The Pit and the River: The Books of Micha Ullman and Avital Geva

Drorit Gur Arie

 “Bezalel knew how to combine the letters by which the heavens and earth were created.”
—Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 55a.
Five books were cast in iron by Micha Ullman and filled with earth; five volumes of red-loam earth as red as blood (Sand Books, 2000). They make me think of sacred books and big notions such as myth and history, but, first and foremost, they bring to mind the connection in the Hebrew language between sand (hol) and secular (hulin). This sand denotes earth in the most literal sense, as a piece of ground, as well as landscape which molds one’s identity.
Five kinds of earth grains were poured by Ullman into the drawers of a filing cabinet, which have turned into pit-like cavities within the “pit” of the mouth cavity suggested by the work’s title—Mouth-Here (2014). The simple, effective logic dictated by the alphabetical order is turned into an artistic act that takes place within the filing cabinet: the forms of the 22 Hebrew letters and several punctuation marks were cut out of the drawers’ bottoms in places corresponding to the place where the sound of each letter is produced within the mouth. This is a resonance chamber of letters and words, which serve “as receptacles for delicate and profound thoughts and exalted emotions. Some words [are] like the high mountains of the Lord, others [are] a great abyss. … Words rise to greatness, and, falling, turn profane.”
In the grass, a pit has been dug by Ullman. It is in the form of two Hebrew letters, pe and he, yet another play on words between the Hebrew letters spelling both po and pe—here and mouth, respectively. Here is a silent mouth, a preliterate tohu, the silence of mouths that have not learned how to speak with each other in the fractured local environment.
In the museum’s front entrance plaza, winter clouds are reflected in murky river water. Books are drowning alongside flowering water plants that peek, like the water lilies beneath Claude Monet’s bridge, out of the green-scum blanket covering the stagnant water. Wooden shelves laden with books climb up the wall adjacent to the pool, like a many-armed organism threatening the books that float in Avital Geva’s river, fleeing for their lives. As if waging a final battle, a cluster of books attaches itself to the raft. These rafts of words demand that we contemplate the current image of Israel as rife with conflict, the notion of refugeedom, and spaces where one may exercise freedom.
Micha Ullman and Avital Geva have both placed books out there, confronting them with the wear and tear of the exterior. In a sense, they have returned them to the ground. Ullman has dug up the deposits of history and memory from the hard ground, removing the covering skin to reach the layers beneath it, only to find the void there. The earth removed is usually left beside the pits he digs, at times transported elsewhere and then returned to its former place in a way that leaves visible the wound’s sutures. The emptiness or negative space—which Ullman calls “the space between the lines”—is the material with which phantom sculptures are made.
“Once I wrote Now and in Other Days. Now I have arrived at those other days,” lamented Yehuda Amichai, sober-mindedly, the passage of time and the life that once was or that was once dreamt, with which he became disillusioned. Geva leaves books on dirt roads, on sewage openings and in water pools, alongside clouds, rain, dreams, and fragments. He employs a somewhat constructivist approach to ask questions, articulated by the disintegrating books, about a society that has imploded. Ullman, too, claims that “a pit knows how to ask questions.” As a sculptor in whose work the conceptual interfaces with the spiritual, his thoughts about culture, history, and man’s place therein stem from his play (through physical action) with the library’s various basic forms: the house of books, the chair within the house of books, the letters within the books, and, respectively, digging, emptying, outlining, imprinting, casting, and covering.
Take poems but don’t read them,
do violence to this book:
spit on it, kick it,
wring its neck.
Throw this book in the sea
to see if it can swim.
Hold it over a gas stove
to see if it doesn’t burn.
Nail I, saw through it
to see if it resists.
This book is a paper rag,
letters like flies—and you
are a rag of flesh: you eat dust, ooze
blood, stare at it, and snooze.
The abuse of the “paper rag” demanded by the poet Meir Wieseltier—which lowers the poem from the lofty realm of the spirit to the down-to-earth—is indeed to be found in Geva’s treatment of the book. He grounds this capsule of civilization, history, and human genius by emphasizing its existence as a physical, perishable object. Geva poured concrete on books, joining them together like bricks; looking at his wall one cannot help but think about books as the cornerstones of Jewish culture. He has allowed them to grow rancid, torot and become a growth bed for mold and fungi, thereby becoming once again part of the cycle of organic life.
As a materialist, Geva’s conceptual actions have a lot in common with agricultural work. In The Books-in-Landscape Experiment—which he conducted in 1972 as part of the “Metzer-Messer Project,” which comprised a series of artistic actions by several artists, including Ullman, Dov Or-Ner, Moshe Gershuni, Yehezkel Yardeni, Efrat Natan, and others—the books served as raw material or as an agricultural product. Images documenting this action are included in the exhibition. Geva poured heaps of second-hand books (collected from recycling containers) into large cattle-feed troughs on the strip of land separating the Jewish Kibbutz Metzer and the neighboring Arab village Messer. They looked like piles of hay or fertilizer, such as farmers unload in the field and then scatter to improve the soil. In doing so, Geva asked a simple question: can books, epitomes of cultural yield, serve as cultural and social fertilizer? Will they, when unloaded in the field as heaps of fertilizer, set in motion socialization processes and lay the ground for interaction between different sectors and groups—in this case, Jews from the kibbutz and Arabs from the adjoining village?
What actually happened was that passersby started rummaging through the books. As a result, the books were randomly scattered around the area, creating what looked like pathways of neglect and entropy. The entire area soon had a disturbing post-apocalyptic atmosphere. There, between the Jewish kibbutz and the Arab village, the disused piles of books resembled piles of dead bodies after some cataclysm; now, in the garden in front of the museum, the books are piled on stones, like sculptures that yearn to be resuscitated while sinking downward into the ground, like organic fertilizer that will enable the growth of a future civilization. And since Geva is always interested in the synergy between life-and-culture bio-ecological systems (combining the two meanings of culture), one should ask whether once the books are removed from storage and laid out in a public space they in fact contribute to the creation of a new society. By cultivating books—just as he cultivates, fish, microscopic algae, or wheat sprouted on Styrofoam beds—Geva indicates the possibility of viable coexistence.
Geva’s installation Books in the Deep River, Oh Lord is a further development of the pool whose point of origin is the ecological pool in the Ecological Greenhouse he established on his kibbutz, Ein Shemer. He has placed books in a shallow pool of sweet water, which has turned, in the course of the exhibition, into a puddle of green, stagnant water, full of life yet putrid. This action spurns society’s ivory towers, for the very choice to conduct social “experiments” with books resonates with profanation of the sanctity of the book and human culture. Reflected in the water, the books appear to have been relegated underground; but are they there to draw something from the depths of the earth, or to bury waste in it?
“When cultural values are at risk,” Geva says to me, books “represent the culture that needs to be saved.” In a society which is losing its cultural and moral resources, the books he “abuses” may be read as survivors, time capsules that preserve something just before it is gone forever. Geva’s “river” refers to an African American spiritual sung by slaves who likened its crossing to longing for freedom. In Geva’s work, the river crosses the museum’s garden, laying out a dream path toward an unknown destination to be reached by the rafts. Is this a 2015 version of the Jordan River? What does the hope for a Promised Land look like when reflected in the stormy waters of current events?
Burning diaries, burnt parchments and letters “soaring on high” are apt descriptions of Micha Ullman’s books and letters; more and more pits, more and more cavities that are sometimes catacombs, bunkers, holes, or just open or covered wounds in the field. In affinity to the literature of Jewish Kabbalah, Ullman’s work stretches between emptiness and fullness and between the concepts of shevira (shattering) and tzimtzum (contraction) in order to reach tikkun (mending) and renewed creation. The pits he digs are not necessarily an act of burial or hiding. Ullman digs beneath the skin in order to remove something from the depths beneath.
Beneath the ground of Bebelplatz in Berlin Ullman dug up a negative space, enclosing air in a room surrounded by silent shelves, empty of words (The Library, 1995-96). One can walk over the transparent lid of this “sculpture” as over a precipice, peek into the neon-lit subterranean room that serves as a memorial to the twenty thousand books burned there by the Nazis in 1933; but one cannot go down into it. In the afternoon, as the German sky touches the pit’s glass ceiling, one can imagine smoke rising from within. I cannot help but see Ullman’s scattered-sand works from recent years as a physical gesture of ash scattering; ashes that have turned to red-loam earth ground to dust. Whether we like or not, the scattering of ashes brings to mind the piles of ash marking the place where hundreds of thousands died, who instead of being buried in the ground rose up, as crematorium smoke, to their burial in the sky.
The pit dug by Ullman in the museum’s garden is in fact open to air and light. Only the shadows cast by the trees around it stroke the painful ulcer in the form of the Hebrew letters pe and he—Hebrew letters spelling both po and pe (here and mouth, respectively). The first winter rains have already left a murky puddle inside it. Next to it is the pile of dirt dug out, affined to the book in being spirit manifested in matter. It is live matter, which changes with the sunlight and weather, for the northern wind, against whose direction Ullman has positioned the pit, will bite away at its walls and inner body over time. A dug up book? A pit full of emptiness? Perhaps a fractured male-female unity comprised of the combination between the aggressive incision of the penetration into the bowels of the earth and the primal soft, sensuous pile dredged up from it. The pile and the pit, which Ullman often likens to a womb, both contain the materials of the incised letters, and the displacement of the earth generates “the tension of separation and yearning in the material to return to its place.”
The time during which the earth is dug out of the pit is likened by Ullman to the inception of speech, when sound starts to be produced by the mouth, just before it is divided into clear syllables. This physical act is also a poetic one, touching on the act of creation between heaven and earth. The pit, which is man-size times four, establishes the rules of the reciprocal gaze between the standing body and the one lying down. The entire composition demonstrates the state of man—facing the pit in dread of death and awareness of life—as well as of nature and culture. It resonates with a sense of “I am here” such as Barnett Newman created in his sculptures; a relationship between place and body which Maurice Merleau-Ponty articulated by saying, “there would be no space at all for me if I had no body”.
“I am a digger,” Ullman declares. For over 45 years he has been digging pits in the ground, an act which to his mind may be likened to reading. To understand the newest pit he dug—a word-pit, as well as his first outdoor letter-sculpture—one must trace the development of his pit-digging over the years into sculptures that touch on the body, the mouth, and language, thereby also establishing a connection between man and book, body and mind.
In the “Metzer-Messer Project” Ullman dug two of his first pits: one in the Arab village Messer and the other in Kibbutz Metzer. Then he exchanged the earth removed from the pits, filling up the Messer pit with Metzer earth and vice versa. The work has been described as an action meant to raise consciousness of the various political, religious, and nationalist meanings of regarding the land as a value, pointing out that ultimately, the land is one and the same for all. It is interesting to compare this gesture to Geva’s action with books in the same project. Both suggest a rather simple idea and express—naively or not—faith in the power of art as an instrument of change in society.
Ullman has since continued to dig pits. In 1975 he made Pit with Steps, and in 1980 he transported earth to the Venice Biennale (together with Moshe Gershuni), where he dug up pits in which mud seats were embedded. The pits he has dug since then have gradually become more structured and have gained additional existential and social meanings. Such is The Library (1995) in Berlin, whose metaphoric meaning is particularly loaded, as is Equinox (2009), in which the sky is interred in a grave-pit while playing with varying light-and-shadow exposures. Red earth is also a recurrent element in Ullman’s work, from his early drawings to recent installations in which he sprinkled sand on books (Sand Days, 2001) and on people in an impromptu wedding ceremony (the performance Wedding, 2011) and then preserved the traces left in the sand by the books or people, like a photogram which records negative spaces.
In Ullman’s work one must always bear in mind another entity, an absent one, which has no material representation. He sculpts presences without in fact embodying them. Simple, quotidian or necessary actions performed with simple materials indicate a deeper meaning: “A pit is earth that surrounds a void; it is equally a void created by the absence of earth. And this void is connected to the sky, to the entire universe.” In Ullman’s pits, which are empty molds for human bodies and books, boundaries emerge not only between man and his environment or beliefs, but also within man himself, between the matter and spirit that constitute the core of his being.
Images that imply an absent body are common in Israeli conceptual art, in which images are always “elusive and strive for redefinition,” and are grounded in an outlook that regards language as the tongue of G-d—that is, language is perceived not as the bearer of a message but is rather as “the message itself.” Ullman’s sculptures take one step further the implication of a divine presence in man, doing so through the connection to language which, to Ullman’s mind, “is connected to the void within the pit.” And he adds, “The content of the pit is not matter but spirit. The space within the pit is the space between people. Looking at people talking to each other, one can see that the dialogue between them is in fact sculpturing in air.”
This enigma that Ullman dubs “sculpting in air” creates an entire world filled with mystery in the filing-cabinet work on view in the museum. Quite possibly it was the artist’s collaboration with the National Library of Israel, which commissioned the project, which sparked Ullman’s engagement with ideas that have interested him for many years. The outcome is a conceptual sound box filled with the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the countless possible combinations between them. The cabinet drawers have become the body which organizes the various areas in the mouth cavity and associates them with the spiritual qualities of the ability to speak, enunciate letters, form words, and create a language which creates a world. The letters, huddled within the drawers like sounds within the mouth, are positioned in each drawer in the place corresponding to where the letter’s sound is produced within the mouth, from the innermost to the outer area (throat, tongue, palate, teeth, lips). Here, too, like the pit dug outside the museum, the physical space is staged as metaphorical to the contrasts within man, who is both body (material and earthly) and spirit (in both the private and the public spheres). Mouth-Here situates the pit, which until now had been dug in the ground (even when turned into an empty library in Berlin), within the body. Ullman’s pits have turned into drawers which are mouth cavities that, containing language, imply both the physical and metaphysical aspects of the linguistic sign. The language spoken within the drawers of this cabinet is like a concealed conversation or an inner dialogue held within oneself. On opening the drawers, this internal conversation opens up, too, revealing the connections between interiority and exteriority that inform human culture and the complexity of existence.
Between Ullman’s inner dialogue and Geva’s cultural and political allegory, these two veteran artists observe Israeli society from the vantage point of tribe elders. They form, coin, drown, and bury Hebrew words—be it in a pool that is an allegory of a river which is also a dream or in a pit that is a thought about the body which transpires in-between land and letters of light in the air.
 1. C.N. Bialik, “Revealment and Concealment in Language” (1915), in Modern Hebrew Literature, ed. Robert Alter, trans. Jacob Sloan (New York: Bherman House, 1975), p. 130.
3. Yehuda Amichai, “Once I wrote Now and in Other Days: Thus Glory Passes, Thus Pass the Psalms,” Open Closed Open: Poems, trans. Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld (Orlando, Florida: Harvest, 2006), p. 31.
3. Meir Wieseltier, “Take,”The Flower of Anarchy: Selected Poems, trans. Shirley Kaufman with the author (Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 2003), p. 27.
Babylonian Talmud, Avoda Zarah, 18a.
5. Micha Ullman, “In Favor of Plaster,” in Rupture and Repair in Art, Judaism, and Society, eds. Emily D. Bilski, Avigdor Shinan, exh. cat. (Jerusalem: The Adi Foundation, 2010), p. 20.
6. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception (1945), trans. Colin Smith (London and New York: Routledge, 2003), p. 117.
7. Ullman in Maya Stern, “Digging Pits, Performing Weddings: An Interview with Micha Ullman,” available at (Hebrew).
8. Irena Gordon, The Absent Body: Body Imagery between Judaism and Christianity in the Work of Eight Israeli Artists, exh. cat. (Tel Aviv: Beit Hatfutsot, 2012), p. 115.
9. Joseph Dan, “Divine Language, Human Language and Artistic Expression,” in The Basement of the National Library, ed. Gideon Ofrat, exh. cat. The Israeli Pavilion, La Biennale di Venezia (Tel Aviv: Israeli Association for Culture, 1995), pp. 115-121, quoted in Gordon, p. 112.
10. Ullman in Stern.