After Surviving a Suicide Bomb, Israeli Artists OMTA Turned Shrapnel Into Art
Israeli artist Omer Golan survived a Palestinian suicide bomb attack in 2000. Since then, he's worked with his wife Tal as the artist duo OMTA.
When a suicide bomber grabbed Omer Golan in a deadly embrace, Omer didn't immediately think "bomb." It was a lazy Friday afternoon in the northern West Bank, and Omer was a 20-year-old soldier doing mandatory service with the Israeli Army. He was a young man with dreams of becoming a musician. That afternoon in 2000, he was playing a game of backgammon with a female soldier when a Palestinian man standing near a bus stop charged at him, shouting something incoherent.
"I had a suicide bomber hugging me with 15 pounds of explosives between us," Omer said. "It felt like a hug. Maybe he didn't want to die alone."
But when the man grabbed Omer, he paradoxically saved Omer's life. The trajectory a bomb traverses is upwards and outwards, Omer explained, and Omer's proximity to his attacker meant that while the suicide bomber was ripped apart by the explosion, Omer's body was left mostly intact. When he came to minutes later, his back was on fire. To put it out, he laid down on the only wet thing the dry landscape presented him with—pieces of the suicide bomber's dismembered body.
Three weeks later, Omer woke up in an Israeli hospital with shrapnel embedded throughout his body, chronic tinnitus, and a left hand that he could no longer feel. Becoming a musician was now out of the question. Omer had to find another means of artistic self-expression. Today, 15 years later, he is one of the most interesting artists experimenting with new media.
In some ways, Omer Golan's journey started a couple of years after the suicide bombing that almost claimed his life, with a woman named Tal Kertcher. Now Tal Golan, Omer proposed to her after the couple had been dating for a mere five days. The couple has been together for 13 years and goes by OMTA—an acronym of their names. They stand at the forefront of new media art: art that engages the viewer through a variety of digital technologies. With a Google collaboration and a commission from the Tel Aviv Museum of Art under their belt, OMTA are creating some of the most innovative art to come out of Israel. If Omer's body was once the site of a deeply intimate act of terrorism, OMTA's work makes the personal political, and the political deeply personal.
I met Omer and Tal Golan at the IMC Gallery, a media lab in the Flatiron District, where they are artists in residence. Tal is intense, with blue eyes and light hair. Her body seems to emphasize her thoughts, as though her posture is asking you, "Are you hearing what I'm saying?" Omer is a big man, with dark eyes, an a-symmetrical haircut, and a gentleness that suffuses the space around him. The couple have a dialectical dynamic, perfected over 13 years of personal and artistic collaboration. Though they don't agree on everything, they frequently finish each other's sentences. Both grew up in the suburbs of Tel Aviv.
"We started as painters," Omer told me, passing Tal the cup of coffee he was drinking from.
"That's not accurate," Tal interjected, sipping from the cup and passing it back.
She reminded Omer that he started as a writer of short stories and poems before his injury. But after the attack, he became deeply disenchanted with his homeland, and he stopped writing in Hebrew. "Many things about the country got mixed together with the negative feelings and PTSD that I was starting to feel and experience about the place," he explained. He needed a new medium.
Omer and Tal became painters together. Omer went to see a half-uncle living in an artist village in the Northern Israel, who had visited Omer when he was in the hospital. When Omer saw the half-uncle's paintings for the first time, it was a turning point.
"And all of a sudden, I saw a medium that could replace music for me," Omer recalled.
But Tal hesitated to take up painting. "I didn't feel safe with this medium," Tal explained. "What if I'm not good enough?"
Meanwhile, Omer had gone out and purchased canvases, brushes, paint. "He took himself so seriously," Tal recalled, which baffled her at first. "How can you say you're an artist?" She remembers thinking. But Omer told her, "Look, I'm just an artist, because that's just what I do, it's all I do, so I'm an artist."
They spent that first night painting for 14 hours straight. "It was magical, it was fun, it was everything I was looking for in creation," Omer said. "So we started painting every day."
A curator saw the work, and was impressed. She told the couple to come back with 50 paintings and she would throw an exhibition for them. So Tal moved in with Omer and the couple started painting nonstop. They would drink wine and paint side by side on the balcony of their south Tel Aviv apartment, the voices of drunken prostitutes drifting up from the street. Sometimes they would paint on the same canvas, sometimes on different canvases. Tal tended to paint naked women, while Omer's paintings were more abstract, often involving poems he had written, the first in what would become a career of radical intermediary works. "The painting was the poem," Tal explained.
But the couple found the art culture in Israel discouraging. It was a young culture, they said, a cynical culture. Even worse, people wouldn't talk about their art, a conversation the couple desperately wanted. People seemed afraid to express themselves, afraid of sounding stupid.
So they left. After an unsuccessful trip to India (the couple were too bothered by the suffering, the "Biblical diseases in the streets," to paint), Tal and Omer moved to the Netherlands, and for four years, they painted. They were very poor. They lived hand to mouth. An Iraqi baker would shovel extra loaves of bread into their bag, and told them to come at the end of the day for leftovers. Omer gave him a painting. And then someone would show up and buy six or seven paintings and suddenly there was money for six months.
Meanwhile, as they searched for ways to make the situations they were painting more "real," the couple found themselves eager to venture into new media. In the Netherlands, their friends included a computer science student. One day, while fantasizing about an artistic project, the friend said, "I can do that with code." "I said, 'Code?'" Omer recalled. It was another turning point for the couple.
In 2006, forced to return to Israel for more surgeries for Omer, the couple took a course in coding for artists, and began to venture into the art form that would make their name.
In 2012, they collaborated with Google on an artwork. They approached Google and suggested creating the worlds' first net-based artwork for Liquid Galaxy. The result was Plant a Comment, a multi-dimensional virtual world into which the viewer sends a text message with a thought or message, which is immediately transcribed into words that appear as the branch of a tree in the virtual world. The comment is analyzed semantically, and the trees grow based on topic—topics more frequently commented upon have bigger trees. "In that exhibition it was sex," Omer said with a laugh.
"No, it was love!" Tal corrected.
"Physical love," Omer insisted.
Either way, it was the perfect antidote to Omer and Tal's frustration with the Tel Aviv art world. If people were reluctant to discuss their art in the past, in Plant a Comment their discussion was the art. The couple, so hungry for conversation and for a window into the minds of their viewers, so anxious to turn viewers from passive consumers into active participants, had now turned that desire into the artwork itself, creating a virtual forest of public opinion (the couple also used a stork flying through the virtual world to tell their parents that Tal was pregnant). The piece is not only interactive, but joyous, modern, calming, and vibrant. Google later donated the piece to the Jerusalem Bloomfield Science Museum for a permanent exhibition.
The couple used new media to explore a darker side of human nature in a piece commissioned by the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Between You and Me is a digital portrait that gradually transforms into a portrait of the viewer as she stands before it. The piece, an unassuming, 40-inch screen, was hanging at the back of an exhibit full of famous paintings by storied artists, but the line that wrapped around the gallery was for OMTA's piece. People literally lined up to see themselves as art. They took selfies of the portrait, and posted the photo as their profile image to Facebook.
"People are infatuated with their own image," Omer explained. "But it was great because they created a performance."
"We were collaborating with the audience," Tal said.
"A collaborative performance of human narcissism," I suggested.
"Exactly that!" Omer agreed, but Tal disagreed.
"It's a huge part of modern human life," she said. "Look at Facebook. People are exposing themselves, they want to show me, me, me. I want to get likes! I want to get comments about me!"
As opposed to the paltry reaction to their paintings, the couple found that viewers engaged the new media projects, were excited by them. Another work exhibited in Russia featured a screen shot of Youtube with the video box replaced by a live video feed of the gallery. Visitors began to behave in incredible ways, believing themselves to be on Youtube. Men did push-ups. Women danced topless. The promise of millions of viewers had them vying for attention not from the artist but from the camera they believed to be trained on them.
"People connected to it immediately," Omer said.
"They feel safe," Tal agreed. "It reminds them of their television show, their computers."
My first encounter with new media art happened when I sat down in OMTA's studio. An invisible camera was aimed, by accident or intention, right at the spot where I sat. On a screen poised before me, hanging over the artists heads, a version of myself—jerky, in two second delay, on repeat—accosted me repeatedly throughout the two hours I spent with OMTA. It was unnerving, disturbing, and deeply flattering at the same time.
Later, Omer walked me over to a corner of the room with enough light to show me Between You and Me. The portrait of Omer slowly morphed into a portrait of me in autumn colors that were extremely flattering. The intimacy of being painted by an artist had been replaced with an erotic spark between me and myself, mediated by a computer screen. It was instantly clear to me why people had taken photos of themselves rendered so well, so justly, by Omer's code. It was also terrifying.
The couple now live in New York, because despite their success, living in Israel was difficult. "Everything was tarnished because of my injury," Omer said. He didn't want to raise his family in Israel. He had severe PTSD which was exacerbated by being in Israel and would come up unexpectedly. He couldn't bring himself to ride buses, because he knew they could blow up. He wouldn't even stop his car near a bus. But a performance piece he and Tal were working on would force him to encounter his worst fears.
The piece was called Jerusalems, and what the artists hoped to achieve was two halves of an orchestra playing a piece of music on either side of the West Bank wall that separates Israel from the Palestinian territories, with the other half projected via camera feed onto the wall. The wall, which originally gave Omer comfort in its promise to keep out terrorists, had come to symbolize the dehumanization of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on both sides. For Jerusalems, Omer needed to find a spot on the Palestinian side of the wall that would work, and he didn't trust anyone else's judgment. He forced himself to travel to the West Bank, where he spent a long weekend with Palestinians. It worked as a kind of prolonged exposure therapy. At first, seeing everything in Arabic and walking amongst Palestinians, Omer got flashbacks of the attack and felt horribly panicked. But pretty soon, the panic let up. "Things kind of slowed down," he remembered. "You start speaking to people and you realize, they're the same people." The prolonged exposure cured him of his anxiety attacks, even when he returned to Israel.
While in Palestine and back in Israel, Omer met Palestinians who have a lot of pain and anger towards Israelis. Nevertheless, privately, when hearing Omer's story, many apologized. Some cried. Omer met a man who had built a bomb that didn't detonate, who then felt remorse and went to jail for four years. "It was surreal, being in Palestine, speaking to a guy who used to be a terrorist," Omer said. But he was overwhelmed by how similar he was to the would-be bomber. More importantly, he realized how difficult life on the other side of the wall is.
"Their reality is so extreme," Tal explained. "We in Israel can't even imagine."
Jerusalems eventually fell through. Omar attributes this to the Palestinian musicians getting pressured by activists not to participate.
Their current project, now in development, returns to Omer's traumatic episode 15 years ago. We Live for Tomorrow is a model for a children's playground made from large-scale replicas of the shrapnel pulled from Omer's body.
To explain the new piece, Omer pulled out a small plastic container with a green top. He unscrewed the top and poured onto his desk four pieces of shrapnel retrieved from his body that he carries with him in his backpack. I picked one up. It was black and smooth and heavier than I had expected.
Still, We Live for Tomorrow is not a political project. It's personal, built from Omer's body. The piece is about searching for transformation. "How do you take objects that cause you grief and anxiety and stress and trauma, and make them something with positive connotations?" Omer asked. "How do you break the connection between trauma and the object? One way is to make it beautiful." OMTA started by playing around with the X-rays, making them into beautiful photos. "Then we thought, let's take it to the next level, a physical object you can touch and experience. From there, an idea of a playground arose, something kids can play on."
The piece continues their earlier model of participatory art, but it's less cynical than the early works. It's an invitation to transform pain into play, rather than an exposure of narcissism.
Over time, Omer has come to view the terrorist who tried to kill him in a different light. While he never justifies what the man tried to do to him, he says he understands him. "I can understand being desperate," he explained. "Maybe not to that level, but that's because I'm privileged." And though he paid for that desperation with his body, Omer has found reserves of understanding within himself. "I guess if I was Palestinian now, I would probably be in some kind of resistance."
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