NEW YORK — You’re strolling through an art gallery, glancing from the art to your watch, when from among the portraits you glimpse a familiar face. You turn to look, and — it’s your own. That’s your face all right, though in the picture frame it’s twitching as if gripped by a seizure. It’s your own figure projected on the wall, though it’s distorted, inverted and slowly mutating. You wave; mutant you waves back.
You came to see art, but suddenly it is you — your body, your reactions, your comments, thoughts, and embarrassment — that is on display. The result is as captivating as it is disturbing.
This is how an article about Tal and Omer Golan, two of Israel’s most groundbreaking new-media artists, should start: in the gallery. But their story usual begins earlier, the day a suicide bomber took Omer in his arms and exploded.
On December 21, 2000, Omer, then a solder in the IDF, was sitting in a rest stop by the Mehola Junction, in the West Bank. Hardly any cars passed by. The place was nearly empty. Just a handful of soldiers milled about, waiting for a ride back to the army base and playing backgammon to pass the time. Omer had just rolled the final throw, when someone grabbed him from behind.
“The game was mine. I just scored a gammon,” was his last coherent thought. A millisecond later, his world shattered into pieces.
After the explosion Omer remembers getting up off the ground, seeing the other player was alive, and swatting at the flames that engulfed his own face and back. Then he passed out.
He woke up three weeks later at the Rambam Hospital in Haifa in critical condition. He’d survived 15 pounds of explosives laced with nails and old bullets. Apart from the burns covering his body, he suffered from multiple shrapnel wounds, partial paralysis, and complete deafness.
“I was sure that I was already dead,” he says grimly, “so when I actually woke up in the hospital it was a nasty surprise. I had no skin on my body. Just exposed nerves all over. The pain was horrific.”
It was a slow and painful process, but Omer did get better. After a few months he regained partial hearing, though to this day he suffers from tinnitus. He slowly re-learned how to get out of bed and walk by himself. And then, after six months, he upped and escaped the hospital.
“They put me in a cab to visit home for one day, and once I was there I refused to come back,” he smirks. “I just wouldn’t go. After a lot of fighting and yelling, the hospital gave in and signed my release forms, and I continued my treatment as an outpatient.”
After two years of physiotherapy, Omer was nearly self-sufficient again. The moment he was capable, he took to traveling — short, frequent excursions abroad. “I wasn’t very optimistic about the future… I was going to use whatever time and money I had left to see the world.”
On one of these trips he was joined by Tal — today his wife, back then his friend’s girlfriend.
His friend’s girlfriend
“I wasn’t exactly his girlfriend anymore,” Tal corrects him. “We had already broken up. We were just friends at the time, though we still had a warm connection…”
It’s complicated, like they say. And since Omer also had a not-exactly girlfriend of his own at the time, their mutual acquaintances were surprised when the two went on a trip together.
“It was innocent,” Tal clarifies. “My parents gave me this trip as a birthday gift, I had no one to go with. Omer was a friend, he was traveling anyway… it made sense.”
“I promised both my friend and my girlfriend that I wouldn’t try anything with her,” Omer confirms. “I wasn’t about to let them down.”
Omer kept his word, but after a few days in the Canary Islands, one of the more romantic locations in the world, it was Tal who began flirting. “I may have seduced him a little,” she admits. On day three of the trip — Omer’s birthday — he gave in to temptation.
The two planned to let whatever happened in the Canaries stay in the Canaries, but within hours of their return they realized they couldn’t be apart. They made a final break with their not-exactly boyfriend/girlfriend that same day, and moved in together the next.
Five days later, they got engaged.
It happened when “I saw this ad in the paper for a $100 fight to Amsterdam, and wanted to jump on the deal,” Omer recalls. Tal declined, saying she had no money for another trip. Omer offered to pay, but since they hardly knew each other, Tal felt it was inappropriate. She wouldn’t borrow the money, either.
Finally Omer saw no other choice: “I went down on one knee and proposed to her. First of all, I really wanted her to be my wife. Secondly, as my wife, she shouldn’t have an issue with me paying for the trip,” he shrugs. “Problem solved.”
A composition for four hands
Like almost everything the two do together, the decision to become artists was sudden — and absolute.
Before becoming a couple, neither had much to do with art. Omer used to write. Tal held a paintbrush for the first time only days before their trip. Once they moved in together, however, they began painting with gusto: sometimes on separate canvases, and sometimes together, on the same one, like a piano piece for four hands. The medium “swept them away”; they worked fervently, and within months accumulated a large body of work. In 2002, after receiving encouraging reviews from curators and art critics, they moved to Amsterdam to become full-time painters.
In November 2003, after showing their paintings in a few galleries, the two had a solo photo exhibition. It included photographs of what looked like the map of Israel, etched in the scars on Omer’s back.
“One day Tal found the shape of ‘The Roadmap’ among my scars, and snapped a picture to show me,” he recounts.
‘It was weird to come every day to the place where we made art, our sanctuary, and see a giant Palestinian flag hanging over the side of the building’
“The roadmap for peace” (the plan a to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) was top news at the time, as were the West Bank security barrier and Bilin and Naalin, the two Palestinian villages the barrier cut through. Ironically, after moving out of Israel to “get away from all that,” the couple discovered that the headquarters of the Palestinian protest for Bilin and Naalin had moved into the floor above their studios.
“It was weird to come every day to the place where we made art, our sanctuary, and see a giant Palestinian flag hanging over the side of the building,” says Omer. The forced collision between politics and art, which until then was was an escapist venture, threw the two into a “very fertile period of political art.”
“In Europe the approach towards Israel was extremely one sided and skewed… The need to explain ourselves as Israelis, to make our point of view clear, drove us to find stronger, more immediate means of expression than painting,” Tal adds.
Breaking the fourth wall
One of the limitations of traditional art is that the moment a work is finished, it can no longer change. No matter how much of yourself you pour into your art, the couple once complained to a friend, the end result is merely an inanimate object, incapable of responding to the environment.
The friend, a computer sciences student, seemed perplexed. “Why wouldn’t it be able to respond?” he asked, and proceeded to demonstrate what a line of code could do.
“It was a revelation,” says Tal. The friend showed them how, with a video camera and a few simple lines of code, they could transform themselves from commentators to ring masters, from artists to magicians. It was the difference between begging for the public’s attention and commanding it.
“With a painting, we saw that people linger what, 30 seconds?” Omer points out. “But when we started to show them a live feed of themselves, they would stand and stare 10, 20 minutes… particularly when there was something wrong with their reflection.”
In the ArtZond festival for conceptual art in Saint Petersburg, for example, the two presented what seemed like a large mirror. When people came close, however, they saw their reflection was rapidly twitching and blinking, distorted by a succession of nervous tics.
A live feed video camera, an LED screen inside a mirror frame, and a line of code that shuffled the last six frames were the work’s components. The result “was very amusing. This was a very prestigious event, filled with people wearing three piece suits and dire expressions. And suddenly you see them making faces at the mirror and falling over laughing,” says Omer. “We wanted to demonstrate that even conceptual art doesn’t have to be a closed intellectual discourse, reserved only for ‘art people’ who speak the language.”
For Israel, their ambitions went much further. The topic of the West Bank barrier (a series of fences for most of its length; a wall in some areas) was never far from their minds, and in 2006, they began planning a large concert that would take place simultaneously on both of its sides via live video projections with the celebrity conductor Zubin Mehta.
“The Israeli and Palestinian orchestras would see and hear each other and the conductor through a ‘hole’ projected on the wall, that would slowly widen throughout the concert,” says Omer, explaining the concept. As the concert would draw to an end the hole would slowly close up, until there was nothing but a wall again, with silence on both sides.
Though they put several years into this piece, obtaining the necessary funding, equipment, and military approvals, but the cultural barrier between the two nations proved to be even more formidable than the physical one. Out of fear of retribution, no Palestinian would collaborate with them.
Attempting to bring this work to life, Omer in particular had to face his own demons. In one related project, initiated by the Bereaved Families Forum, he spent a weekend in the Palestinian village of Beit Jalah, on the other side of the West Bank barrier, seeking partners.
‘Here I was, a former IDF soldier, who was mortally wounded by a suicide bomber, sitting and having a conversation about political art, religion and music, with a young Palestinian student and painter, who some years before had been in an Israeli prison, charged with a failed attempt to cause an explosion against Israeli soldiers in Nablus’
“For about a week prior to the journey to Beit Jalah, I stopped sleeping,” he describes in the collaborative blog ArtPolitica. He was suffering from nightmares: the sound of Arabic still triggered post-traumatic flashbacks. And yet this brought some heightened, nearly surreal moments of clarity.
“Here I was, a former IDF soldier, who was mortally wounded by a suicide bomber, sitting and having a conversation about political art, religion and music, with a young Palestinian student and painter, who some years before had been in an Israeli prison, charged with a failed attempt to cause an explosion against Israeli soldiers in Nablus…” he wrote. “I cannot describe what I felt.”
In a 2012 work called “Plant a Comment,” now part of a permanent exhibition at The Bloomfield Science Museum in Jerusalem, the couple made the viewers’ comments grow on trees.
“We asked the viewers to text us their comments,” Omer explains. “The texts were analyzed semantically, and bunched accordingly into the shape of trees.”
The components: a new Google 3D projection technology called Liquid Galaxy that creates the illusion of walking through an actual space; seven giant screens; text messages. The result: a world of endless depth, where viewers could roam through thick forests of public opinion, or plant a thought of their own and watch it grow. Birds and other small creatures live among the word branches; they too have a purpose.
“When our families came to visit the exhibition, we programmed one of these birds — a stork — to fly very slowly through all seven screens.” Omer describes. “It had a sign attached to its leg, that read: ‘Mazal Tov, Tal is pregnant.'”
Silence fell on the room as all the guests watched it pass. Then the crowd erupted into cheers.
No more booms, please
Today the couple lives in New York, with their 6-month-old daughter, Zoey-Frank. In Israel, they say, they had reached a place where they were “too comfortable” as artists. They are unwilling and incapable of resting on their laurels.
Though they’ve been widely recognized as pioneers in the field of interactive art, the two are still peeved by the focus the media lends to Omer’s injury.
“Anybody can explode,” he snorts. “What’s special about us is our art.”
When a story about them will open with a description of the gallery, rather than the explosion, he adds,”That’s when I’ll know we’ve really made it as artists.”
The latest exhibition by Tal and Omer Golan, “A Figment Of The Imagination: An open-ended experiment with visual and technological poetry,” is currently showing in the De Construkt Studio, at 41 Seabring Street, 3rd Floor, Brooklyn, NY.