Issue #9

  1. Introducing SITRA ACHRA

  2. Talmudic War Machine & A Shadow’s Dream

  3. Bruise Garden

  4. Mascha Kaléko: The Poet, The Stream

  5. Deli on the Move

  6. Bad Butcher

  7. Over or Under

  8. Remove/Release

  9. Renew Our Days

  10. Our Boys: A Travelogue

  11. Vitraji Vulgarum

  12. “Seeing is Not Enough”

  13. Cross-Pollination

  14. Theremin and the Touchless Touch

Vitraji Vulgarum

Assi Meshullam

The work Vitraji Vulgarum covers the windows of the Genia Schreiber University Art Gallery in Tel Aviv. The gallery is large, spacious, and spread over two floors with a staircase wrapping around two of the gallery’s walls. Six floor-to-ceiling windows cover the walls along the staircase. Large transparency sheets adjusted to the proportions of the windows and painted in red and black designs are glued onto the glass, creating the illusion of painted glass as light from the exterior floods through them.
Assi Meshullam, Vitraji Vulgarum, Installation at the TAU Gallery, Tel Aviv, 2012; Curators: Menachem Goldenberg & Galili Shachar. Photos: Hilit Kadouri.

Assi Meshullam’s Vitraji Vulgarum is a site-specific work presented at the Genia Schreiber University Art Gallery in Tel Aviv as part of the exhibition The Left Hand (2012), curated by Menachem Goldenberg and Galili Shachar. The work consists of red and black glass-paints on large transparency sheets that were glued onto the glass windows of the gallery. Located between the university and the street, the gallery functions as a sort of suggestive portal between them; and the painted glass windows traced the complex, playful, and ominous narrative of the nachash hakadmoni, or the primordial serpent — not as he is banished to crawl on his belly, as the familiar story goes, but as he regains his stature, his limbs, and his wings in an ascent from the underworld.

This underworld is no abstract, mythological location. Ongoing political violence permeates the work. The first window’s watchful sun-eye with its light bulb pupil, a technological illumination of destruction and devastation, alludes directly to Picasso’s infamous anti-war masterpiece Guernica, composed in 1937 in response to the fascist aerial bombing of Basque Country by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Meshullam painted his windows in 2012 as Israel conducted air strikes on Gaza and Hamas launched rockets toward Tel Aviv. The second window situates a doubled Lion of Judah image, taken from the contemporary Israeli municipal symbol for the city of Jerusalem, in a barren landscape of burnt trees. Classical Jewish texts speak of two Jerusalems — a (heavenly) Jerusalem above and an (earthly) Jerusalem below — but Meshullam introduces us to a third: an underworld Jerusalem from which the serpent must be retrieved. 

The university campus toward which the site-specific work leads, and toward which the ouroboric serpent ascends, is framed by the artist’s rendering of a thorny and barren tree of knowledge. The ascent does not quite index, therefore, a utopian arrival at pure knowledge, an escape from the hellish underworld to paradise. The serpent’s ascent opens rather to a deeply implicated and ambivalent site of knowledge production, whose fruits and leaves have not quite yet emerged.

The first window depicts a sort of an expulsion scene painted in deep red. At the center of the window is an open book with Hebrew text written on both sides (quoted from ‘Ro’achem,’ a book the artist wrote about seven years earlier). On the right side, the text is written as normal, from right to left, but on the left side, it is written in mirror to the other side, from left to right. Next to the image of the book, on both sides of it, appear two semi-human figures, both pointing at it with their hands. Their feet look like the legs of a beast. Above the image of the book, two angels appear, facing each other, also gesturing toward the book below. Above the angels, at the top of the painting, there is a big eye with curved rays coming out of it and a light bulb within — a reference to Picasso’s “Guernica.” Underneath the book and coming down from it is a ladder that gets more and more narrow as it goes down to the bottom of the window. On the ladder is a figure of a naked and hairy man climbing downward. At the bottom of the window there is a winding tangle of tails and scales, headless and lacking any other organs.

The second window shows two lions standing against each other on a wall or aqueduct. They are painted in mirror image, as if they are in battle. The lions reference the Aryeh Yehuda (the Lion of Judah) of the municipal emblem of the city of Jerusalem. At the bottom of the painting, the snake has begun to climb and wrap one of the pillars holding the aqueduct arches. Above the lions’ fight scene appears a sun with rays shooting outward; it is unclear whether it is setting or shining. Through the arches of the aqueduct, in the background, there is a barren wasteland covered with a few burnt trees.

In the third window, there are two snakes, both of which now have a head with a face. They frame the scene as they surround it, swallowing each other's tail. Inside the frame sits a figure of a woman, like a Madonna, holding two babies. She sits on a stage, and around her head, as well as around the heads of her twins, is a black aura.

In the fourth window, the human-faced snake has grown wings and floats behind what appears to be a great ziggurat, which starts at the bottom of the window and ends in its top, as if drawn to infinity. The building looks like a temple, at the bottom of which are two groups of worshipers, standing on either side of the gate. The entrance to the temple, appears deep and cavernous at the bottom of the window.

The fifth window — one of the two windows on the upper floor surrounding the exit doors leading to the university campus — shows the (doubled) image of the snake after it had received back its hands, legs, and wings. It now looks like a human covered in reptilian scales. These two figures stand on both sides of the door and hold together a kind of a ribbon that quotes a sentence from ‘Ro’achem’: “And you shall be like leeches to knowledge.”

The sixth window, also surrounding exit doors, shows a tree and its thorny branches naked from leaves and fruits. It wraps the doorway in tangles.

The gallery viewed from the upper level, red light flooding through the windows and into the space.

The exterior of the gallery viewed during the day. Sunlight penetrates into the gallery through the windows and the interior is visibly red from the outside.

The second window viewed from the outside.

The third window viewed from the outside.

The fourth window viewed from the outside.

The exterior of the gallery viewed at night. The gallery glows red, thanks to the artificial light inside the gallery and the darkness that covers it from the outside.

Assi Meshullam is a visual artist based in Israel. Meshullam holds a bachelor’s degree in Art and Archaeology from the University of Haifa and a master’s degree in Biblical Studies. In his work, which includes sculpture, painting, drawing, and installation, Meshullam explores the worlds of Jewish content from their rather dark side and the way in which artistic practice is influenced by myth, ritual, and the sacred. Assi Meshullam is a senior lecturer at the University of Haifa and currently serves as the head of the Department of Fine Art.