Illness, death, and mourning, as they related to his own biography, were the central themes of Israeli artist Gideon Gechtman’s work. Re-created for this exhibition were the artist’s six best-known installations, shown together for the first time. Although flawlessly presented, these pieces—particularly those that dwell in chilling detail on medical procedures—were difficult to look at.
In two of the installations, Gechtman (1942–2008) gave provocative expression to traumatic events in his life. Memories of being in the hospital for heart surgery as a young man gave rise to Exposure (1975), a work that incorporates photos of his nude body (he was one of the first Israeli artists to expose himself in this way) together with documentation and real and fabricated objects including jars of urine, a collection of hair shavings, and a steel copy of a heart valve displayed as a precious artifact. Yotam (1999), an equally harrowing artwork, commemorates the last days of Gechtman’s eldest son, who died at age 26. Here, a gallery was turned into a hospital ward furnished with beds, trolleys, and medical equipment. But it also included items having symbolic meaning, such as a stuffed peacock (an emblem of resurrection) and a go-cart (a plaything referencing his son’s childhood).
Archive (2003), one of Gechtman’s final works, is perhaps the most noteworthy. The culmination of the artist’s decades-long rehearsal for his own demise, the piece reproduces the elegant facade of a real mausoleum in the Spanish town of Portbou. It was in Portbou that German philosopher Walter Benjamin died while trying to escape the Nazis, and the piece is dedicated to Benjamin’s memory. Each niche in this facade is occupied by artificial flowers and urns or miniature objects drawn from the artist’s personal lexicon of imagery. Here, as in many of his other works, Gechtman proved that art can be a powerful tool for perpetuating life after death.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 107.