Oded Hirsch: At the Borders
The Israeli conceptual artist Oded Hirsch lives on the periphery—both philosophically and geographically.
Oded Hirsch is a filmmaker and conceptual artist known for his documentary-style videos exploring group experience and participatory spectacle. He has been featured in dozens of solo and group exhibitions in Israel, England, China, and the United States.
Hirsch was born and raised on a kibbutz collective community in Israel. After his national service in military intelligence he studied photography at WIZO Academy in Haifa and the Pratt Institute in New York. His photographic series Sleep Tight draws from his military experience and his urban life, capturing a recreated army tent camp—complete with dozens of sandbags—in a fourth floor apartment.
The celebrated film 50 Blue explores other formative events of Hirsch’s life: childhood on a kibbutz and a road accident that left his father paralyzed. It shows a group hoisting a man in a wheelchair onto a platform in the middle of a lake. Other critically acclaimed works include The Circle (a film of synchronized dancing bulldozers) and Contingency Plan, which saw a team of volunteers transport five tons of soil into an art gallery.
The Israeli conceptual artist Oded Hirsch is driven by a single question: what if? He has made bulldozers dance, transformed a museum using more than five tons of raw soil, even instigated communication by having people actually bury their heads in the dirt. All this in pursuit of a simple goal.
Oded Hirsch: The motivator, I guess, is just continue being a child. Play. I play with my kids, they paint over an old mattress. And I play with welding. And then I go and I play with other things. I build a raft barrel, handmade raft. That’s my motivation.
AJC: Just the act of making.
Hirsch: Yeah, sounds utopian but,
But Hirsch’s utopia lies only a few miles from two of the world’s most incendiary borders.
Hirsch: We sit here, it’s like three kilometers or two miles from the border with Lebanon and, I don’t know, five miles from the border with Syria. We call it the Finger of Galilee because we’re surrounded by borders so it’s very idyllic, but it’s also sitting on a barrel of dynamite.
AJC: And a very rich place to find your narratives.
Hirsch: This is something that I think Israeli artists are gifted because you don’t really have to look hard to find issues to deal with. I think this is my work even though it’s very Israeli and talk about Israeli structure of society about kibbutz, about tension, friction between different classes and different groups in the society, but is also very, very general. This is like the wider audience can understand it and find entry points where they can connect to and understand even though sometimes people don’t see it as Israeli conflict, they see it as general conflict between human beings.
For Hirsch, the personal and the political are tightly intertwined. He grew up on a communal settlement, a kibbutz about 45 miles away from where he lives now. And in 2010, he explored collective labor in the short film, Tochka. In it, a group of men toil over a rural construction project which turns out to be a bridge to nowhere. And then there was Hirsch’s breakout piece, 2009’s 50 Blue.
Hirsch: When I was five years old, my dad, he was a truck driver and he had a truck accident that left him paralyzed from his chest down. It was really something that heavy influenced my childhood and I grew taller and taller and taller and taller and my dad stays the same height. And then when I grew taller, you know, the point of view, the perspective of a boy looking at his dad changed. So that what I did, you know, one day we made this crazy ritual when I hoist my dad to the top of a tower in the middle of a lake. Finally, I could stay down, as the director of the piece, and just look up and see my dad up there on a high platform and just restore the way it should be.
Hirsch returned to the water for his 2018 piece, Safe Passage, which addresses the global immigration crisis by blurring the line between actual physical impediments and geopolitical borders.
Hirsch: On the raft, sitting a group of wheelchair bound individuals. They get to the shore and they just stuck they just can’t get off. Sometimes you get to a barrier that for you looks very easy to cross, but for someone who has no access or just can’t, sometimes just the one step, that’s it, stop you from progress. And my work is a lot about accessibility, movement, difficulty of movement in space. The raft reflects the refugees that escaped from North Africa and it just arbitrary. I mean who said that these people can live here and those people can live there. And also, our physical boundaries are also very arbitrary, because who says that I can’t, I have a step or a ditch, I can’t go to the other side. So, it kind of reflect this tension between the arbitrariness of the body limitation and the geographical limitation. That’s what the new piece is about.
AJC: Are you trying to change the way people see the world? Are you trying to make people think? What do you want from the audience that’s consuming your work?
Hirsch: When I was a bit younger I was, I thought that through my art I could change things or make them a little better. I don’t see it this way anymore because I think if I would really want to change society effectively, I would try to go to be a politician or a writer. I think as an artist, the way you can change is more limited. What I do try to create in my work is create enough entry points for people to get connected to it or to sense something or to think about reality a little bit differently. I mean I don’t want to try to change reality, I try to connect with people.