Contemporary artist Serge Spitzer creates art out of ruins

Serge Spitzer

September 16, 2009, Wednesday/ 15:43:00
How can historical ruins be transformed into an artistic show? US-based artist Serge Spitzer gives the best answer to this question with his installation, "Molecular İstanbul," which is probably one of the most interesting and striking artistic projects in İstanbul in recent times.Far away from glorious cocktail receptions and crowded press conferences, the Romanian-born Spitzer, 58, reveals his art to the real people of İstanbul, without any unnecessary distractions.

“I could have used those clean spaces in art galleries in İstiklal, but this is much more İstanbul,” says Spitzer in an interview with Today's Zaman while walking through the small and ruined door of Mayor Synagogue in the Hasköy district.

Upon discovering the historical synagogue, which was split into several sections and used as a storage facility, a workshop and a billiard saloon, Spitzer rolled up his sleeves, fueled by curiosity and an ambition to discover something marvelous that had been forgotten by the passing of time. “I did this [installation] out of curiosity,” says Spitzer, showing materials left in the workshop still standing in the corridor leading to the room where his installation is located.

The first reaction of visitors upon seeing workshop materials scattered all over the historical synagogue is no doubt being a little startled and asking, “Where is the art?” “I didn't want to touch them,” says Spitzer. “The idea was to leave things as they are. The only thing that I did is that I emptied this room, and I put [in my artwork].”

“I didn't want to say: ‘Here's life; here's art.' I didn't want a pure aesthetic experience,” Spitzer adds. No signs outside the building, no lights, no red carpets; there is nothing that hints at an art exhibit on view inside. Spitzer is committed to being natural. “I wanted [my work] to be seen in the daylight because it is the natural way. When there's a lot of light, there's is a lot of light; when there's a little light, there's a little light. But the work is about everything. It's about making people experience [this artwork] in this context.”

Almost all visitors enter the venue with the same question in their minds -- whether the artist intentionally placed all those bits and pieces on the floors of the synagogue -- which the artist finds quite interesting to observe. “No, that is the real İstanbul. If I cleaned this place and made perfect corridors, like those in art galleries, it would have been boring because it would have been fake. … I don't like fake, I like the truth; it is much more exciting. But really, the most exciting thing is to see this in the context of real life, to see the people from the neighborhood come here. The people in the neighborhood are very proud that [my artwork] is here.”

Imagining the sea of marbles

But the scene in the synagogue changes completely when you enter the room where his installation stands. The synagogue seems to be resisting the ravages of time; the four columns are still standing straight, and the little green marbles of the installation under the feet of the columns, covering the floor of the room, resemble a deep sea stretching out to the other side of the old walls. “This is glass. It is three different colors, but you can't see the three different colors because the human brain is not capable of seeing the difference. And they are all mixed into one,” explains Spitzer when talking about how he made the installation. It is easy to see that the artist is very excited about the work of art he has created. “I wanted to melt all the ideas, all the energy... You see this was all a synagogue; you see the Jewish star right over there. And this was used as storage. And I thought that it was so special; it has so much meaning to melt together: aluminum, rubber, brass, all parts of this place, this neighborhood. The same way the city is cut into pieces, the same way it stays together,” he says.

Lost in İstanbul

Unfortunately, it must be confessed that very few people living in İstanbul are aware of the synagogue's existence. “The neighbors are surprised to see that there is a synagogue here,” notes Spitzer. “The people across the street, 50 meters from here, they don't know. What is important is to understand that artists are sometimes more sensitive than the population to a certain energy. And this energy is something constructive. I wanted to do this [installation] because I was afraid that the place would disappear. İstanbul changes very quickly, so I felt this was the perfect moment to do this.” Not only the neighbors, the Jewish population in İstanbul also seems to be unaware of the synagogue. “Even the Jewish community which manages this place, they came here, and they were surprised to see how big it is because they always saw it as a storage [facility],” says Spitzer.

The history of the synagogue is also a matter of curiosity. “I do not know the exact information, but I was told by a historian that this is between 300 and 500 years old,” explains Spitzer. “Nobody knows exactly. Most likely, it's a synagogue [built by] Jews who left Spain; this is why it is called Mayor like Majorca. So, it's Synagogue Mayor because of Jews from Majorca. And there's a Mayor Synagogue in Czech. It's very famous, very beautiful. And it seems that this is made by the same group of people, but of course, we don't know.”

The installation was the product of the artist's own initiative; he did not have the support of any institutions. “I did this because I really believe in understanding the meaning of art. This is about transformation. Alchemy, it's happening on every level of society, and I think, in a way, that a worker who makes aluminum and recycles aluminum is as important as an artist who works in a studio. He uses the same tools; he uses the same machines as an artist. I think that artistic activity is too isolated from real life. I like to integrate; people with no education, no understanding of culture and arts, they go there, and they gain a new experience of art. And I bring this experience on the simple level.”

What if other people and institutions become aware of the historical synagogue and take steps to restore the building? “My work is not about solutions, my work is about questions,” says Spitzer.

This is not Spitzer's first time in İstanbul. He visited the metropolis 14 years ago, for the Fourth İstanbul Biennial. “I made a golden carpet for the biennial,” notes Spitzer. “As carpet has such an important meaning in both Turkish and Islamic culture, I wanted to represent this land with the golden carpet. And I wanted it in gold because I thought that Turks perceive something that shines as very important. [After the biennial] I didn't take my golden carpet back; it's a Turkish golden carpet, and it's still here, in İstanbul.”

Spitzer returned to the US over the weekend, but his “Molecular İstanbul” will remain on view at Mayor Synagogue in Hasköy until Nov. 11.

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