Between Ashes and Glamour
Avivit Segal

Bread Installation
Eretz Israel Museum Tel Aviv

Nava Sivilla Sadeh


“At the end of the attic, Hans the baker stopped and pointed to one of the corners. And there – there under the sloping roof was an old bottle. From the bottle came such a blinding light that I had to close my eyes for a moment. The glass of which the bottle was made was transparent, but what was inside the bottle was red and yellow, green and purple, or rather all these colors together. Hans the baker lifted the bottle, and I could see that its contents glowed and sparkled like a liquid diamond. ‘What is this’ I whispered thrilled. The baker’s face suddenly became serious: ‘This is the crimson drink, my boy. These are the last drops left in the whole world’ […]”

A spectacular, shimmering, glamorous and strange spectacle is discovered at the entrance to the courtyard of Man and his Work Center at the Eretz Israel Museum: the circular and graded concourse reminiscent of a kind of amphitheater, is full of objects that seem like oysters, shells, or a kind of inflorescence, standing on thin iron pillars, surrounded by a kind of withered and lifeless leaves. The seemingly shells or inflorescence open as if they are at their peak of bloom and from them emanates a glowing light of a crimson-golden hue, while the withered leaves around them seem to have been burned and decayed from the fervor that emanated from them. The decaying leaves seem to make it clear to the viewer that this bloom is only temporary, and in a fairly short time the fate of the glowing shells/blossoms will be the same, and they will shrivel, wither and decay.
A slight encouragement may be drawn from another visit since the installation “Not on bread alone” by the artist Avivit Segal changes frequently. This site-specific installation is made entirely of sourdough, an organic, living material, which is kneaded into dough and baked in various forms. The installation requires constant care in order to preserve it, and the artist must come often to remove the decaying leaves of dough and replace them with new and fresh leaves of dough, from which sunlight will break through and they will appear radiant and glowing again, as if a flame of fire is burning from them. In this way, the installation exists permanently, like a burning thornbush that is never consumed.
This circle of existence is reflected in the words of Segal herself, who states that respect must be given to withering process, but at the same time she feeds the installation while being possessed by passion and internal fire for the act of art and creation. The artist seems to breathe new life into the installation from time to time, as if she ignites it with a new flame, and it changes frequently, so that the scenes will be different from visit to visit. The burning is like the fire of passion for life and the passion to create at the same time, and thus art is like bread – a basic and essential product of life.
The passion for life becomes significant and especially noticeable in view of the problems existing in the installation itself: the bread is actually used as food for the birds, the weather – heat, cold, rain – may damage the installation, the dough raises mold, maggots and parasites, and the material itself – the dough – is an unruly material and not easy to design. The artist is kind of teasing the material and testing its limits, and thus a kind of struggle and confrontation with nature emerges, a war of existence which is actually a war for the existence of the creation and the act of art itself.
Symbolically, the artist has even sowed wheat seeds in the soil on which the installation stands, and the seeds sprouted and grew. In this way, art is likened to life itself: With the sweat of your face will you eat bread and with the sweat of your face you shall create art. The artist herself testifies that working with the dough requires physical but also mental strength and energy, thus there is a mutual action of body and mind. The spiritual experience is the one that drives the physical act of creation, something the title of the installation even alludes to: “Not on bread alone”, meaning, the nourishment of the spirit also stands at the foundation of human existence. The installation is actually made of only flour and water, two basic materials in human nutrition, while the four elements – earth, air, fire, and water – are present in the installation. The constant renewal and existence of the installation is consistent with the concept of the elements as being in a constant state of flux and change, as Plato describes in the Timaeus dialogue about the nature of the universe:
Earth that encounters fire and disintegrates due to its sharpness, will oscillate here and there – whether after its separation it will be folded inside the fire itself, or inside lumps of air or water – until its parts meet each other wherever they meet, join together and once again become the earth; which could never be able to become another species […] Whereas when water is separated into its elements, whether by the power of fire or by the power of air, may become together two bodies of air and one of fire; And when the air decomposes, the molecules of one part of its parts will become two parts of fire. And on the other hand, when a little fire is folded in a lot of air or water or in the earth, it moves in these lumps that are carried from place to place, and in the battle between it and them they overpower and it disintegrates, then the two parts of fire and one part of air come together. And when air is at a disadvantage, and it is splintered into fragments, then from its two and a half parts one complete form of water will be formed […] and as for movement and rest […], in a state of uniformity no movement is possible […]”
In the state of flow, movement and change, eternity is embodied in the universe, so that what is nourished and formed from the elements is born, lives, exists, decays, dies, and reborn. This concept was poetically expressed in the large-scale epic “On the Nature of the Universe” by the Roman poet of the first century BC Lucretius:
“Do not suspect me, because I caught your ears in haste
on the temporality of the world foundations, on the fire, on the earth,
on the liquids in general, on the wind – all these will perish.
Zero – a second time they will return, be born and continue to grow.”

The efforts to preserve the installation and ensure its existence on a regular basis are a metaphor for the constant human struggle against the decay of time and the temporality of existence. Segal herself points out that time is part of the working materials, and it takes shape and becomes tangible in its materials and form.
The human sorrow about the temporality of existence is ancient, and since time immemorial attempts have been made to gain, so to speak, eternity and immortality. These attempts were expressed in rituals, consecration, and religious worship in the ancient world.
Indeed, the rounded and stepped space of the installation brings to mind a sort of sacred ceremonial area in ancient pagan worship. The leaves of the dough glowing in the golden crimson light resemble bowls containing holy oils or healing and purifying potions, while the remains of the dough, which look as if they have been burned, are the remains of sacrifices that were brought to the altar.
The magical and radiant appearance of the installation evokes feelings of awe as from a vision of divinity. Indeed, the urge to witness a miraculous and wonderful divine sight is primal and ingrained in man from the moment of his birth, as described in the dialogue ‘The Banquet’ to Plato. The desire to unite with the divinity is deep and rooted, and in order to create the illusion of this merging experience, man performs rituals, which will give him a temporary feeling of merging with the divine sublime. Disappointment from these attempts to merge with the divinity is reflected in the mythological story about the mortal daughter Semele, who sought to witness the true divine appearance of her beloved Zeus, father of the gods. When Zeus appeared to Semele in his divine appearance, for he had promised her that he would fulfill all her wishes, the human beloved was consumed and burned in the fire of flame. However, other mythological stories show success in these merging attempts, as for example in the story of the deification of Heracles after his human-physical death, or the merging of Psyche with her beloved Cupid, after a tedious journey of initiation. The burning motif is also a biblical motif, since Moses’ miraculous vision of the bush burning in the fire and not being consumed was also an experience of sublime divine revelation, which symbolized his mission to liberate the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and bring them to the Land of Israel.
The act of repair and preservation that the artist performs is also a kind of ritualistic action, and the artist indeed testifies that this is her feeling when she arrives at the installation complex to perform her work. The repair experience is exciting and sublime in itself, since it is a sensual creation experience, in which all the senses are involved: the taste, since in the end, it is about bread, one of the most basic food products most pleasant to the human palate; The smell – the smell of the pleasant dough pastry filling the space; The sight, since the brilliant and spectacular sight created by the refraction of the sun’s rays on the airy and almost transparent dough causes a prolonged and thoughtful observation as at a kind of vision; And also the hearing, since this space calls to it birds whose chirping has become part of the installation.
The sensory and sensual dimension is therefore distinct and very significant in this installation, and it brings up connections and reflections about the novel ‘The Solitaire Mystery by the Norwegian author Jostein Gaarder.
This novel describes a real, imaginary and spiritual journey of a boy and his father, in which the baking and the senses are dominant motifs throughout. In the novel, the story of the life of Albert the baker is described, intertwined with sorrow and doom on the one hand, but on the other hand is full of tastes, smells, and rare sensory experiences.
Orphaned by a mother and a runaway from a drunken father, he describes how he often used to stand hungry in front of a bakery’s display window and swallow the sight of breads and cakes with his eyes. The shop window was sometimes filled with the refraction of light rays of the evening sun, which caused a glass jar and a fish inside to glow in the many colors of the rainbow, a sight that made the boy forget his hunger.
In his kindness, the owner of the bakery let him in, gave him a thick slice of raisin cake, and from that day Albert spent all his days in the bakery, and became an apprentice baker. In the year he turned from an apprentice to a baker, his father died, while Hans the baker, who tutored him, gave him before his death the crimson drink.
When Albert drank the crimson drink, he experienced the best taste he had ever experienced in his entire body down to the palms of his hands and feet: strawberry and raspberry, apples and bananas, honey, pears, cream cake. He felt his mother’s perfume, and it was as if the whole world was inside his body, all the forests and streams and seas, mountains and fields were parts of his body, and even his dead mother seemed to be inside his body. Also, inside a bun that the boy received from the baker, he finds a tiny notebook that he will call ‘the bun notebook’, the pages of which are printed in microscopic letters, as if full of wisdom to be deciphered.
The life of the baker himself is like a wonderful story: the baker is the son of a baker, but he was also a sailor whose ship was wrecked and left no remains, and he was the only survivor. Sailing in a lifeboat he reached a magical island with palm trees and songbirds, the Atlantic Ocean shone to his right and to his left in golden daylight, and the island was abundant with plants, rare fruits, colorful flowers, beautiful butterflies, a green and fertile valley, and a dazzlingly beautiful landscape that brought tears to his eyes.
A series of contrasts exist in this novel together: hunger and satiety, remnant and protection, glamor and color alongside dreary everyday life, suffering and pleasure, scarcity and abundance, imagination and reality, vitality and decay, life and death. Along this complex of contrasts, the motif of bread, dough and baking are interwoven as a connecting thread. The “Bun Notebook” is like a storehouse of wisdom to be deciphered, just as Avivit Segal’s installation is a storehouse of thoughts and reflections. The complex of contrasts exists in a similar way in the installation, which is deceptive and as if fooling the viewer: from a distance, the installation seems like a glamorous and magical vision, while a physical approach to it reveals the appearance of a heap of ruins. After this discovery, the glowing dough bowls may resemble a kind of memorial lanterns or candles, while the burnt dough leaves resemble the remains after a cremation. The immediate context that comes to mind is the Holocaust, a context that seems to be an inseparable part of Jewish and Israeli existence. The wall of bread, which is to the left of the entrance gate, strengthens this connection by being made of loaves of bread that look like tiles, and which attracts birds to peck at it. A bread loaf is associated in post-Holocaust Jewish thought with hunger and deprivation and longing for a destroyed home, while the bread wall in the location-dependent installation brings to mind the symbol most associated with the Jewish people’s longing for their land – the Western Wall.
It appears, then, that Avivit Segal’s installation embodies in it the national aspect, from which there is apparently no escape, when the flour and bread are symbols of the Holocaust, hunger and survival; The remains of decaying leaves are symbols of fires, persecutions, extinction and death, whereas the light and the glow are symbols of revival, the resurrection of a people, renewal, and the fulfillment of a dream and vision. At the same time, the universal aspect of the human condition is embodied in the installation, which is constantly subject to oscillate between abundance and extinction, but is subject to a constant cycle of creation, death, and rebirth, as the state of human existence that is permanently suspended between ashes and glamour.