The collaborative works of Waldo Bien (1949) and Joseph Semah (born 1948, Baghdad, grew up in Israel) are permeated by a critical and poetic reflection on the torn relation between Jewish and Christian traditions. For Bien, as social sculptor, this is not an initial subject. Joseph Semah brought this into their discussions and so it became the creative source for collaborative research. Semah’s interest in the problem of text, mother tongue, the word and the problem of sculptural space and typography is well attested in his many publications. In his traditional ‘exclusive’ thinking, the existence of ‘the other’ is a necessary ingredient. This emphasizes the existence of a clear cut border line or landmark that separates cultural domains. In dialogues that took place in the years before, Bien, Grotfeldt and Kloppenburg had developed a social discourse to overcome such obstacles in favour of fertile collaborations in an ‘open framework’ where spirits can truly meet and work together in a future orientated interdisciplinary process.
Years before, Semah wrote to Joseph Beuys, famous German artist, representative of Christian culture, Anthroposophist, social sculptor, and active soldier during the war, to invited him for a public confrontation. Beuys had ignored the request.. His interest was the future, not the past. Joseph Semah works and thinks from within and without the Jewish tradition.
In 1987 Semah was founding director of the Makkom Foundation in Amsterdam, where he would organize interesting and intelligent exhibitions. To one, a priori sculpture’ I was invited to participate. We had not met before. I was involved in interdisciplinary sculptural research of language and speech and contributed a work (1982-002) to the show. From his reaction and the following conversations a scholarly friendship developed. There where meetings and discussions between Bien, Semah, Kloppenburg, Grotfeldt and Michael Rutkowsky at Bien’s studio Lauriergracht, Semah’s studio Haarlemmerdijk and other occasions.
During the succeeding years there were several shows where Bien and Semah would install their artworks in correspondence to one another as in the exhibition ‘Double Dutch’ 1991 in Tilburg and in 1993 ‘Close Encounter’ in Bratislava, where Bien’s placenta drawings hung shoulder to shoulder mixed with Semah’s Jerusalem drawings, cryptically installed on footnote level, 20cm from the floor, or at their exhibition at Arti et Amicitiae in Amsterdam. The combinations created new connotations. No ‘permanent’ collaborative work came had come into being so far.
In 1994 they where invited to the wedding party of Frits Bless, director of the Van Reekum Museum in Apeldoorn and discussed what to give as a present.
Bien grabbed two little canvasses and fixed them optically together with a gold leaf square, to fix mark relation and a common intention (like with Grotfeldt), than painted on canvas. Semah placed image and Hebrew text on the other canvas. Bien introduced the open frame. It was obvious that this work relation wanted to be further explored and intensified in a intellectual discourse, be it with different motives for both of them. After intensive dialogues throughout the years, the pictorial correspondence than continued autumn 1994.
In the mean time Bien had also started to work with Virgil Grotfeldt. For the work with Semah, Bien had bought 24 equal sized canvasses and painted on 12 of them. Canvas No 1 visualizes Joseph’s Semah’s ongoing subject; separation; a forcefully split head. After the first 12 canvasses where filled with images, B delivered them to Semah’s studio together with 12 empty canvasses and asked for his commentary. Weeks later Joseph phoned and invited him to come and see his responding works.
Bien: “The Hebrew text excluded me from proper understanding; Semah considered my understanding of his text ‘not relevant’. I asked someone else to translate the text to get an idea where I was dragged into. We went on with another row of 24 canvasses.
This time Joseph took the lead and delivered his 12 canvasses to my studio Lauriergracht. This time I worked with coal dust from the Death Room Interior as in the series with Grotfeldt. After all 48 canvasses where finished, Joseph arranged them on his studio floor according to the typography of the Talmud. The only exception is the symmetric arranged couple in series 2, with the word FUTURE, arranged by me.
Joseph wished to frame the works, bringing them all back to one size, as typography placed within the boundary of a book, like pages. To me this implicated the work would be sealed of and end as an exclusive discourse between exponents of Jewish and Christian culture. I had naively hoped that this a priori polarization could be overcome in course of the events. In retrospect I realize that our common interest in intellectual “problems” in general was of an opposite character:
To me, any intellectual artistic problem is an immediate invitation to search for a solution. For Joseph the problem is the motor of the discourse itself.
One additional work came ad hoc into existence during the opening of our exhibition in Amersfoort where the complete series were on show, accompanied by other sculptural works: Joseph had installed a chain of bronze cast menorahs on the gallery floor. Two of those I laid out into a new symmetrical sculptural unification on the gallery floor, instantly eliminated by giving it an asymmetric and ‘open’ title; Menorah – Grail, the Jewish Christian context readable from both ends but not fixed to any particular side of the sculpture. The cultural identity of the onlooker decides the connotation of both poles. I regard the remaining photograph as an appendix.”
After Bien took the photo, Semah dismantled the work again. Assimilation would be equal to elimination.