Zvi Goldstein and Julian Heynen

Conversations about Things and One Man’s Mind in a Waking Dream

It starts with a commission. After a period of rebuilding, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, where Zvi Goldstein lives, is to reopen. In 2008, to mark the occasion, the curator Suzanne Landau invites him (and two other artists) to delve into the museum’s encyclopaedic collections and to each develop an exhibition or work from their findings. Goldstein has already spent months visiting and revisiting different parts of the collection, talking to museum staff, selecting objects and homing in on a concept, when he travels to another place entirely, rather far away in the north, where he gives a short lecture. He is in Edinburgh to finalise work on his second book and to prepare it for publication. What he outlines in twenty minutes to a largely unprepared audience at the Scottish National Gallery is both a confession and a promise. A frank description (unconstrained by strategic considerations) of his situation and his ambitions as an artist is interwoven into his outline of a project with the poetic title Haunted by Objects [henceforth abbreviated as HbO]. Concrete facts and vague indications rub shoulders. This single short account opens up wide horizons, although some things still remain in the dark.

It starts, to be precise, much earlier, in 2001. “After twenty-four years, I found myself in a very peculiar situation” – the Edinburgh audience is listening – “Still an object-maker artist, I realized that, in the rather peripheral and economically modest locus where I live, my ambition to construct highly refined objects – imitating expensive industrial procedures – had come to an end.”[1] Proposals and papers for schemes that can’t be realised mount up, and one day, in the garden of the small house the family has just moved into, he suddenly starts to write – as though nothing were more natural. Even before that he had talked of sequences, of distinctly different moments in his life that flitted through his mind from time to time. For a while he had felt the urge to make a film. “If you want to make a film, you should start by writing a script,” said a friend. Later, in the same garden, over the course of seven months – with only minimal interruptions for the necessities of life – his original intuition turns into a finished manuscript. From a standing start, he masters the writer’s tools, having laid aside the materials used by an artist, a maker of objects. On Paper, the title of the book, alludes to exactly that process, the transformation of artistic impulses into words and signs on paper [2]. And it embodies yet another transformation. The book is written entirely in English, a language that he has acquired as so many have done somehow, somewhere, like an interloper. But does he even have a native language? The Hungarian his parents spoke? With Yiddish here and there as you would expect in those days? The Romanian he spoke as a child in Transylvania? The new language that shapes his daily life nowadays, Hebrew? Or Italian, from the crucial years he spent in Italy? English is unavoidable of course, as the dominant language for anyone wanting to connect with the leading discourses and institutions, with people across the world; at the same time it also allows the efforts of the outsider to resonate in the text, because the English he writes is not the standard language, it is that of a Peripheral Man.

He opens in Edinburgh with a passage from that book, in order to describe his feelings before he embarked on it: “In the house of an Italian friend . . . ‘You know’, I said to my friend, ‘I would like to see my life in the form of a spiral, narrow at the base and broadening with age. I would like to imagine my life as a perfect square. As a huge, generous circle. I would like to achieve the elasticity of an acrobat, the finest aroma of the dish on this table. To fly like an eagle, to whistle like a canary bird, to walk without touching the ground, distant from evil.’” This waking dream of fulfilment, of the ultimate sublimation of his activities as an artist is interrupted by the Italian friend: “Don’t destroy the evidence, the art objects.” No, he won’t destroy them, but he will, for the time being, transpose his creativity into writing, into literature. And yet a sense of disillusion pervades the initial act of writing: “I was deluding myself that sharp, precise and clean-looking objects of art could have the metaphoric power to exorcise the world we know, to construct other, different Metaphors of Contemporaneity, to unify the fields of Modernity in one co-existing, hybrid methodology, in a new body of artistic evidence – outside the monopolized Western context, to reconcile

Fantasy and Theory

Concept and Aesthetic

Context and Ontology

Biography and Ideology

Between Being Central

And Geographically Peripheral.”

There is an echo here of the tone of the early manifestos that accompany his sculptures after 1978, set out here as a succinct artistic credo. Yet, at the same time, there is also “an eschatological type of feeling – that my production of objects is on the decline”.

Nevertheless, as he starts writing he also embarks on a new sculpture: Reconstructed Memories (Lariam B). Work on this piece will extend into the beginnings of a second book, which records its completion: “the last sculpture – accomplished / with no remainder”. Such residue as there is feeds into the new book that is now emerging, more slowly than the first, in English again, but now as an extended poem interspersed with prose passages. [3] The narrative describes “a condensed open-eye recall experience I had for the duration of one minute, in hotel room #205 in Tel Aviv, the room whose number inspired the title of the manuscript”. It is a profound text, emotional, honest, but above all it also is a hybrid, hallucinatory text. In the preamble we read: “ . . . The multifarious flashes had come to me – at first sporadically, changing pace. Then, whirled up from hell by female and male recitative and singing voices, in Hebrew and in English; fused, amalgamated with the image-stories which – all, almost at once, in chorus, appeared on the screen of my mind – like kaleidoscopic rainbows. Reflections on the surface of a lake. Melancholic leafless trees of winter on the ruins of my believes. Heroic artists’ icebergs wrecking my objects of art. / Poetic subjects all. Interior landscapes of a soul observed from the peak of a dishevelled, riotous imagination. A kind of flashback stressed to the extreme, as one facing the last minute of his life. / Time: 9:25 am.” And one minute later, on page 205, it all comes to an end, “ . . . moving my head from the pillow”.

This opening in Edinburgh is followed by some shorter passages from Room 205, fragments, providing a glimpse of the nature of this unarguably modern poetry without fully revealing it, and two or three samples from the Jerusalem project, which glitter in strange isolation in the half-shadows of this declaration of intent. The rest of the talk is matter of fact. He outlines his commission from the museum and continues: “The opportunity to investigate Objecthood again, as I used to do throughout my object-maker career, enchanted me, even if it was not from a constructive perspective. My answer to the invitation was positive. I added that I would like to include my latest creative development, and to approach the Museum collections through sections of the as-yet unedited Room 205 manuscript. The show took shape easily once I replaced the first word of the original title I had in mind – Possessed – with Haunted, following the suggestion of a friend.” The thread of his search in the museum’s repositories is provided by sixty-two passages from Room 205, which ultimately appear in the installation, framed, yet still infiltrating the objects around them.

In the summer and winter of 2010, several meetings with Goldstein in HbO: meandering conversations, references and counter-references, some questions, some answers. Recollections of past comments mingle with present observations. It’s not about keeping to a plan, it’s about being open to new ideas and discoveries – in the same way that the installation has no set sequence or hierarchy, is not beholden to any established order (in a museum, in art theory) that normally applies to objects. Instead it soars from one topic to the next, or rather, everything displayed in it and alluded to, is simultaneously active. As we make our way to the museum, Goldstein speaks:

In HbO two things overlap. One is that, with the help of the collections, I wanted to literally “objectivise” the poetry in Room 205, that is to say, once again to juxtapose words and thoughts with my response, as a sculptor, to materials and objects. The other was my desire to engage in a critical revision of museological concepts and categories.

As though you could just separate the two.

The Mediterranean, wooded hills between Ein Karem and Beit Shemesh. In the car, on a sweeping road, soaking up the landscape, enjoying, contemplating, the trees, shrubs, bushes, flowers, the soil, the rocks, the up and down, far and near, the sky, the clouds and the thoughts one has of things not seen, the animals, the rain that falls now and again, hardly ever, the past of that stretch of land – this is where the project first formed. Was it chance or the blessing of a free-floating hour? Or is there a subterranean link between those moments and the objects in HbO, connecting with their ever-shifting cosmos? On one visit this memory resurfaces at the sight of an engraving from around 1700. It depicts a gardener, in the style of Arcimboldo. The group of objects in its proximity all variously relate to gardens, to landscapes. In the text there is a table listing different vegetables, with the heading, My Gardened Mind. For ten years now Goldstein has had his own garden, in front of his house.

Of course you might naturally think of Voltaire’s Candide, the garden in Istanbul where he ultimately seeks refuge. But I’m using this image in a different sense. For me the garden is a territory in which and through which I can cultivate my mind, my thoughts. So, sometimes, a thought may seem to me like chard, for instance, another like a pepper plant. I see the endless variations and abundance of a garden as a metaphor for my own thought processes. But here, in the context of HbO, the garden is also a very concrete metaphor. The accompanying text opens with the words: “Tangent touches the circle. / Fame passes my garden fence.” A little later it reads: “Runner beans climb my kingdom’s fence / to reach a tangent fame, / in vain.” And, to be quite clear: the objects in this group are not only about life and the beauty of nature and gardens, they are also about the transience of all living things.

Anyone entering the space occupied by HbO is free to wander through the work as they wish. It can be read in any direction, there are no fixed lines, no clearly defined sections – to stay with our image of a book.

And yet, as soon you step into it you see text number 1, the opening of Room 205, with the clock time 9:25 a.m. that marks the beginning of my hallucination. At the other side of the door is text number 62, from the end of the book, at the point when the flashback is over, at 9:26 a.m. Also, at the “beginning”, there is the hotel bed – 43 centimetres high – defining the baseline for the whole installation. A few concrete, fixed points, but not rigorous coordinates.

Like parentheses, maybe, with free-flowing contents.

Yes, it’s as though you are walking into my mind suspended in a waking dream.

But since it is a hallucination, the usual criteria of space and time have been disengaged. And the other sixty text excerpts and groups of objects are not arranged in a linear sequence – if anything they follow on each other almost at random – beside, above, below. At times it is even not clear which texts go with which objects.

And some of the texts in the installation lead their own independent lives, that is, they don’t go with any objects, they don’t connect with objects as part of a group – like loose leaves that have floated down into this garden.

In one place a large group suddenly jumps out at you – with African and Oceanic masks, an Oriental screen, and a photograph of a bat in flight.

This part is quite dimly lit, just one ray of light penetrates the lattice screen to the space behind it. “Dense / black dense matter / I don’t know why my heart bleeds / Death / come, come dark shadow / who will embody your shade / what shape will you take / have you, the darkness, a soul or a name?”

In the text – like the objects on the wall – you pass from darkness to faces and masks, to personas.

“Looking dumbfounded, flickering shadows / I wonder if I am still alive / Am I in a limbo / on the threshold of the Other’s side?” That is to say: from the other side (of the screen), to the side of the Others. And then one more photograph, depicting a weak ray of light, entering a space. A completely chance image, like the headlights of a passing car momentarily flitting through a room at night. But of course also a reference to another light, a moment of enlightenment: “A flash enters my room / Then freezes on the ceiling’s frieze / tamen homo sum / and yet ... human I am”.

But this is not the only place without the usual bright light for seamless viewing.

The sparse lighting equates to human memory, which from time to time gets lost in darkness. Some things stand out vividly, others fade away with the passage of time. But the relative darkness in HbO is also about my perceptions during the condensed, hallucinatory flashback that is described in Room 205. As well as that, it is also an implicit critique of the standard presentation of contemporary art. Why should everything always be so perfectly lit that you can see every detail? Here, for instance, many texts and objects are placed so high on the walls that you can hardly recognise them or read them – but they do exist. I would like to sustain an awareness that there are mysteries in our lives, things that we cannot even discern. We should live with that and not demystify everything. We should always be aware in the backs of our minds that some things are indiscernible, unknowable. That is one of the conditions of our lives. Which brings us to a book page that I especially like. It is a fantastic attempt to represent darkness as a black square, long before Malevich was painting similar things. It was published by the philosopher Robert Fludd in his magnum opus in 1617.

“Et sic in infinitum” is written along each side of the black plane: “And so on into infinity.” Fludd was trying to show something, to portray something in a picture, that no-one can actually imagine. This non-picture comes at the beginning of a chapter on shadows and “privatio” – a word whose meanings range from “privation” to “release” or “liberation”.

Exactly, and for me, too, it’s about things that we cannot know. And it’s true: accepting that there are things we cannot discern is both a loss and a liberation.


Coffers, cartons and boxes everywhere – some singly, some stacked, some modern and functional, some lovingly formed in the Far East. All of them closed.

They are mysterious, they have something to hide. Maybe they only once had anything in them, and now they are empty. They are guarding something. Some are appealing, others unremarkable. In a way they are a conceptual protective shield.

That could also be a description of the sculpture Black Box, made in 1991 – a black, hermetically sealed box, inscribed with its own name. It is said to contain the artist’s work methodology.

That’s right. It’s like another work, Deep Mythologies from 1992, which is also about something that exists behind it, literally behind the wall it is hanging on, but, on a metaphorical level, it is also about something with no direct access to it, hidden knowledge, a veiled memory, something we want to protect, come what may.

Only a small number of personal items have found their way into the show, markers, left by the author of HbO as hints of himself – items such as the old-fashioned, slightly dusty rucksack hanging limply on the wall, used on his early hitchhikes through Europe in the 1970s, a relic of a grand tour with a difference, described as “West Side Stories – A Homeless Manual” in On Paper. Clinging to it, two delicately patterned reptiles, albeit only plastic. Normally the rucksack hangs on a gate in the garden. Now it is on show in its own purpose-made display case like other objects that need protection, not in use, frozen in the present.

I bring myself into play in a variety of ways, sometimes slightly undermining the “objective” sphere of the exhibits, sometimes leaving my fingerprints. The personal objects have no status as works of art, that is to say, they are somewhere between personal mythology and art object, but have no museological status. By including them in a museumlike presentation, I am also introducing a new syntax into this system, a syntax that highlights the volatile nature of our cultural values.

Right next to that, two more personal inserts. A photograph from the 1930s of a man leaning on a car with the words OREGON OR BUST written on it in chalk. It is a reference to a photograph from the 1980s, published in On Paper, showing Goldstein in a similar stance by his orange VW Beetle on the road to Jericho. And again going back in time, a third photograph (in the artist’s kitchen): his father in almost exactly the same pose in Transylvania, in the 1950s. Subliminal physical recall. A man on his way into the world. “A hopping grasshopper / a running hare breaking free / without evidence I lived.” The other insert is of fundamental significance, and brings his own work into play. It is a scheme of his works from 1978 to 2005. Not an enumeration running from left to right, nor a list to be read downwards from the top, nor a chronology, but an asymmetrical, shifting sequence of irregular, loosely interconnected groups. More of this later.

Two chapters in On Paper are about counting and measuring. In “Measurements. Pesi e Misure” expanses, distances and weights express more than merely physical circumstances, and in “Basic Mathematics, Geometry and the Perspective of Mind” there is an attempt to counterbalance existential situations by means of simple numerical calculations. One of the most laconic sculptures is called Measurements. In HbO there are three Omer-counters for use in a synagogue and a photograph of a man whose face and upper body are covered with numerals, with the short text “Whispering numbers – lingering / praying – prolonging instance.”

Whenever my work involves numbers and measurements, I am using these to try to understand the dimensions of things and particularly my own relationship to them. Where am I positioned in life, in the cosmos? Where does my work stand in relation to its context? Where am I located? Where exactly is my innermost being?

Three works by Marcel Duchamp; apart from the photographers and designers, he is almost the only modern artist in HbO.

I believe Duchamp created a successful and influential paradox. That is why he is enduringly and repeatedly relevant. It is impossible to solve his paradox. Duchamp is important for me because he is an artist of movement. He detaches things from their context and introduces them into another. He is actually more a metaphor for the twenty-first century than for the twentieth. In the context of the last century his work questions the interpretation and the function of art. In the twenty-first it represents a metaphor for the displacement of cultures (and people).

In HbO he is a model for the question of decontextualization within the institution of the museum, but also a model for displacement, outside art, in our own contemporary, globalized world.

Yes, outside art, as an act in life. His Optical Discs (Rotoreliefs) are obviously about movement. I selected these because they interested me in a conceptual sense, as an allusion to the shifting of objects from one context to another. Nowadays we can no longer talk about roots, at least not in the traditional sense, as national or some other kind of roots. We talk about people on the move, constantly making new connections. As well as Rotoreliefs, there is also an opened geometry book with a spiral construction, an energetic form that also occurs in the natural world and that reminds me of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty.

The text beside it mentions his work, and there is another sentence: “I am the hypnotizing Rotative Glass Plates”, referring to another kinetic device by Duchamp.

And elsewhere there are other eccentric, outward-spinning, cartwheeling movements like somersaults and things of that sort. The text reads: “The listing floor I cannot prop / objects capsize / spring, cartwheel upside down, my ME an overturned / dolphin, diving figurehead / on the prow of a galleon, my head / touching the crest – eccentric / to my inner self.”

... and a rocking horse, Indian miniatures and acrobats and courtly ladies, a high-jumper, the zigzag of a New York fire escape – all movements that are not straight, but waving, swaying from side to side, curvaceous.

I have combined passages from Room 205 that directly relate to the methodology of my work, which we mentioned earlier, to its unfixedness, its hybridity, its leaping from one place to another: “eccentric / to my inner self – neck and neck gallop / hurdler with no hope.” Which brings us back to the Rotorelief again, and the hypnotic effect of its rapid movement. I wanted to address the huge, erratic, cascading movements of cultures and peoples solely in terms of geometry or by means of geometric images.

More Duchamp, now in a different situation. His Waistcoat for Benjamin Péret in amongst Oriental attire. Funnily enough it is on a clothes hanger marked with the name “Matisse”. Chance, intention? Was someone poking fun?

Let’s not worry about that.

You can’t really tell if the waistcoat is in the wrong place or just naturally in with those other items of clothing.

It’s another way of recontextualizing Duchamp, who never really felt comfortable in the Western art scene. I have relocated the waistcoat in a non-artistic or only peripherally artistic setting, in an ethnographic milieu, near items of clothing from Bukhara, from China, from Iran, from Turkey, from Tunisia ... another shift, you might say on an ethnic axis, from West to East. I don’t think Marcel Duchamp would object to that kind of manipulation by another artist.

And now Duchamp for the third time, his Traveller’s Folding Item, a soft typewriter cover with the name “Underwood” printed on it.

I have created an anthropological connection here between this object and pictures of veiled Muslim women, in other words, with the help of a readymade I have applied Duchamp’s method of decontextualization to his own work. I am taking a particular angle on it from a distance, from the periphery of modern Western culture, as though I don’t understand his methods and am interpreting his object from a non-Western perspective. At the same time, the typewriter cover also stands for the deliberate fabrication of secrets that are hidden from outsiders; it stands for the manipulation of knowledge. And that’s also why I bring African things into play, in the sense of, “Fine, we know Frederick the Great, but who, pray, is Mansa Musa?” Of course the idea behind that is that there should be a reciprocal relationship between East and West, a “symmetrical anthropology” as Bruno Latour puts it.

And who is this Mansa Musa, to whom reference is also made elsewhere – in a display case with gold jewellery and gold coins?

He was the legendary King of Mali, which has immense gold deposits. In the fourteenth century, accompanied by a huge entourage, he went on a pilgrimage to Mecca. On the way – not least in Egypt – he introduced so much gold into circulation that its exchange value collapsed and took years to recover. When news of this reached the Europeans, they started to mark Timbuktu on their maps of Africa, because of the unimaginable wealth to be found there. An early example of a global financial event.

And the grinding wheel? An allusion to Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel?

No, Duchamp crops up, but not all the time! The wheel, and the large pair of scissors next to it, refer to a quite long passage in Room 205 about two tailors, brothers, fitting a winter coat for me. “What is simple? / A wheel turning on its axis? / Scissors?”

One of the largest display cases could have a subtitle – “Haunted by Broken Objects” – because all the pieces in it are either damaged, fragmented or repaired. Broken vases that have been put back together again, pieces from classical sculptures, an old chair with no seat, a photograph of a man with a prosthetic leg, the famous leg splint by Charles and Ray Eames. And at this point one’s memory for forms momentarily scans from the leg splint over to a group of Australian Aboriginal shields.

The fact that I have selected these weapons is actually provocative, even sacrilegious. These shields and the way they are painted have ritual and spiritual significance for Aboriginal peoples, which may well be secret, yet I am displaying them here alongside other, very different objects. I should apologise to those people.

Are formal comparisons of this kind part of the method of HbO?

Certainly, but with unpredictable results. The large group of twentieth-century design objects – the chairs, typewriters, shavers and so on – tell of the phenomenology of forms, the never-ending possibilities of their development, different formal ethics, the way that certain objects confront us in ever new guises and that others evanesce with time, like aftershave.

And some forms resemble each other quite apart from the actual function of the objects in question.

As a child I had great difficulty writing the letters of the alphabet. I didn’t write them, I drew them, copied them – so, first the form, then the semantics. Or maybe this would be the place for a passage like “I wish to rebuild my world from found objects, / ... / to gather them / by height, weight, length and breadth / and sheen / imagining some order in this capricious universe.”

Back to the damaged goods!

Without doubt they have a metaphorical, autobiographical level. You will find the same thing in the text, when I am talking about my nightmares and prejudices in a vicinity with gypsies, in Transylvania where I lived as a child, about my fear that they might bite my nose off, cut off my ears or slit my throat: “as if torn apart by gypsies”, and then at the end: “before They cut my mother tongue”.

A bit further on there is an old engraving, a king torn apart by wolves, but seen returning to life again in the background. Almost an illustration of the lines “All my childhood dreads of being ... / Murdered / Tortured / Burned / Throat cut / ... reborn.” In passages like that, in Room 205, the author speaks as though he were restoring his own self, his body, his identity – almost as though he were a sculptor at work.

Yes, it is also an allusion to my professional life as a sculptor. Like the wishful dream I mention at another point – the idea of crossing the desert in the form of a cast-gold figure: “I wish to cross the Sahara / cast / in Mansa Musa’s gold.”

Museums have always worked with special effects. HbO is evidently not about the sex appeal or the entertainment value of various media, but about the presence and combination of the objects themselves. Yet there are two exceptions. One is a group of objects arranged in the shape of an eye – all about light in the widest sense: Hanukkah lights, photographs, neon tubes. A naked, irregularly flickering bulb floats in front of the group, and the text reads: “Forty watt bulb, suspended above an abyss, / light switched off – my world dies.” The other, not far away, is an acoustic effect. From under a famed Le Corbusier chair comes the muted sound of laboured, stertorous breathing. The devil’s voice, you might say, to judge by the text: “The Devil ensconced in Jeanneret’s armchair.” Both effects are quite discreet.

Yes, no circus! There are things that catch one’s attention and are intended, by their strangeness, to reinforce certain feelings. The flickering bulb in front of the photograph of an atom bomb explosion opens up an emotional abyss; the whole group is about the metaphysics of light, so to speak.

The Devil in the armchair leads us to one of the most electrifying and uncomfortable combinations of objects, right next to it. It consists of three early nineteenth-century prints illustrating forms of torture used by Catholic Church’s Inquisition. In them you see the Inquisitor on a chair, facing the victims (like the Devil). Beneath these is a high-tech Nomos table designed by the architect Norman Foster in the 1980s – a spidery, chrome metal stand and a glass table-top – its forms somehow calling to mind the elongated, distorted limbs of a torture victim.

This juxtaposition is very important to me in connection with Modernism – for one thing, there’s the major historical debate on Auschwitz and Modernism.

Zygmunt Bauman has written about this in his book Modernity and the Holocaust; he even defines the Holocaust as an expression of Modernism.

Exactly! But then, from my point of view – and my particular geographical-conceptual position – my concern here is more the cruelty or torture that people who are not part of the Western axis of Modernism are subjected to when they are forced to adjust to that system, to learn and adapt to as much as they can of Western society. My focus is on Westerners’ insistence that other societies and individuals should be like them. It is infinitely difficult to bridge the gap between cultures when you yourself come from a different, equally homogenous culture. That learning process is a painful battle. Confrontation with the new induces trauma. I wanted to compare the processes of enforced adjustment with the experience of torture, be it mental or cultural.

Amongst the objects there are also everyday items from our own time, mostly tools from the museum’s workshops – saws, chisels, spirit levels, measuring tapes and a number of drills. Obviously these are not works of art, not even collectors’ items.

A museum is in essence about time, it is less about objects. That may sound strange, but isn’t it true to say that a tool with a practical function today will have a symbolic function in a thousand years time? You need look no further than the African spears. If, for instance, various objects of whatever kind were to survive some major catastrophe, they would immediately be categorised as “museumworthy”. So it is merely a matter of time separating those everyday items and museum pieces. But then there is also another category of objects, for instance the typewriters and electric shavers. They are in limbo (the “edge of hell” to some), in an in-between stage, where they still loosely relate to their present functional context, and have not yet received the precious blessing of the museum. This object-limbo is situated between two extremes, that is to say, the profane nature of ordinary tools and the santo (sainthood) of established museum exhibits. – And then there is the question of the relationship between the texts and the objects. One example: at first sight the juxtaposition of the text “I bored through the ceiling / A hole in my room / To watch G-d judging” and the four Makita electric drills is a bit blunt. On one hand, speculative metaphysics, you might say, on the other hand, banal everyday items. But in the museum context, the tools seem somehow ennobled and potentially work as metaphysical symbols. Like the photograph of a man and a woman spying through a hole in the fencing around a construction site.

And what about the small, very concentrated arrangement with used everyday objects and a work of art – a couple of old, empty bottles and a glass of water in front of a photograph by György Kepes?

In that one I am not so concerned with museological issues as with the transformation of a lyrical passage: “My Eye / A light breeze stirred the surface of the water in my glass – / fierce reminder of what’s to come with sunset / shut up in the pigment of my imagination, / demented right and wrong.” Or almost literally, if you regard the water in the glass as a mirror: “an eye for an eye – my eye’s fuzzy image / eying my eye in the glass”. And there are other allusions to seeing – for instance the old spectacles together with a still-life photograph of Piet Mondrian’s spectacles. – But to come back to museological matters. In many cases I deliberately left the inventory numbers showing. You can see where they have been stuck on, some items have labels hanging off them. The thing is, I am not interested in the ultimate status of objects, but rather in the process that takes them from pieces in repositories and stores to museum exhibits, from reality outside to inside the museum. I am always interested in things at an in-between stage, when awareness is still dawning – I’m much less interested in their final, institutionalised state. I prefer the fluid and fragile perspective to fixed views, as in a defined culture.

Close to the bed that features at the beginning of Room 205 – and of HbO, too, in a way – there is a smooth, lacquered metal box on a glass shelf. The way it looks here may well mean that even people who have a good grounding in contemporary art might not readily recognise it as a sculpture by Donald Judd, and may need to check the fold-out information sheet to confirm its identity. How important is this means of identification? Might it have been possible to manage entirely without any verbiage?

Well, you know how it is – “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s.” You can separate different requirements. Labels for objects are indications of a fundamentally museological approach. At the same time, my descriptions in the fold-out sheet are manipulative to a certain extent. They quietly undermine the museological authority. For instance, in my mind it was important to add to the information on the urinal that it came from one of the museum’s lavatories. And in the case of the ritual mask from Vanuatu in the South Pacific I added that the surface is made from spiders’ webs, because spiders’ webs also occur in the text: “By concept, the solid surface of my writing was of a quark spun cobweb’s stretched net of words on paper, up to the two 0 five hotel room’s left upper corner to which my eyes roamed for the moment, exploring how dense and abstract a text could be in order to oppose the reader.” – This touches on an important point, and here I feel that I have to bring up the subject of my ideal museum. The fact is, my ideal museum is not one particular building. My ideal museum is the world we live in. I imagine a list of selected objects that people would take with them on their travels. People wouldn’t be seeking out special places (museum, sanctuaries) in order to see particular objects. On the contrary, the objects in question would live and die in their own surroundings. Of course, this whole idea completely contradicts the traditional Western notion of a museum, of securing and preserving cultural artefacts. Take the masks from Papua New Guinea – made from ephemeral materials, then returned to Nature after the ceremony and left to decay. Compare that to the museum mummifying things; it is not by chance that museum sounds so much like mausoleum. My ideal is that people would be free to follow their own instincts and choose objects in their own physical settings, to contemplate them and consider them, objects that have not been wrenched from their original surroundings by colonialist and economic forces. And there’s nothing wrong with them just disappearing again, if that’s what happens. Which brings us to the question of value. The Western idea of art and culture seems unable to resist the desire to take possession of objects, to own them. But why not just go into some house, somewhere in the world, see an object there that is completely to one’s taste and fulfils all one’s expectations of art, and then just leave it there?

But who makes the list that people would take on their travels through the world? Would it be the artist-curator, usurping the authority of the museum?

Not necessarily – I’m actually thinking of a more democratic selection of things to suit different tastes. So, someone would just write in the internet: “In Jakarta, in such and such house on such and such street I found this or that object. That’s my museum piece. Go and see it!” And don’t turn it into something in some power struggle, you would have to add.

But in HbO, isn’t the artist taking on the role of the institution?

I’m not an institution – I just have authority. But anyone who presents something that he likes, has that authority – like all the others doing the same thing.

So, in that scenario, would the artist – as a catalyst, as a role model, as someone who sets an example by what he selects – gradually fade away, or at most become a kind of travel companion?

Maybe! I like things that dissipate, that disappear – after all, that’s what happens to us in the end. I don’t want to get metaphysical, but in the writings of the mystics you find those figures who accompany the soul on its journey to that other place, the one that we call the afterlife. Let’s just leave it at that.

In HbO there are many hundreds of objects – we stopped counting at 850. One friend, when he first entered the installation, said it felt like being surrounded by the entire history of human civilisation, like walking into the world an sich. Could your work on HbO just gone on forever? Did it only come to an end for practical reasons? Does the concept have any actual limits?

My memory, my capacity to absorb and retain things, those are the limits.

HbO is a self-contained work. Could something similar come about in connection with other collections?

Hardly – uniqueness is a very precious thing.

The largest object – and the only one set up as a free-standing exhibit – is your sculpture The Peripheral Man from 1995. For people who are not familiar with the artist’s work, it may appear to be just another of the recognisable, semi-recognisable or downright baffling objects that they will encounter here. It seems to switch between integration and singularity. Would you say it is a self-portrait of sorts, or could it be seen as a signature, in this context?

The Peripheral Man, well, that is what I am. But maybe I should cite a passage from On Paper, where it is described in a literary guise, just part of that section: “His thin body was entirely nude, levitating horizontally in the exhibition space. ... Stories had circulated about his mysterious origins, jumping out from an ornate box carried to the exhibition space by an immigrant. Nobody had any precise knowledge about this Peripheral Man’s significance. ... In fact many people did not consider it at all as a work of art, nor did they see it as a Western contemporary-art-related object.”

In a way the whole installation is a self-portrait.

Yes, it’s my brain. It’s the split seconds, the individual moments that became such a huge theatre piece in me during my one-minute flashback. An opera of objects – theatre of the mind.

The Peripheral Man is doubly decontextualized. It has its own integrated display case, pre-empting its institutionalisation in a museum; it looks like a historic, possibly ethnographic object. But in HbO, as a piece of contemporary art, it seems out of place in the midst of all these other objects.

That touches on a central issue. I explored every department in the museum collection, but decided against selecting items from the collection of contemporary art. The challenge I set myself was to draw items from periods before my own – even from the pre-modern era – specifically because I am a contemporary artist. And you can see that in the fact that I am working with contemporary feelings and thought processes but not with contemporary objects. That will be more obvious in Düsseldorf because the setting there is not an encyclopaedic collection, like the Israel Museum, but a centre of modern and contemporary art. But to come back to The Peripheral Man, this sculpture is a mish-mash world, an agglomerated world with all sorts of heterogeneous and fragmentary references – ethnographic, cosmological, scientific and conceptual – from the past and the present. In a way it seems to me a little like Japanese Kabuki theatre, where narratives are ultra-stylised and almost too crystal clear. Many aspects of this piece are more explicit, you might say, than in the objects and images on the walls roundabout it.

Perhaps you could compare the presence of The Peripheral Man in HbO with that of an explanatory footnote.

It takes a complex yet direct approach to its subject matter; it doesn’t seek conflict with modern, Western ideas. I see this sculpture more as a kind of bridge. We have to construct bridges in order to reach other places, ideas and objects. In my view a complete antithesis would be very old fashioned.

When the exhibition is over, I will walk away with only my first rucksack and a copy of Room 205, leaving all the objects behind me: “I’ve killed my past, / the fly on my lip ...”

[1] Passages from the Edinburgh lecture as cited in “Zvi Goldstein: Haunted by Objects”, in Artists’ Choice – Zvi Goldstein, Susan Hiller, Yinka Shonibare MBE, exh. cat., The Israel Museum, Jerusalem 2010, pp. 67 – 57 (translator: J. H.).

[2] Zvi Goldstein, On Paper, Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2004 (Kunstwissenschaftliche Bibliothek, Volume 29).

[3] Zvi Goldstein, Room 205, Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2010.

Translated from the German by Fiona Elliott