joshua neustein texts
The Message in the Context (excerpts)
by Susan Lubowsky Talbott

In 1964, after graduation from City College of New York, Neustein emigrated to Israel. In Israel, he began to use his art to "un-ravel or perhaps disown my various identities." He is still uneasy with this issue: "I'm always renegotiating my context. I'm a Polish, Jewish, American who spent a lot of time in Israel, and I don't want my art to be seen solely as an ethnic form of expression but as art that may have an ethnic base." Neustein spent seventeen years in Israel, and the art he created there is underpinned with the themes of dis-placement, belonging, and safety.

Although Neustein began his artistic career with a one-man painting show at Bertha Urdang Gallery in Jerusalem, conventional painting did not interest him for long. In 1968 he began a series of installations that laid the conceptual groundwork for his art of the next three decades. The ambiguities surrounding issues of safety and borders provoked Neustein to produce a series of conceptual works that "displaced" aspects of the Israeli landscape. In Roadpiece (1971), Neustein metaphorically pulled a section of the landscape into the gallery. Fourteen bales of hay were divided by a tar-paper road emit-ting the sounds of highway traffic. That same year, Neustein collabo-rated with G. Marx and G. Battle to create "a bit of alchemy" by running a river of sound through the dry wadi in Abu Tor, Jerusalem. He taped all the rivers, springs, streams, and waterfalls in Israel (which are few), and mixed the audio to conjure up a new river composed of fifty loudspeakers sunk into the ground. The sounds of running wa-ter matched the pitch of the landscape. It was a river of ancient his-tory-one that Neustein had seen on medieval maps and read of in biblical texts. In 1973, at the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, Neustein gathered pine needles, cones, and branches for The Sound o f Pine Cones Opening in the Sun. His piece was to be created and exhibited only if he returned from the war. In November of that year, the "harvest" of pines was exhibited in Tel Aviv.

Neustein's subsequent projects continued his interventions into the landscape, but focused on borders. Territorial Imperative (1976) involved a male dog who marked his territory by urinating along the Israeli/Syrian border. Neustein re-staged this project at borders in Belfast, Northern Ireland; Krusa, Denmark; and at Dokumenta 6 (the international exposition at Kassel, Germany), where the piece was removed under pressure from the East German government. In 1983, at the height of the Lebanese war, Neustein created Still Life on the embattled border. He built a life-sized phantom jet from rubber tires and set it on fire. The piece burned for days, until the earth was deeply scorched, resembling the "shadow" of the plane. Rubber tires are the Arabs' weapon of choice for civil violence. They use them for protest and sabotage, burning them on highways and traffic intersections. But Israel has its own weapon of choice: the phantom jet. Neustein's combination of the two weapons simply yielded scorched earth. The line between the conceptual and the real was blurred beyond distinc-tion when Israeli soldiers noticed what they took to be a burning plane and descended from their positions to investigate the scene.

Neustein was still preoccupied with what he calls chronic vio-lence as late as 1990. In The Wedding, he addresses the fears that create outcasts on a community level and can lead to violence on a national level. Based on a folk tale (but one that has been edited for the artist's purpose), The Wedding is about fear of strangers. Shown in Poland, Germany, and the United States, The Wedding comprised Neustein's signature bales of hay, an oriental carpet, theatrical light-ing, and a video monitor that ran the following narrative in the lan-guage of the host country:

A man was marrying off his daughter in a farm town. He invited his neighbors, the local people as well as an old friend of the family, a doctor from the city. As the ceremonies began, a gust of wind lifted tablecloths, upset plates of food and disrupted the wedding. The people turned to the minister who was to perform the service, for an explanation. What was happening? This sudden wind, was it an omen? Was the match wrong? The reverend announced that the match was good. But there was an outsider at the wedding party there among them, and he was the cause of the wind. A murmur went through the crowd. They cast their eyes on the stranger. The father of the bride, apologetic and embarrassed, approached the doctor and escorted him to his car. After the guest had left, the wind stopped and the celebration resumed.

Neustein's symbolic wedding drew together icons of technol-ogy and pre-technology to tap the fears of a collective unconscious. Gallery visitors from each country had different reactions. The Poles responded defensively, believing the piece was about them. The Ger-mans seemed to regard the piece as a metaphor for their own immi-gration issues. Los Angeles viewers, who are also mired in immigration problems, seemed most engaged by the television.

Maps, which function to delineate borders, have always figured prominently in Neustein's oeuvre. His pictorial vocabulary of maps, borders, and landscape fragments expanded during the 1990s to include the chandelier. Thus, to political and geographic symbol-ism, Neustein added a symbol of society, culture, and class. In How History Becomes Geography (1990), a chandelier hangs above a map of the old world. Sheets of glass stacked on top of the map corre-spond to statistics of violence in the twentieth century. The densest areas of glass represent locations of the greatest incidence of violence. While the stacked glass obscures the map underneath, the hovering chandelier is reflected most strongly in the highest sheets of glass. Geography is obfuscated and all is blurred in an unreadable reflec-tion of world history.

At SECCA, Neustein has fabricated a huge chandelier, but the map beneath it is circumscribed-its purview local rather than glo-bal. A path cut through ashes replicates the original town plan of Salem, North Carolina, a city that grew to be Winston-Salem. Like Israel, Salem was a sanctuary for religious outcasts from Europe who sought safe haven on a new continent. The Moravian sect that estab-lished Salem in the eighteenth century was an insular community, where non-Moravians were referred to as "strangers." Like the guest in The Wedding, outsiders were publicly marked by their difference, separated from the dominant Moravian culture. On a wider community level, the Moravians set themselves apart from surrounding plan-tation life.

Walking the path of Light on the Ashes, one wonders what has been obfuscated by the veil of history and the glimmer of crystal. The ashes that remain are disquieting. They recall a past in which be-longing was critical to survival and displacement led to the wilderness.

Displaced from Europe, educated and formed in America, drawn to Israel, Joshua Neustein uses selected, elements of his past to enrich his art. His recurrent themes of displacement, belonging, and safety are universal themes in the history of all immigrant nations- including both the United States and Israel. His installation at SECCA connects the Israeli and North Carolinian experiences through the universal bonds of art.

Susan Lubowsky Talbott, Executive Director, SECCA Winston Salem North Carolina, 1996. Director of Smithsonian Arts—Programs, Policy and Planning