Let the Walls Speakby Dalit Nemirovsky | 20.10.14
One Friday noon I sat down for a talk with artist Know Hope, in his studio at the garage zone in the south of Tel Aviv. Several hours before Shabbat, I was making my way between alleys, into a wide and intriguing space, hidden behind an iron door. Once the door was open, an impressive young man shook my hand and for a few hours, let me into his world.
As someone who has been treading the length and breadth of Tel Aviv for over a decade now, Know Hope’s work accompany me persistently. If you are, like me, one of the Telavivians who make their way around the city by foot or bicycle, certainly you are familiar with this pair of words and what they stand for. But in case you’re not, enchanté: Know Hope – no doubt among the most interesting artists working in the last years in Tel Aviv and abroad.
He came into awareness in 2005 with a series of works that decorated the streets of Tel Aviv, displaying a unique language of an artist about to put his mark on the local art scene. Later on, as he won international acclaim and recognition, he elegantly normalised his relationship with the institutional art world as well. Today, it seems, he is no longer in the eye of the storm. His work communicates maturity and peace, and thus, becomes more intriguing to my point of view.
A few days prior to the interview, I e-mailed Know Hope to set a meeting. I was sitting in front of my computer screen and did not know how to start. What does one write? “Hi Know Hope”? Thinking about it, I’ve realised that even when I visited his exhibition about 18 month ago in the Gordon Gallery, it did not occur to me to ask for the artist’s name. After our meeting that Friday, the mystery of the real name behind Know Hope, did not seem to bother me as well. Neither did it bother him. Know Hope never intended to make a big deal of his name, and he did not wish to have speculations and assumptions with regard to his identity. He admits that, initially, it was important for him to maintain anonymity, but not for the sake of mystery or sensation. “The reason I don’t use my real name is because I wanted my work to be seen out of its context. They are not about me and there is no reason to deal with me. What matters is the work and its concept and therefore I need to be out of the equation. This is all the more true with works I create outside, in the most objective and common place. It creates a clean access, and therefore the discourse is much more sincere.”
Know Hope works in complete confidence and admirable patience, and for now it is convenient for him that you don’t know who he is. If you do find out, that is okey too, but there is a good chance that the next time you encounter a work of his, you will find it harder to relate to it objectively. He would rather keep you unbiased spectators, and since you are an integral part of his work – it is significant. When I do ask for the meaning of using the unusual name, he tells me about texts he used for his street art and the puns or word games that amused him. The combination of these words interested him, and he decided to try and play with it. “This pair of words inhabits many ideas, and from there everything rolled like a snowball. I would have preferred this was not my name, since it is not really a name, but so it happened. Anyway, it will not last, Know Hope is a very long project of mine but it will not continue forever.”
Art surrounded him throughout his life, and he always painted, but never thought he would become an artist for all it entails, at least not consciously. He spent high school in central Israel, taking art as his major. It was there that he created a final project that hinted more than anything at his professional future. Two months before the final exhibition he printed hundreds of pages, each with a single sentence, and hanged them across the city and school. Sentences such as “It’s So Nice to Be Needed” or “Make Yourself Feel at Home” were suddenly seen everywhere, and no one knew who put them or why.
In the second stage he found out the addresses of all the students and faculty in his school. He then sent each a stamped envelope with their name and mailing address, containing a folded paper. The only thing missing was the name of the sender. On the paper inside, appeared one out of twenty different sentences he had printed. “I wanted people to see the sentences in a manner devoid of any association or connotation, without any context. I assumed that when they read the sentence it will give rise to thinking about a certain image, as it will relate to their own private baggage.” And so he left in the hands of these people a single sentence, with no explanations and no instructions.
In the final stage, the opening night of the exhibition, Know Hope stood at the school entrance and distributed to all who came the same pages. He did this to awaken a memory of something they have encountered before. Then, as they entered the exhibition zone, they met the same sentences again, hung on the wall, but this time accompanied by an image he created for each sentence. For “It’s So Nice to Be Needed” he attached a drawing of a prostitute standing in a street corner, and for “Make Yourself Feel at Home” – an image of two people getting married at Disneyland. Are these the same images people had in mind? Probably not. But for him the process worked. The spectators were involved in the process and there was reciprocity between them and the work even if they were not aware of it. “It depends on where it meets you. A guy who just broke up with his girlfriend will respond differently to a sentence dealing with intimacy, then a girl who just fell in love and is on the top of the world. This is why the spectator’s personal relation to the work is important – the subjective place where people meet the work makes all the difference.”
He started painting on street walls at the age of eighteen simply because he realised he can. “From a philosophical point of view, it was sensible to place my work there. To present them on different levels and thereby conduct a much broader discourse.” Know Hope understood quickly that working in the public space comes with responsibility and a need to respect a space which belongs to everyone, and it is evident in his work. One can easily identify the thought he gives to the subject, and his will to enable the spectator to take part in the process.
Initially he worked with different images and a lot of texts – a motif that will remain with him through the years – but very soon he started working with the figure that will become iconic in his work – a long limbed human figure, lanky and pitiful, whose identifying mark is the heart. “When I began my journey with the figure it was clear that it was going to come back again and again in my work. I knew I was going to develop a narrative and that I need it in order to enable the spectator to develop a common language/vocabulary with recurring iconography, part of which was the character.” And it worked. The figure became part of the cityscape for many Telavivians, perhaps owing to its relation with what is most precious to us – the heart.
The preoccupation with the heart, which is sometimes absent, leaving behind an empty and painful void, and sometimes escapes its place and appears as a red scar, made the figure an object of identification for many. The heart represents something dear and fragile which requires softness and care, and this is something everyone can relate to, one way or another. For Know Hope the preoccupation with the heart has enabled, and enables still, to deal with a variety of questions. The absent heart speaks of the formation of empty spaces, of coping with the lack, and of the way in which human beings adapt to a void created. The heart, as a symbolic object, also indicates the figure’s level of life experience. According to Know Hope, figures with a heart are the least experienced ones, while those whose heart has already shifted, know a thing or two about life in this world. “Usually we all start with the whole package… The reality is that the heart is always either given or taken, becomes either full or empty. When your heart is being broken for the first time – not only in the romantic sense, when there are insights, thoughts, when you are in awe in the face of existence, when you discover something new about life and suddenly feel completely empty, when something becomes shaken – This void always exists. On the other hand, this void enables the existence of other things.” And in this context Know Hope often perceives the heart as a burden and seeks to show in his work the place where one has to learn to let go. “Everything is temporary, and when you insist on not letting things pass and change, a big problem arises. It is like not allowing leaves to fall off a tree. They must fall because they are no longer meant to be there, so it is better to embrace the process. Even if at first you lose balance or get dizzy, it is temporary and only then, one can see the larger picture.”
Before I even raise the question, Know Hope tells me he is constantly being asked whether the figure is himself. I let him go on, happy for every detail he throws my way. “I always used to answer ‘no’, but even if the details are not necessarily autobiographical, they do represent real life. The situations which the figure is subjected to are not ones I have experienced but they are realistic and filtered through me and therefore the figure has to be me. The figure makes conclusions and since I created it, these conclusions are inevitably mine. It is simply much easier to get to them from an allegedly distanced position, because then sentiments and subjective places which make the process more difficult are not involved. If I were to try and think without the filter of the figure it wouldn’t have worked. It is easier and more truthful for me to work through this channel.”
The figure, like its creator, has gone through a process in the past years. Its role changes naturally and organically and it becomes more and more abstract as does the work. In Know Hope’s installation “How We Were Turned Against Ourselves” – an impressive project which signals a turning point in his work – the figure is not always present, but is always there in the consciousness of the spectator, who knows how to find the clues for its existence. “What is special about works that are grounded in symbolism,” says Know Hope, “is that a certain symbol in the artists mind does not necessarily have the same meaning for the spectator and that’s the beauty of it. I did not want to impose things didactically, but rather to create a language that both me and the spectator will identify in order to go through the process together.”
Know Hope may be young but it seems he had realised something essential about the way he has to go through. He speaks of the work as a long term process and he has all the patience necessary to let things happen. “It is important for me to do as many things as possible, but it is clear to me that there is a process that must take place, and I want to allow the spectator the same experience” And indeed he does. It seems Know Hope takes interest in us, he is curious about us even when we do not know we are spectators and are unable to give him feedback.
In recent years Know Hope moves somewhat away from the wall paintings he was so identified with, and while he does not abandon them entirely, he becomes more and more interested in works that carry an insinuation, works in which he offers us his interpretation of what he sees as a spectator himself. In the majority of cases we are not even able to know for certain that we are dealing with a work of art, which makes the entire experience more interesting. A good example for this is a work he created on the Israeli Independence day. On a wall in Tel Aviv he wrote down the words A DIRTY THING. For several days many people must have passed by this text. They may have noticed it and thought about it, perhaps tried to understand what lies behind it, possibly ignored it completely or even were not aware of its existence. Know Hope came back to the same place after four days and placed by the text a white flag on a wooden pole. Now the people who have seen the text might have also seen the flag by its side. Will they make the connection? Will they realise someone had concocted a situation for them? “Someone who sees this work does not think he is seeing an installation or a work of art. He thinks he is seeing an interesting coincidence and then he thinks what he thinks, but there’s an organic quality to his thought. The spectator takes a very active part in everything I produce. First he has to notice something is there and then notice another thing, and then ideally make the connection in his head, or not. For it is obvious someone has written the text, but the feeling I am trying to evoke is that it was meant to be there. There are many similar things in the city. Like a bicycle lock that has been locked onto the same pole for years. It is just there and does not look strange and no one asks or gives any importance to it, but someone who knows it notices it every time.” And that’s the magic of it.
For Know Hope a work begins in the studio, continues to take shape as soon as it is placed outside or in a gallery and becomes whole only once the people who pass it by establish an interaction with it. “I offer the audience an idea, it is as if I cheat in the way I present it, because I made it, but I don’t want it to be seen as art, or for people to know what I’m thinking about when I create it. It becomes part of all the other things that are there in front of the spectator and in this way his attitude is the most objective.”
After some years during which he created only in the public space, Know Hope made the transition to the interior as well. The establishment’s recognition came and the galleries opened their doors and continue justifiably to leave them wide open. Know Hope succeeded in creating the same fascinating situations he made outdoors, within closed spaces as well. There were those who raised an eyebrow in light of the decision to exhibit between four walls, but Know Hope is not concerned. “I was never against galleries, it just took its own time and came when it did. People are comfortable with putting labels, saying there was something anti-establishment about me, and I can see why it is easy to say this, but it is not something I am aware of when I create. Working outside is part of the creative process and working inside is another part of it with no relation to a rebellious stand.”
The process Know Hope leads us through in a gallery resembles wandering inside a story. To the extent in which it is possible, he customises the exhibitions to the gallery, and the narrative is reflected not only in the work itself but also in the construction of the exhibition. The narrative exists within the space itself and, if necessary, Know Hope changes the space accordingly. His much talked-about exhibition “The Abstract And The Very Real”, exhibited in Lazarides Rathbone Gallery in London, dealt with the way in which the weight we carry becomes a burden. We do not know exactly what it is made of, but we know it is there, it exists, and its presence in our lives is real and therefore burdensome. In this exhibition Know Hope touched upon subjects with a clear political connotation, but did so from a distance and made it universal by focusing on ideas and perceptions much more than on the thing itself.
In the exhibition he dealt with complex images of flags, walls, borders and fences but stripped them off of their original way of utilisation, treating them as an emotional mechanism while creating an analogy between political and emotional situations. In his unique way he created a parallel between these worlds. “People hurt someone and someone gets offended – this is precisely the micro of the dynamics in the larger context of the political worlds of concrete, borders and fences. If one looks at a fence as a possessive lover, or at borders as scars, how does one remembers what left the scar or what created the borders? The political situation affects our day to day emotional lives and this explains why people fight more in times of war or the opposite – why people make children in times of war. We perceive things, although we are not necessarily aware we’ve perceived them, we are unaware of how intuitive we are. Another example is how people that do not perceive themselves as political people or can’t see themselves as part of the political discussion, still know what it is like to be jealous, or have experienced heartbreak. These are minor representations of broader and more complex situations. This not only allows the discussion to be intuitive, but furthermore expands it and breaks down the separation between the political and everyday life.”
Know Hope makes us move. He provokes us to see something in an unexpected place, identify it and decide what to do with it. He makes us ask questions and turns us into a part of his work. We become the spectators and curators and have a private relationship with the work, each through his own prism.
These days Know Hope is in Tel Aviv but this is not an everyday matter, as Know Hope spends a considerable part of his time traveling. He has recently returned from a few months in Europe and North Africa, taking part in several projects in Austria, Italy, Tunisia and Germany. At the moment, he is working on a big project that will culminate in a large solo exhibition opening on January 2015 at the Gordon Gallery in Tel Aviv, after which he will be continuing into solo exhibitions in Paris and NYC throughout 2015. But after all this traveling, Know Hope always returns to the mother base – Tel Aviv.
As someone who has been having an affair with Tel Aviv for a significant amount of years now, I insist on hearing a few good words about the city. Know Hope complies. He loves the city and shares the feeling that there is something special about it, that something in its air is alive and kicking. Furthermore, it is the place where his friends and loved ones live, it is the place where he established his studio, where he shops for materials, it’s where he knows the people and the streets. Eventually, his journey started in Tel Aviv and it is yet the city most decorated with his work. “One of the things I like the most about Tel Aviv is that it is accessible and communicates accessibility. In Los Angeles people don’t go by foot and here it is all they do. It creates interactions between people and in some sense it is cultural. There is something about the impatience here, in the dynamics of no etiquette, that enables many things. I am not saying this critically; I think these are the things that, in many cases, make things harder, but also open many doors.”
A moment before we say goodbye I tell Know Hope I am crazy about this city because I never know what the next moment will bring, because it changes constantly and especially because I feel like myself in it. Know Hope smiles and manages to explain me to myself even better. “This city is always in a process. Buildings and whole areas disappear and new towers and compounds are being built in their stead. Some get completed and some do not, some become reminders of something unfinished and some become full of patches. If you personify these phenomena for a moment, you find out there is something very vulnerable and human about Tel Aviv, about how it looks and how it feels – messy and honest, impatient and striving.