Art That Hints At Big Questions

Israeli Prize Goes To Sculptor Who Designs With Layers of Meaning

Empty Shelves: Clouds are reflected in the glass top of Micha Ullman’s 1995 pit sculpture, ‘The Library.’ The Holocaust memorial was built in Berlin on the site of a notorius 1933 Nazi book burning.
Empty Shelves: Clouds are reflected in the glass top of Micha Ullman’s 1995 pit sculpture, ‘The Library.’ The Holocaust memorial was built in Berlin on the site of a notorius 1933 Nazi book burning.

By Michal Lando

Published April 22, 2009, issue of May 01, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Israeli sculptor Micha Ullman likes to refer to his art as “offerings” — works that people can choose to accept or not. He doesn’t believe in forcing anything on anyone, and especially not art.

“It’s an attitude to life,” he said in an interview in his Ramat Hasharon studio, which is neatly packed with models of his sculptures, some dating back decades.

The 69-year-old artist will receive the prestigious Israel Prize which will be awarded on Israel Independence Day, April 29, and signals, more than any other prize, his place in the pantheon of great Israeli artists.

Digging Deep: Artist Micha Ullman will receive this year’s Israel Prize.
Digging Deep: Artist Micha Ullman will receive this year’s Israel Prize.

“The Israel Prize is a beautiful recognition of my place by the professionals, which I’m very happy to get,” Ullman said. “Now, I’m looking for the people.”

The sculptor says he has yet to become popular with the masses. “I don’t make it easy, I know, but that’s the way I think and behave,” he said. “I will not start shouting.”

Martin Weyl, director emeritus of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, said Ullman’s selection “was not a difficult choice to make, because Ullman is one of the best Israeli artists, known for many, many years, [who has] been participating in every possible important exhibit of Israeli art and many international exhibitions.”

Ullman’s quiet and thoughtful manner is echoed in his subterranean sculptures, which often barely protrude from the ground, making them easy to miss if one isn’t actively looking. But their physical depth — extending deep into the soil — hint at the layers of meaning that he brings to his work.

For more than 40 years, Ullman has been exploring the surface of the ground and, in many cases, what lies beneath it in works that are at once particular to Israel and universal in their scope. They touch on the meaning of place and home, absence and emptiness; they are at once celestial and earthbound, metaphysical but sensual and tactile. He manages all this with a subtle and quiet voice that is at times at odds with the culture of his homeland.

“I am not a star, or popular among the people,” said Ullman, who has gray eyes that focus intently from behind semi-frameless glasses. But among professionals it’s a different story. Ullman has been appreciated since early in his career both in Israel and abroad, particularly in Germany. His sculptures are part of numerous museum collections, including those in Israel, Germany, Japan and Australia.

“Many artists in Israel see Micha as a pillar of Israeli art who has had so much influence on generations of Israeli artists,” said Amitai Mendelsohn, curator of Israeli art at the Israel Museum. “There has always been some resistance in the past to dealing with Jewish issues, but Micha’s work succeeds in bridging these contrasts between Jewish, Israeli and the universal, and that’s one of the things that makes him a great artist.”

Ullman’s first major piece “Messer/Metzer,” from 1972, was a symbolic exchange of soil between an Arab village and a Jewish kibbutz that are separated by 2 kilometers and a border. In an attempt to unite in some way the warring places, Ullman dug a pit in each place and filled it with soil from the other. On the surface, almost nothing was visible.

“By a simple act, I tried to touch meaningful energies in a site — not just forms, also in this case sociological/political tensions,” Ullman said.

The pit came to be his main form, which he uses to different effects in almost all his sculptures.

“I am a frustrated farmer,” said Ullman, who lives and works not far from where he grew up, in an area rich in agriculture. Ullman, whose parents came to Palestine in 1933 from Germany, grew up at a time when the Israeli ethos revolved around working the land. For Jews and Israelis alike, digging has many associations: searching for one’s roots, for sources, for meaning and for death.

“He’s an interesting combination of artist and archeologist,” Mendelsohn said. “The way he thinks, he is trying to symbolically unearth, or dig inside the very fragile Israeli soil.”

Though Ullman eventually chose art over farming, his early inclinations to work the soil have been a constant driving force in his work. “From that time, I stayed with the same basic approach — a process of endless discovery of new aspects using the same materials: soil and sand,” he said. “Pit sculptures are a form that ties its fate to a place. By digging, I am naturally relating to the place.”

Ullman is also speaking from his own place, a country where land is a central part of the national narrative. “Land is such an important part of our existence here, for good and bad, but his dealings with this are not obvious,” Mendelsohn said. “They are more meditative works that give a lot of space for the imagination and are very much open to different interpretations. That’s one of the things that make him a great artist, that his works are so broad in their messages.”

Beginning in 1987, Ullman began making trips to Germany, where he would end up creating many sculptures.

Ullman’s best-known work, “Library,” is a powerful Holocaust memorial he created in 1995 in Bebelplatz, on one of Berlin’s main thoroughfares. It is at the spot where, on May 10, 1933, Nazis burned 20,000 books by authors considered enemies of the Third Reich.

The only thing visible from the square is a glass window in the ground. Below is an empty white library of four walls built deep into the soil. Printed four times across the square is the fortuitous line by the 19th-century Jewish poet Heinrich Heine: “Where books are burned, in the end people will burn.”

The glass, which during the day reflects the sky and the spectator looking down, is like a mirror, Ullman said: “You can see what you want to see.”

“I am using a language of hints,” Ullman said. “It’s not there, and it is there. You don’t have to look, only if you want to, and here that’s especially important, because the measure of evil is the highest in human history.”

The memorial is considered to be one of the most successful of its kind. Ullman himself is surprised by his sculpture’s ability to “fulfill its task.” For a memorial to be successful, he says, the art must be independently good. “It must stand on its own, not only serve a purpose,” Ullman said. “I believe that a good question mark has the potential for moving people.”

These days, Ullman is working on a new project, for the sculpture garden of the Israel Museum. It combines the natural cycle, light and dark, and Jewish tradition, which hovers in the background as an indirect influence.

The Hebrew title is “Yom Hashivion,” which means “Day of the Equinox.” But in Hebrew, the word for equinox, “shivion,” also means “equality,” giving the title an added layer of meaning.

This structure is a bench made of thick glass. When you look inside, you realize you are sitting on top of an underground white room with a seemingly endless corridor to the south, which looks black. The sun creates a light exhibition on the different walls, depending on the time of day and the season. But twice a year, at noon during the day of the spring and fall equinoxs, when the length of the day equals the length of the night, light entering the space will create the appearance of a light door on the north wall, which will be equal in size to the dark entrance opposite it.

“It’s about equality, which in this case is based on light and nature, but you can’t see the light without seeing your own shadow,” Ullman said. “I’m dealing with the most remote and abstract and then the closest and most real — always these contrasts.”

He continued the thought: “Again we see here the tension between two contrasts which symbolically go quite far — light and dark. In Jerusalem there is a question mark: What do we choose?”

And here, as in almost all his works, Ullman’s sculpture is a kind of offering. But in the end, it is up to the people whether and what they choose to see.

Michal Lando is a freelance journalist working out of Tel Aviv.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  •'s Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.