Hilla Lulu Lin: Mole

Nili Goren

Albeit a fictive sphere, the elements comprising the exhibition space, their raw materials and their arrangement according to given patterns create a strong affinity with a concrete setting. That setting is not identified as a specific place, but rather as a metaphorical locus that may be characterized according to the sentiments it evokes and the qualities it represents. These are addressed by the space via the totality of its constituents, from the architectural plan, through the structures arranged in it and their accompanying elements, to the small items scattered as surprises or road signs of sorts along the journey that crosses the space via paths marked throughout its length, its breadth, and even its height.

Before the entrance one encounters a stand with notes. Each note bears a word combination: I Loved, I Forgave, I Ended, I Fell, I Fled, I Lied, I Stole, I Understood. Eight word combinations in three languages; all in all twenty-four word clusters that offer eleven options and two choices (one of the three languages; one of the eight words). At this stage, the significance of the selection is unclear, and it is unknown whether it would have any impact later on. Behind the word-stand there is a wooden bench with a narrow seat and a support made of folded army blankets. The back of the bench consists of seven glass containers filled with sunflower seed shells.

Most of the structures and fixtures are made of exposed MDF boards (a compact mixture of wood and industrial materials), unpainted and without decorative finish, so that the general structure preserves the sense of a representative model. Other materials include iron, tin, feathers, tar, and asphalt, and their finishes are likewise minimal, at times nearly raw. As opposed to the massive presence of industrial wood in the entire installation, there is an explicit reference to the organic origin of wood at the entrance to the installation, in a path made entirely of logs.

Folded army blankets serve as a support for a waiting bench situated, as aforesaid, before the entrance to the space. The use of military blankets alludes not only to the Israeli army, but to armies in general, and not only to army camps, but also to mass camps whose existence is always associated with political conflicts or vast catastrophes: refugee camps, DP (displaced persons) camps, detention camps, "The Camps." Later in the installation the explicit military context resurfaces via another element — sandbags. These emerge in miniaturized version, not in the familiar arrangement as protective walls in their belligerent context, but rather as sitting cushions. Next to them towers a wall of soft feather-filled pillows. The soft bed pillows are stacked into a pile akin to a protective wall, yet it is neither protective nor useful as a sleeping surface. It is rather the coarsely-textured solidly-filled sandbags that are used for sitting.

Sunflower seed shells are preserved in narrow, tall glass containers in the bench’s back; seven containers with seven piles of shells at varying heights. Who ate the seeds? Does the height of the piles measure shelling capacities? Is it a measure of leisure, boredom, nervousness, anxiety (seed-shelling calls to mind nail biting)? Is there a seed-shelling machine? How does it work?

Adjacent to the "seed-shell bench" are the "bread crust walls." Hundreds of loaves are lined-up, emptied of their soft contents, numbered by hand on round labels, arranged in cells fitted exactly to their size. One end of the bread is lopped off (the "heel" is missing) and turned toward the passageway, whereas the other end is whole. The bread crusts become empty spaces reminiscent of closed tunnels. They lose their original function and change their identity from a basic foodstuff to a signification of a meaningless place. One cannot avoid thinking of the act of emptying, which, unlike the seed shelling, is pointless and not intended to get rid of the chaff, but to the contrary. Someone has toiled and exerted himself to empty the bread and leave the crust hollow but whole. Someone has destroyed food, invaded the bowels of vital bodies, leaving but tunnels or mouths gaping. He subsequently attached numbers to them, densely compressed them into narrow compartments and displayed them as a transitional passageway. Someone has slaughtered sacred cows, challenged poverty, annihilation, natural disasters and hunger victims, or rather set up a monument in their memory and in the memory of freedom.

Not far from the crusts, eggshells float calmly in shallow water. Like the crusts, the eggshells have remained almost intact, but unlike the bread, the empty shells attest to the missing whole, to fertility, the mysteries of creation, vitality and continuity. The shell group among the installation materials also includes latex (natural rubber) sheets suspended in the third space; like floor-sloughs created as the rubber was cast into the gaps between the tiles (standard square floor tiles, 20x20 cm, typical of local construction since the 1930s). The slough’s grid lines represent the grooves between tiles, and the empty squares — the tiles. The solid ground transforms into air, changing its orientation in the space. The grid lines curve due to the vertical mode of hanging, gravity, and the rubber’s resilience; the floor model loses its right angles, and the familiar horizontal and vertical movement is transformed into biomorphous flux.

A tension of opposites and the deflection of the conventional functions of familiar objects, highly prevalent in the current installation, have characterized Hilla Lulu Lin’s works from the very outset of her artistic career, attesting to her affinity with Surrealism. In Mole, the surreal-visual aspect is greatly reduced, and replaced by a grave countenance of harsh concreteness. The multiplicity of tensions and oppositions reinforces the absurd, grotesque dimension inherent in this setting which is compulsive in its realism, interrupting the faux stability ostensibly generated by the perfect order and discipline.

The bread path ends at a narrow opening, through which one enters a mostly dark space; dim lighting emanates from several slits in the sides of the objects installed in it and from openings revealed later along the space. The floor is made of black tar-based tiles, and the few lights reflected in it lend it the appearance of a black puddle. The black space is intersected by several walkways slightly elevated above the tar, coated with shiny tin. In order to reach them one must first walk along the wall, on logs arranged in step intervals, which lead to the first station.

The tension created between the log path with its rounded, non-uniform contour, and the other paths in the space that are made of tin-coated or exposed MDF boards cut in straight lines and always installed parallel to the space’s longitudinal or latitudinal lines, not only highlights the gap between the organic and the synthetic, but also enhances the violent effect inherent in the act of cutting the logs into flat slices. The cut logs, the object closest to nature among the installation materials, represent, from the very entrance to the space, the quality that intensifies along the route — the rigid order artificially enforced on objects in nature, an order whose implications naturally pertain to regimentation, to power and to the restriction of the human spirit’s natural freedom.

The first station in the installation is a narrow structure, built as a self-photographing booth (snapshot/confessional), hidden behind a black curtain. Inside the booth there is a seat, and the figures of various people are projected in a sequence on the screen opposite. Each in turn voices a single word, one of the eight words picked at the entrance stand, whose articulation was apparently documented upon arrival at the current spot in the show. When did all this take place? Who are the photographed subjects? Is the progression in the space secretly documented? Perhaps there is a mole in the organization? Should one walk exclusively on the paths? Where do they lead? What happens if you step on the tar? Is there someone watching from above?

At the booth exit the walkway on the paths above the tar commences. At the very beginning of the route there is a junction with three roads: straight — cul-de-sac; right — the path goes through a narrow opening in the wall where a space illuminated red is revealed; left — the path continues above the tar until it reaches a step where it converges with a lower path that also passes, through another opening, into the red space.

Option A: West. Cul-de-Sac.

You walk straight ahead on the path, reaching a chair and a wall with two peeping eyepieces. You may peek into the red space, but in order to continue the route, you must return to the crossroads and choose options B or C.

Option B: North. The Melting Heart.

You turn right on the tin path through two steps and an opening in the wall, and reach an asphalt path reminiscent of a narrow road. The path bisects the space across, flanked by red feathers at its margins from which light emanates, coloring the entire space red. At the front and at the back, the narrow asphalt path connects to a road from a film featuring an endless nocturnal ride. The asphalt road splits into short latitudinal paths that lead to narrow openings in the wall. Beyond the first opening, a booth is revealed, with a frozen white heart projected on a small square in its floor, melting between a pair of legs and transforming into a milky path. Another opening reveals a white glass surface reminiscent of a miniature bed, flanked by two chests of drawers, and above it two rows of white cushions towering to the booth’s ceiling. At some point the asphalt road is interrupted by a path of domestic floor tiles at a lower level, arriving from the black space, crossing the red space, from which it is separated by a small fence, continuing through an opening in the wall onto another space. [Is it traversed by people who chose Option C? What route have they taken? Where are they headed? Will they get to "ascend" to the red space? Will the two roads converge?]. In order to reach the continuation of the asphalt road, beyond the path dividing it, one must enter another opening in the wall, climb a spiral staircase, pass through a bridge overlooking another space, climb down an identical staircase, and enter another opening in the wall back into the red space. Then you reach another section of the asphalt road, from which you pass through an opening in the wall into the next space, the one seen from the bridge. The margins of the road burning with red feathers and the car’s headlights flickering from the film projected at the end of the road, flood the entire space with red light and a fantastic feeling of forbidden passion or a tempting risk. The sense of dizziness is heightened with the sharp transitions, back and forth, involving 180-degree shifts in the walking direction, and entry and exit possibilities through five openings in the wall.

Option C: South. The Burning Heart.

You turn left on the tin path, cross over a small pool in which near-whole eggshells float. The path turns east toward the "pit," a box where a burning heart is projected on a small screen at the bottom. The burning heart is, in fact, a fire inscription, but unlike youth movement rituals, the burning inscription is not a word, but a heart, a universal image that transcends cultures, historical legacies and political slogans. Although devoid of an identified political affiliation, the baggage of meanings it conceals spans every possible context, from the most personal, private and intimate to the public, political and existential. [Unlike the melting ice heart in Option B of the route]; unlike the fire inscriptions consumed at the end of scout rituals, the burning heart in the film, like the burning bush in the Bible, is inconsumable, its form is not subtracted, nor is the fire weakened.

From the burning heart one descends to a lower path, on the floor level, made of 20x20 cm domestic tiles, thereby crossing the red space. Following the paved path prevents passage to the perpendicular road which is elevated and fenced [and used by people who occasionally enter and exit openings in the wall], but does cross it, passing over two openings from which stairwells peek, below a bridge, and reaching another space.

The White Space

All roads meet in the last space dubbed the "white" — a slightly more illuminated, path-less space with more objects scattered in it. The first structure is a long metal bar with glasses of frozen water standing on it, between them accumulations of ice, and next to them cup drying racks and a drainage furrow. Above the bar, large stones are suspended from the ceiling at varying heights. Behind the bar, along the wall, there is a wooden stool with sandbags the size of sitting cushions placed on it, while the floor-sloughs are suspended from the ceiling.

Beyond the grids there is an open space with a punctured metal bed at its center, illuminated with an intense white beam of light, and next to it, by the wall, four columns made of concrete-filled sewn bones, emerging from white bowls of salt and ending at the ceiling, like a deconstructed, stretched backbone. Next to the bone-columns there is a chair fixed to the wall; the support is dissociated from it and hung on its side, equipped with shoulder straps. It is padded, with protruding bumps. A narrow strip of white fabric is suspended from the chair equipped with a sewing kit: red embroidery thread and needles; the fabric strip, bearing pencil-marked circles, some already filled with red embroidery, others still empty, connects to the iron bed, and the embroidered circles match the missing holes in the bed. Who slept in this cold iron bed? Why is it full of holes? Who sat on the chair, who wore the support on his back, and who embroidered the red filling of the holes? Who has not managed to fill them all, left his work tools neatly arranged, taken off the support and hung it on the wall, as if he were on a break? The bed is lit with stage lighting, and the set appears theatrical, but where are the actors?

At the end of the space there is a soft white surface with metal cabinets arranged in rows. When opened, they play poetry excerpts read aloud in Hebrew and Arabic and accompanied by musical effects. Piles of coarse salt, illuminated behind glass, are revealed.

From here, a narrow corridor leads toward the exit from the space, where a scaled down booth stands, packed with a chair, a table, a keyboard with numeral keys only, a spike on which to impale notes, a rubber-stamp pad, music box, and a monitor featuring the eight words with numeric calculations next to them. Beyond the booth one can see the edge of the black space — the beginning of the route, but access is blocked, and an exit arrow points in a different direction, away from the starting point. Who sits in the exit booth? Why is it so crowded and low? Is it populated by a child? Perhaps a short person? According to what data does he count the words? Is he part of the theatrical set without actors?

The installation space is indeed a set of an occurrence, and in its absence, it functions as deserted decor; like a sunken ship it recounts, through traces, the story of a journey that took place. It began at the word-stand, where people stood in line and, based on their number, were received by the Wordkeeper who gave them a note with the word of their choice. The Entrancekeeper, dressed in white, seated them on the bench, where they were given sunflower seeds, and waited their turns to go in while shelling them. They were invited to enter individually, passed through the bread corridor into the black space, and walked on the wooden logs to the photo booth. There each was asked, in turn, to be photographed while reading the chosen word out loud. From there, they walked along the marked routes, chose their way at junctions, went through the melting heart in the red space or through the burning heart in the black space, and met in the white space around the drinks bar where frozen water was served. At the center of the space lay The Woman with the Holes, covered from head to toe with a punctured black outfit. On the exposed skin peeking through the holes they were asked to inscribe the word they had chosen. Next to the bed sat the "Mother, Holekeeper," and embroidered red filling into the holes on a fabric strip attached to the bed. The black outfit covered her face as well, thus effacing her identity, at the same time affiliating her with the group of the faceless, the stigmatized, who hide or are hidden due to shame, guilt, deformity or anomaly.

Hilla Lulu Lin appeared in the role of such women in her earlier pieces, among them "the monster from the kibbutz" in Understood (Mishmar Ha’emek, 2002), the bartender in the milk bar in A Drop of Milk (The Acco Festival of Alternative Israeli Theater, 2002), and the bound woman in Help (Tel Aviv, 2000). In Mole (and in Mercy from Heaven, Jaffa, 2003), the woman is passive, and her movements and place in the space are restricted. The mother embroiders filling for the holes, and the support she carries on her back has round protrusions to cover the holes. Is this an act of consolation? Perhaps through the endless act of embroidery and by carrying the round humps on her back she endeavors to redeem her daughter from her punishment, to take the shame on herself? Does she stop the note-holders or beseech them to confess their sins, to admit their weaknesses and boast merciful gestures by imprinting their chosen word on the exposed skin, through the holes?

At the end of the route they reached the "Exit Booth," where the Exitkeeper sat, a compact man whose dimensions accurately match his sitting place. He collected the notes on a spike on his desk, counted the words on a calculator and distributed notepads in which he stamped the word of choice for each one. Only after they were disposed of the words and counted in the statistics measuring the word choice, did they finish the route and only then were they allowed to leave through the exit door — a two-directional door that when used for exiting the space, traps the Exitkeeper behind in his chamber. The compact man, who differs in dimensions from the other adults, is responsible for the count, and calculates distribution indices for the entire audience. He carries out these calculations from his chamber, which is divergent in terms of scale from all the structures in the space.

The installation space consists of fictitious objects that obey recognized formal patterns and are arranged in the space in a familiar yet peculiar order. Within this perfect order, tensions and contradictions emerge — between exterior and interior, shattered and patched, freedom of choice and no choice, exposure and disappearance, lightness and weightiness, intentionality and contingency, organic and wild versus inanimate and cultured. A visit to the exhibition is, first and foremost, a sensory experience comprising elements of material, touch, smell, color, sound, and form; found objects, forking paths, and imagined entities. At the same time, it demands active participation that may range from a physical move (guided movement in a marked space), through a mental process (deliberation, selection, decision making) to cognitive (comprehension, interpretation, memory, implication) and emotional (identification, distress, protest, anger, affront, regret) processing.