The studio is very small. There’s a shelf with Styrofoam models of works in progress, a large plywood sculpture, and a big desk by the door. Add two chairs and that’s it — you’ve used up all the square footage of this tiny room in Brooklyn. “I like it because I want to reach a level of density in this space. I think that’s what I am going for in the show,” says Ohad Meromi, referring to his solo exhibition at Miami’s Gallery Diet, which opens November 30. Meromi, an Israeli-born, New York–based artist who thinks extensively about architecture and whose installations often fill and take over entire exhibition spaces, does not think in terms of a simple presentation of sculptures. “An exhibition is where people are going to see the work and engage with it, and I’m interested in this engagement and how far it can go, how effective it can be, and what could happen there,” he explains. So his large anthropomorphic figures made of cheap materials like plywood and Styrofoam will be arranged to create a busy feeling in the gallery. The moment when Meromi brings the works into the space — he keeps them unfinished until that point — is important to him. “This may sound a little like a decorator,” he says, “but you come to a party with a box full of stuff you’ve made, and then you want to use the stuff and really transform the space, open it up to possibilities.”
Stepping into one of Meromi’s exhibitions can be overwhelming. The sculptures are large — he explains that his range of scale starts with his own body and grows from there (he is over six feet tall) — and his exhibitions usually include an overarching architectural structure that makes viewing them a distinctly physical experience.
Meromi thinks about his audience very seriously. It may often be said that meaning is created in the gallery space, but for Meromi this is not without responsibility. “I have to be there, be the host,” he says. When Meromi was invited to do a project at Art in General, in New York, he took advantage of the fact that he would be in the city for the duration of the exhibition. The result was Rehearsal Sculpture, 2010, which could be viewed in two ways: You could come during the gallery’s opening hours and see the environment the artist created, or you could participate in a rehearsal. Once a week, Meromi or one of his collaborators led a workshop, composed of interactive exercises drawn from theater and dance. Those events did not produce any objects per se, but they did transform the space and become part of the sculpture. As the visitors danced, improvised theatrical scenes, or went through the motions of, say, a factory assembly line, they left remnants behind, giving the installation a feeling of un-bound spontaneity: It became a place where things could happen.
“I tried to create a model to experiment with the diffusion between my studio and the gallery,” the artist explains. “I wanted to think about what happens if we make an extension of the studio and actually produce work in the gallery, which is not such a radical position, but for me was a little tricky.” Meromi’s invitation to the audience was specific: They had to participate. “I was trying to invoke the potentiality of the stage without ever having this relationship of ‘I’m on the stage and then people are on the bleachers.’ ” The outcome, he hopes, was an experience of the stage and the agency that comes with it, without the self-conscious, spectacular aspect of having an audience.
Last year, Meromi debuted his first outdoor work, Stepanova, 2011, as part of the Public Art Fund’s exhibition “A Promise Is a Cloud,” which was on view at MetroTech Center in Brooklyn until last month. This piece is another experiment in participation, a modular sculpture made of blue-painted aluminum that viewers can move and rearrange like a set of children’s blocks. “I’ve been very cautious about working outdoors,” says Meromi. “I’m obviously interested in public space but also scared of what usually happens to sculpture in public and what type of sculpture it becomes.” The exhibition was a good opportunity to make a monumental piece that was open-ended: “It was an invitation for a set of events that included the public, which was possible because of the particular nature of this show. It was a public piece, but it existed there only for a year, which made it an event,” he says. Unlike public works that become part of the scenery—always there, and thus forgotten — Stepanova existed in a relatively transient moment. When the exhibition closed, Meromi says the sculpture would “fold back into itself and wait for another opportunity to play somewhere else.”
Play is a very fashionable term, Meromi admits. “I am a little bit guilty of talking about this and not giving clear guidelines about the kind of play I’m proposing,” he says. “I see play as sitting in a similar category or maybe interchangeable with the idea of work — I don’t want to work, I want to play. In a utopian ideal of it, work becomes play and play becomes work and the distinction starts to disappear. Craft could maybe be a place where the two overlap.” Meromi is an idealist. He speaks frankly about utopia, engagement, modernist dreams, and politics. The references and ideas he brings into his work range from the failure of Zionism and the kibbutz movement to labor relations and the image of the worker. But the interchangeability of work and play he ties to this notion of craft is crucial. Meromi works with his hands and defines his work as “crafty.” And for him, that becomes politics as well. “Craft, or making as a place to introduce the idea of working together, is my version of utopia,” says the artist, who, in the course of our conversation, manages to compare his process to a party, a theater set, and a game—all sociable situations where people come together. “I like seeing the social space of the gallery through the utopian hopes I have, even though they are so ridiculous in so many ways that my presence as a host is really important,” Meromi says. “I have to humor people into understanding.”
To see images of Ohad Meromi’s work, click through the slideshow.
This article was published in the November 2012 issue of Modern Painters.