When Personal Becomes Political
Catrin Lundqvist,curator at Moderna Museet, Stockholm.

Published in: Gil & Moti: Totally Devoted to You, monograph, 2011, Hatje Kanz Publishers.

The artist duo Gil & Moti mix personal narratives and experiences with critical analysis in order to make art about social and political issues in their former homeland, Israel, and in other countries where they work. Their art reflects their Jewish background and the political reality in which Israel finds itself, and this is blended with aspects of their life situation in their current homeland, Holland. They address social issues of an intimate and private nature – such as sexual preference and creative social life – as well as major political issues of peaceful co-existence between enemy peoples.
Their project-oriented works are often created in dialogue with the people they collaborate with, and the works are executed in different media, depending on what the context offers or requires. Their aesthetic evinces a seemingly every- day and spontaneous character, but is in fact an aesthetic stance that is carefully considered, one which they have arrived at after working for a long time. Their aesthetic takes in everything around them, from meetings and con- versations with people in the street to refined painting in dialogue with both Israeli and Western art history, and almost every other possible way to make art that can be envisaged in between. Their aesthetic comprises their whole life and work, from the clothes they choose to wear during the day to the choice of people to work with and the way in which they design the next project.
Gil & Moti decided to settle in Rotterdam in 1998. They had then completed their studies at the Bezalel Arts and Design Academy in Jerusalem and at the Slade School of Fine Art in London/School of Visual Arts in New York, and they went on to obtain their master’s degrees in Fine Arts at the Piet Zwart Institute in Rotterdam. In the same year they decided to wear identical clothes and always be together. Their ongoing performance in the form of an acquired identity as twins raises questions about lifestyle, migration, identity, and artistic stance. They have a social ability that makes people feel welcome and important in their company, even though they deal with issues of an explosive nature. Together they have made the personal political. In my essay I will show how, with their lives and their art as an in- strument, they have built up a shared artistry of international and intercultural calibre.
“Having decided to leave Tel Aviv 7 years ago, we threw a farewell party at our rooftop apartment in the centre of town. We piled our belongings on the bed and, before saying good-bye, we asked our guests to take whatever they fancied. Shortly afterwards, we landed in Rotterdam with two suitcases and experienced the liberating effects of immigration. What is there to leave behind – objects, environment, culture, language, family, friends, house and history.”(Gil & Moti, HOME at TENT, Rotterdam 2005)
Throughout the ages, artists all over the world have moved between different places that have appealed to their longing for artistic development. This can be due to a sense of political and social confinement and a desire for renewal and stimulation.
Israel today is a country with a self-image that bears the stamp of the world’s disdain, which has led to a sense of isolation. Unfortunately, this seems to favour the Israeli policy of giving peace low priority on the agenda, which has placed the country in a vicious circle. Even as a tourist in Israel it is easy to feel the sense of confinement in which the country finds itself geo- graphically and politically. When you leave the centre of Tel Aviv and travel north along the motorway, you soon run into the Wall. It was built to protect the Israelis against penetration by the enemy, but it also acts in the opposite direction, as a fence that cuts off the Israelis from the surrounding world. The only opening leads in practice towards the West and the Mediterranean, but it too became a threat on 31 May 2010 when the Ship to Gaza flotilla was sailing towards the coast of Israel. The boats were attacked by Israeli forces even before they had left international waters, and nine people were killed. Being an artist in Israel has become complex. Many people move to other countries, some of them so that they can find a more detached way to handle the pressure caused by the political situation in their homeland. For Gil & Moti, Israel’s policy has been one of the reasons they have chosen to settle in a different country. But it is far from being the only reason. Questions of centre and periphery, sexual preference and ac- ceptance, and the desire to create an autonomous life in artistic terms have been powerful motives for establishing their base in Holland. Gil & Moti quickly assimilated to the artistic circles in Holland, and also to the rest of society there, which means that they are now fluent in spoken and written Dutch. They chose Holland, which has long had a good art climate and a cultural policy that fosters artistic creativity and activity. But the ice-cold winds of xenophobia are blowing today through most countries in Europe, and Holland is no exception. Rotterdam as a city differs significantly from the more bourgeois and prosperous Amsterdam with its heavy burden of cultural history. In Rotterdam, with its history as a work- ing-class port, there are several major progressive art insti- tutions, a growing art fair with an international character, and an active local art life. Rotterdam had to be largely rebuilt from the ground after the Second World War, and this has affected the city’s architecture, which differs strikingly from Amsterdam’s traditional buildings.
In the middle of the city, in the busy street called Witte de Withstraat, Gil & Moti set up their Homegallery in 1999. Gil & Moti Homegallery was the answer to the question of where they would live, exhibit, and – last but not least – interact with their surroundings in order to create encounters around art. At this time they had an artistic mentor in the shape of one of their teachers from the Piet Zwart Institute, the performance theorist Maaike Bleeker. Her encourage- ment and interest in their art were of great significance to them.
Since openness, transparency, and friendship have always been powerful driving forces in their art and life, the Gil & Moti Homegallery was an excellent start for the couple’s op- portunities to develop their art in the direction they wanted to go. In the Homegallery, both their private life and their personal belongings became art. There, life itself became art, and art became a way of life. Their bedroom was built in behind transparent walls, becoming a sculptural installation in the heart of the gallery, and visiting artists were encouraged to exhibit in their living room through the bedroom, kitchen and even some times the toilet. Everyone was welcome, not just to look at the art but also to become a part of it. ”Eventually we found ourselves building our home, Gil & Moti Homegallery, in a gallery space in the heart of Rotterdam. Down the street we met Simone who had come from Brazil 9 years before. During the day she worked in the harbour and in the evenings together with her friend Nella she played records and was beginning their DJ career. We invited them to make their first public performance.” (Gil & Moti, HOME at TENT, Rotterdam 2005)
In 2007 Gil & Moti moved to a new home in another part of Rotterdam. The need for more space for the growing scope of their art, and also for more peace and greater concen- tration, was easier to satisfy in the calmer residential sur- roundings. They then found it harder to move the Home- gallery than they could have imagined, and when the sep- aration from the scene of the successful start to their artistic career was to happen, they had conflicting emotions. But the project of the Homegallery had reached its peak a year earlier. Their art was increasingly developing towards an international career, with more and longer stays in different countries, and the gallery was often empty.

The Gil & Moti Wedding Project
Gil & Moti got married when Rotterdam was European Capital of Culture in 2001. What the majority of people regard as a highly private concern was turned into a public action when they made their wedding an art project. The actual marriage ceremony was a performance in grand style, and the preparations and all the activities and ideas about the wedding became an art documentary. The hon- eymoon took place in Rotterdam City Hall, where they spent ten days in bed in the magnificent entrance hall. Once again, they built the bed in the heart of the room, around a sculpture. There they received congratulations, questions, and some protests. The project is partly a paraphrase of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Bed-in project for peace, which took place at the Hilton Hotel in Amsterdam in 1969. Then, as with Gil & Moti’s honeymoon, the aim was to influence attitudes in society. What may seem playful and carefree, both for John & Yoko and for Gil & Moti, had a serious and important basis. With the power of love and with the bed as the foundation, both couples wanted to create peace and understanding between countries and people. Through the force with which they manifested marital bliss, the Wed- ding Project, was a great success, not just for Gil & Moti’s own artistic strength but also for the local gay movement. In their marital performance Gil & Moti took advantage of the newly won right for Dutch gay couples to be lawfully married. Something that would still be totally unrealistic in many countries had become a reality for them. The mayor of Rotterdam officiated at the wedding in this grandiose public work of art. The actual ceremony was held on the balcony of honour in the City Hall, which is otherwise used only for visiting celebrities or royals. The love story that became true had performative elements inspired by myth and fairytale. In the Wedding Project, as in their other art projects, reality and fiction go hand in hand.

“... wonder is a seed out of which knowledge grows.”
What struck me the first time I saw Gil & Moti’s art was the mystery and chaos. The presentation was packed with works large and small, watercolours, paintings, texts, objects, clothes, and photographs. It was highly colourful, a stark contrast to the other works surrounding it at the Rotterdam Art Fair in 2005. In Gil & Moti’s wall installation there was also a video shown on a chubby little monitor placed right on the floor, with a folded blue towel on top of it. The whole installation looked mundane, as if it had been hastily assembled and installed without any visible demand for order, as if the sender wanted to confuse me and draw me into new, unknown paths of thought; to seduce instead of enlightening and instructing. It had the feel of an old winding attic, where everything had been gathered layer upon layer, with the different parts constituting different threads of memory tied into a personal weave of information, understandable only to the person who had collected and kept the things. The unfathomable expression attracted my senses to embark on a voyage of discovery.
Alongside love letters there hung a large painting of a young man naked from the waist up. On the top edge of the frame, a jacket was nonchalantly hung, as if to rest. And next to it there were naively painted watercolours with representational motifs, telling of personal experiences, and photographs of three young men’s heads, closely pressed together. In the video one could see, although at a distance, the same men going in and out of a tiny hut, like a children’s playhouse, set in the countryside. They fetched food which they ate at a small table placed at the entrance to the house, while birds sang from the surrounding trees.
My gaze fell upon pictures, texts, and objects, while I heard the birdsong from the video set. The installation wanted to communicate with me, but I did not understand what they wanted to communicate about. I felt affected and shaken. I had been drawn into someone else’s visual world, placed in a tumbler dryer, where I whirled round and round, feeling dazed. I recognized the symptoms of a powerful art expe- rience: confusion, irritation, rapture, a sense of being stuck, spinning round, unable to break free, and in the midst of this emotional chaos, something that demanded my total attention, which stimulated my brain to find out more and encouraged me to let myself go.
In a text by Bruno Bettelheim, which I recently came across, he cites Francis Bacon: “... wonder is a seed out of which knowledge grows.” Bruno Bettelheim writes that it does not work the other way around. “Rational knowledge does not spawn wonder, which is an emotion,” says Bettelheim. And in his text, which was written as a lecture about museums and children, he went on to say: “It is wonder, I believe, which presses one toward an ever deeper penetration of the mysteries of the world, and to a true appreciation of the achievements of man.”1
Communicating knowledge as an artist does not arouse the observer’s wonder. The mysteries are built into Gil & Moti’s art, and when they were able in 2008 to set up an interactive exhibition for children in the multicultural Israeli city of Haifa and its art museum, they created an exhibition room that was as radical as it was imaginative, where the children could be made to wonder, and also to think about their own future. Together with Gil & Moti, art became a source of new insights and knowledge on the way to adult life.
When I consider Gil & Moti’s art and history today, the mystery is still there, even though I can also see today how their art project is completely permeated with a desire for transparency. Their statements are clear and explicit, yet, in the rooms they create for their exhibitions, there is a tantalising streak of something unknown.
What actually happens when their art meets the white cube? An attraction seems to arise in the room, between the art and the walls, as between the opposite poles of a magnet. Emerging from Gil & Moti’s art there is warmth, people, colours, patterns, generosity, swarms, and a genuine delight in storytelling, and when they meet the laborato- ry-like Western white presentation room, wonder and mystery arise.
Chaos? Actually, nothing could be more wrong. Today, almost seven years later, when I look at the photograph of the installation that I asked Gil & Moti to send me, I see how carefully everything is arranged. Overloaded, yes, but done with a hand that has a powerful sense of detail and composition. It reminds me of an Oriental market where all the small parts, everyday things, works of art, utility objects are assembled in an embryo of a universal artwork of sounds and a multitude of visual impressions and scents. They wanted to tell a story, like something from a book of fairytales: Once upon a time there were three boys who were going to set off into the world...
But in this story the brothers did not set off on different roads to try their luck in the classical manner; instead they stuck together for a long time to strengthen each other, to develop together, and to unite in examining and discussing their artistic activities.
Bruno Bettelheim writes: “Myths and fairy stories both answer the eternal questions: What is the world really like? How am I to live my life in it? How can I truly be myself?”2 Gil & Moti seem to have seized on the magical power of the fairytale. Like their art, the fairytale provides hints and messages which can include solutions to problems, but they are not explicitly stated. Instead one can fantasise freely about how to adapt to what their art reveals about life, about political and social issues, and about human nature itself. The fairytale, like Gil & Moti’s art, is adapted to our way of thinking and perceiving the world, and that is why it is convincing. Art can thus give us comfort and en- couragement since it builds on our way of looking at the world around us and reasoning about it.

Laylah the Creature Beyond Dreams
Laylah is a woman’s name in both Jewish and Arabic culture. For Gil & Moti, Laylah is an unattainable dream, a longing for harmony in a three-way relationship, and a lament for lost love. “All good things come in threes,” as the saying goes, and in the world of fairytale three things often have to happen before the turning point in the story comes.
In May 2005 I invited Gil & Moti to a seminar entitled Artistic Strategies at Moderna Museet in Stockholm, and on the same weekend there was an art event that went under the name Moderna by Night. The seminar was intended to highlight questions about how artists in the twenty-first century find new ways to present and work with their art when the institutions and galleries cannot always provide the methods and exhibition opportunities that the artists themselves want. Gil & Moti spoke about how and why they had created their Homegallery. For them it was the wholly natural way to go since they needed and longed for community both with other artists and with neighbours and people in their immediate vicinity. Their mode of op- eration coincided with the trend in art that the French art theorist and curator Nicolas Bourriaud called “relational aesthetics” in the book with the same title that he published in 1998. Looking at their art through Bourriaud’s lenses, it looks as if Gil & Moti were part of a collective consciousness of artistic development and intellectual activity. Yet it is at least as likely that their origin in the Middle East played a crucial role for the way they wanted their art to work. They used the social skills and behaviours that they had learned since childhood in order to practise their art and simulta- neously get to know the new society in which they had chosen to live. They became “relational” because they needed to be.
During Moderna by Night Gil & Moti staged their performance Laylah the Creature Beyond Dreams.
They greeted each member of the audience, shaking hands, before the they sat down in front of the stage where the three-channel video work was to be shown. After an intro- duction by myself, Maaike Bleeker entered the stage. She walked up to a small table, lit a reading lamp, and read the text Two young men as charming as sweets, which analyses Gil & Moti’s art in relation to Gilbert & George, and compares the performative aspects of their work.
Then some men began to build a bed out of chairs and tables in the centre of the stage. On it they spread a large Oriental carpet which I had borrowed from the studio of an artist friend. The better part of the performance took place in the bed. With calm and dignity, small love-hearts were baked, hair was spiked, and on the wall behind one could watch the video which consisted of stills, documentary material, and photographs of paintings and watercolours. The work reflects their love for Oliver, a Lebanese man with whom they came into contact through the project Dating Gil & Moti. After one year of artistic life together, Oliver chose another road for his individual development. Laylah the Creature Beyond Dreams interweaves reality and fairytale and deals with the grief of lost love.

Dating Gil & Moti
The Internet-based project Dating Gil & Moti started in 2003 and has taken a break since 2008, when the artists’ relational works began to be extended towards men and women alike. Dating Gil & Moti, which was first shown at Haifa Museum of Art, Israel, and later at a number of different institutions and galleries all over Europe and the USA, builds on the idea of creating friendly relations to Arab men in the diaspora.
In 2008 we installed the project in the Stockholm Culture Centre and Hotel Clarion in Stockholm. I had invited Gil & Moti to an exhibition and activities at a new media festival which dealt with how digital media are used in art. The time was ripe for looking at how Arab men in Stockholm responded to Gil & Moti’s invitation.
In Stockholm they became friends with Anas, a young Palestinian man who was living in stressful conditions while waiting for a residence permit in Stockholm. Anas participated in a video that was recorded by the side of an indoor swimming pool in Stockholm. His clear message to the viewer is that your home in the world is where you fit in. For him as a gay man, even the stress of living in Stockholm was preferable to living in a country where his sexual pref- erence is against the law. The exhibition hall in Stockholm Culture Centre became a living confessional during the month the exhibition lasted, when many young men came to make contact with the artists to discuss lifestyle issues.

Dreamers and Storytellers
Over the few last years, after repeated visits to Israel, Gil & Moti noticed the increasing number of immigrants working as servants in the homes of Israelis. Before issues of security changed the situation, Palestinians used to work in Israeli homes, but they have been replaced now by people from countries without any ongoing conflict with the Israeli state, such as Somalia and the Philippines. Dreamers and Storytellers is the overall name for a series of paintings and graphic works on paper, depicting how the Israeli middle and upper-class homes are cared for by imported labour. The exhibition Kitchen Secrets took place at Gal-On Art Space in Tel Aviv in 2009, with Daniella Talmor as curator. In the exhibition catalogue she writes about how some of the works on show there had been inspired by the artist Nachum Gutman (1898–1980).
During the nearly thirteen years that have elapsed since Gil & Moti settled in Holland, they have had many exhibitions in Israel. Since they no longer live there, it is with the vigilant eye of the outsider that they can follow even the most subtle political and social changes.
One of the oil paintings in the series is Madonna of the Galilee (2008). Despite, or rather because of, the intimate character of the painting, it is a central work not just in Dreamers and Storytellers but also, I think, in relation to their entire oeuvre. The work concerns Israel’s new situation as a country of immigration for people from poor countries who come here in order to survive. In Israel it is often easier for women to get work than it is for men, since the jobs on offer involve household tasks such as cleaning and looking after children. Israel has become one of the countries where the immigration of poor people has increased in recent years. The painting tackles this issue in a direct yet subtle manner and analyses it in relation to the changed treatment of the Palestinian population. This is discussed via an art history discourse. Few political divisions have at- tracted as much attention as the Israel-Palestine issue, and the relation of the Israelis to their Arab neighbours is a re- current topic, not just for Gil & Moti’s art but also for many other artists.

Madonna of the Galilee
In a living room with mild, flowery wallpaper, a woman with Asian features is standing behind the lady of the house, bending slightly over her. The observer’s gaze is im- mediately drawn to the Asian woman since she is the most vibrant person in the room. She is painted with colour and empathy. Her hair is hanging in bold streaks around her face, while her hands are busy plaiting her mistress’s hair in a strict hairdo. She has already combed a parting and pulled it behind the ears, and now she takes a firm grip on the woman’s hair to plait it.
The seated woman’s face and body, by contrast, are all ren- dered in the fundamental tone of the painting, an ochre that recurs in the picture frame on the wall and the fruit bowl on a sideboard to the left. A dynamic relationship arises between the three “objects” and emphasises the tra- dition of classical colour, form, and composition that Gil & Moti so fondly return to when they work with painting. The mistress of the house in this case has become a painterly “object”, holding in her hands a cup that she has just lowered from her lips. Silence seems to prevail in the room. The picture on the wall has a central place in the composition. The Madonna image is a paraphrase of the painting Madonna of the Galilee by Nachum Gutman. The original was painted in the 1920s and is part of the art collection left behind by the artist and now in the newly opened Museum Gutman in Neve Zedek, between Tel Aviv and Jaffa. The early Israeli art pioneers – of whom Nachum Gutman was one – were anxious to distinguish themselves from the group of artists who represented the Jew as a pale, weak man constantly poring over his learned books. Instead Gutman and artists like him wanted a more colourful image of the newly founded country. They tried to get away from the European influences that reached them as art students at Bezalel in Jerusalem. At that time virtually all the teachers there were of European origin, and their teaching proceeded from the European landscape. The rebel group to which Gutman belonged thought that their country needed a different kind of painting. Their paintings instead expressed an ad- miration for the Arab people, who signified physical strength and a close relationship to the landscape. This pioneering group also nourished a faith in the brotherhood of Jews and Arabs, in view of the shared geographical and cultural origin. This faith received a serious blow with the riots in Hebron in 1929, when even Gutman revised his view of his Palestinian brothers to some extent. Yet well into the 1940s there were forces in the country who were concerned about the brotherhood of the two peoples. Some of Gutman’s sculptures, mosaics, and murals can still be seen in public places in Tel Aviv. Gutman was born in Romania and in 1905, at the age of seven, he immigrated with his family to what was then Palestine.
The Madonna of the Galilee shows a veiled Arab woman, painted with distinct facial features and with great power and presence. She is dark-skinned, while the child has light skin and blonde hair. In the original picture the woman’s nose is adorned with an exotic ring that almost conceals the nose; this has been eliminated by Gil & Moti in their paraphrase. She has a vigilant look, as does her child. They are seated in a landscape by the Sea of Galilee. Their intimacy suggests that she is the mother of the child and that she may therefore have been involved in a relationship with a man of Jewish birth, in view of the child’s light skin and blonde hair. At the same time, the painting is a para- phrase of the Christian image of the baby Jesus and his mother. The Virgin Mary conceived her child without physical procreation. Mary, as the classical Madonna, adds yet another complex application to the debate about religion, place, and history.
Gil & Moti painted Gutman’s painting in their own painting, in homage to their older colleague, but also to remind us of the early attitude towards the Palestinian people, before the conflict between Jews and Arabs had worsened, leading to the impasse of the last few decades. The painting also tells of the complexity in the history of the place. The picture thus represents a longing to get back to a peaceful society, and is a testimony to reconciliation and the hope of restoring solidarity between the peoples of the Middle East. At the same time, it also shows how difficult the situation is in Israel when new waves of immigrants arrive and new issues are added before the old ones have been resolved. Gil & Moti also work with the Arab-Jewish question in the painting by conjuring up the possibilities for recon- ciliation that exist, both historically and in the present.

Available for You
When one looks closely at Gil & Moti’s art, one can see that their focus has swung from being highly personal to ad- dressing humanity as a whole. But this does not mean that their art has abandoned the personal touch. By virtue of being two, they can constantly discuss their art with each other and state clearly which direction their art should take, what they should reject and what should be developed. They are each other’s mirror image, but also each other’s mentors and ever-present partners in collaboration. In that discourse they are always anxious to retain the colourful personal aspect, so that the accessibility of their art is never lost.
In the project Available for You, made in Denmark and the Netherlands between 2008 and 2009, the artists themselves worked as servants for Arab immigrants in Copenhagen and Rotterdam. The project emerged in cooperation with Kunsthallen Nikolaj, Copenhagen Contemporary Art Center and was further developed at TENT.Rotterdam, finally re- sulting in the joint catalogue Available for You. The project was aimed directly at Arabs in Copenhagen and Rotterdam who could envisage getting help in one way or another with something, either in their home or at their workplace. Gil & Moti became their servants for a day or more and thus switched the Israeli role of master in relation to the Arabs. The project was born in a discussion with Elisabeth Delin Hansen, head of the Nikolaj Contemporary Art Center, when she had invited them to work on an art project in Copenhagen. They decided to distribute flyers and offer their services by advertising. The response was very good. After meeting the interested people to discuss the rules of cooperation, they got going. In Available for You Gil & Moti cleaned a hairdresser’s salon, did babysitting, helped out in a greengrocer’s shop, decorated a back yard, and so on. In return for their services they were able to document what happened, which resulted in photographs, watercolours, diaries, and videos.
Although Gil & Moti have settled far away from Israel, they often return to their former home country, both to develop their art and to exhibit it. The Middle East still exerts a powerful attraction, although the artists are repelled by the conflict-ridden politics. They continue to work with their home country’s problems in the project Dreamers and Storytellers. There are still many stories left to tell and dreams to realize.

1 Bruno Bettelheim: Freud’s Vienna and Other Essays, New York 1990
2 Bruno Bettelheim: The Uses of Enchantment. The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, New York 1976


Selected Essays
Mariette Dölle- Gil & Moti: Future Line Tours
Hans Günter Golinski- Who Makes Whom the Minority?
William Easton- Gil & Moti in the kitchen
Elisabeth Delin Hansen- The Triple Heart
Mariette Dölle- Social dynamics as Agents for Artistic Practice
Tali Tamir- (Israeli) Artists at Your Service, or In Praise of Exile
Maaike Bleeker- Let’s Fall in Love: Staging a Political Marriage
Selected Reviews