environmental installation Still Life (1983) that he created during the Lebanese war, Neustein arranged two tons of rubber tires in the shape of a Phantom jet fighter bomber, 20% larger than life size, on the land in Tel-Hai in upper Galilee. He then set the tires on fire with gasoline scorching the earth with the shape of this flying machine of destruction. The scorched form on the earth then resembled the image cast by the plane as an ominous shadow upon the land. Neustein later noted that it took two seasons for the rain to wash away the shadow of the plane on the earth, a cleansing that indicated, for the artist, the duration as well as the end of the work.

Few of Neustein's works are quite as literally connected to authority as these war pieces. More often, his art is a poetic expression of power. The poetry of a river of sound was ostensibly the theme of Jerusalem River Project. But the piece equally addressed aspects of authority (in terms of place) beginning with the profound political division over water between Israel and its neighbors, and extending to the history of religious conflict in the region. These latter meanings accrued to the work NOT out of Neustein's intention to place religion in juxtaposition to political conflict, but out of the lived context of his installation. The situation of actual activity in a volatile region necessarily demands vigilance to the confluence of political, military, and religious groups.

The only source of electricity in the area was at a convent, St. Claire Monastery, in the dry mountain valley outside of Jerusalem. Once connected, the electric wires followed the bed of the valley and ended at the Valley of Kidron. The piece was two kilometers in length, and in width extended for as far as the sound emitted from the Styrofoam cups could be heard. After installing the piece, Neustein and his collaborators went home. That night he was violently awakened by the Israeli police who had been called to investigate the wire strewn all over the valley outside of Jerusalem and who had crushed the installation while following the electrical wires in their panicked search for bombs. Was Neustein so innocent to think that in Israel in 1970, three years after the Six Day War, he could simply lay electrical wire through the desert? Or, was this an intentionally provocative questioning of authority?

I want to repeat that Neustein did not, initially, know that the convent was the only source of electrical power in the region or that his use of that power (electricity) would come into conflict with state power. Such is the chemistry that significant art often has in and with the world. It is the power of art that should-be but, far too often, is-not.

Contractual Relations

The concept of contractual living, its mystery, and its infinite variety of human manifestations is the powerful and driving source of Neustein's art. The interconnection between secular and religious constructs is frequently present in his oeuvre although in very subtle and significant ways. The Box, a work first performed in his studio in 1973, and reconstructed eleven years later in 1982, presents this relationship quite succinctly. Neustein took two packing cartons and rope and constructed a metaphorical house for himself into which he literally packed his body, stuffing it into the shape that this metaphorical house presumed. The simple action represented, in part, a

response to two different texts concerning the house. The first he culled from The Letters of the German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, who wrote: "House - patch of meadow - oh evening light - suddenly you acquire an almost human face - you are very near us, embracing and embraced." The second text is by an author Neustein identifies only as

Reb Tanne, presumably a Talmudic Rabbi and scholar commenting on the social and philosophical import of the house as a political form. Tanne noted: "Humans conceived of houses, now houses are pregnant with humans." "A shelter in Talmudic terms," Neustein notes, "is not a civil right but a divine privilege, a promise from God." He continues:

Occupying a space allows the possession of a name, a basic space, an enclosure that affords the occupier a shell, a nest, a territory, a terrain, a trap, a nucleus, a center. If the chair signifies an individual, the house signifies a family.

Neustein himself is trained in the Talmudic tradition and grew up in an Orthodox Hassidic family. In our family we didn't pray, we studied." I asked him: "Do you think art and law are close?" 'Yes," he answered, "Law, when its good, has an internal logic and consistency and art, a complete life's work, has an internal consistency. I'm interested in the connection between art and the law and religion. Religion is not a faith. It is a practice. Seeing is linked to knowing is linked to living. There is a great metaphysics in contractual relations."

Neustein never confronted that source more deeply than in his installation for the Israeli pavilion at the Venice Biennial, The Possessed Library (David Koresh) which was opened from June until October, 1995.In The Possessed Library (David Koresh), he presented a conventional library, or, in his words, a "good library" with a rogue, or

"evil, library," that would invade it. In his description of the work, Neustein notes that he conceived of these two libraries as dual "spirits contained on one body." Libraries are "not differentiated by content, but by ownership, by context," he pointed out.

The "Tosca Room" is a separate chamber of The Possessed Library (David

Koresh). There are no books stored there only book titles printed on sheets of transparent perspex to visualize the transparency of cultural spectacle. But the perspex sheets with book titles were covered with soot, a material that he often uses along with ash:

"Soot is an hysterical material and ashes are like lead, an end-product material. Soot is black. Ashes are gray. Soot is cold. Ashes are hot. Soot is gorgeous. Ashes are less beautiful. "

This image represents for Neustein the condition of western culture, which has devolved into little but a kind of anthropological vitrine, a transparent, unused, tableau covered in soot where only names, not substance or content, is apparent.

By juxtaposing technologies of power with technologies of diffusion, The Possessed Library (David Koresh) draws the visual world of authority into the techniques of control, power, and diffusion - authority and the destruction of memory.

Neustein describes what he calls the "war of fragmentation" waged by anarchists against archivists in his description of the piece. In such wars of fragmentation, ashes, soot, the debris of culture remain in relation to the fragments of knowledge that now exist merely as letters scattered, broken instructions, destroyed maps of knowing - destroyed

memory. Neustein refers to a paradox here. He compares the fragmentation of language, the destruction of memory, and the dissolution of substance and content in Western society with evil and anarchists who efface cultural memory in their "wars of fragmentation." Yet, simultaneously, he presents those anarchists in opposition to archivists as they work for the good against the rigid categorical epistemologies of the archivist. In this way, The Possessed Library (David Koresh) is a metaphor for the socio-political structure of Western culture that resembles how Jewish mystics throughout time have compared the organic system of the body (waging battles of good and evil) with the structure of the world.

The Mind's Eye

In closing, I want to mention one more work that [I think] is salient in studying Neustein's considerations of power and authority, and the role of the viewer in recon- structing meaning and memory through the mind's eye. He performed the work entitled Picture Plane 1972 for the exhibition called "Beyond Drawing," at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, in 1974. In Picture Plane, Neustein physically presented visual and bodily relationships between the painted image, the surface of the work of art, the architecture or context within which it was manifested, and the artist himself, by enacting 24 situations using stretcher frames, rope, canvas, acrylic paint, and two walls. In this, perhaps one of his most direct commentaries on the authority of the framing device, he demonstrated through his own corporeality how the artist reorders relationships visually by showing how context determines perception not only in art - but by extension - in life.

This work demonstrates how Neustein's intention is not to convey a visual modality of self-expression but rather to create a visual mediation on context, on framing, on the site from which, and through which, the viewer is able to see. He utilized painting itself as a map plotting the geographies of visual space.

The discovery of what I am calling "meaning-in-relation" is a difficult task. It means conjoining divided cultures by finding relations between the self and the coextensive context that the self experiences. Such a view of one's place, in relation to one's time and one's needs, requires the ability to train oneself to see rigorously. Enabling more rigorous seeing is, in my view, the highest accomplishment of art. For rigorous seeing holds the potential to reconnect fragments of knowing. Such an act represents a great metaphysics in contractual relations.

Prof. Kristine Stiles
Duke University
Talk at SECCA
9 August 1995