Frank Lloyd Wright once claimed that the mother of all arts is architecture. The mind of the architect, trained in the art and the science of design, craftsmanship, light, material, form and texture, applies creative thinking to building structures and creating environments that shape us. Many architects I’ve met aspire to create fine art while on their journey of building structures, but rarely do I meet someone who actually makes that leap and effortlessly travels both paths simultaneously. Ghiora Aharoni, the New York-based architectural designer of Israeli origin, is that exceptional artist whose work imbibes a unique convergence of drawing, sculpture, materiality, texture, light and art to deliver both functional and artistic experiences.
Aharoni has been practicing from his multidisciplinary studio for art, architecture and design in New York City, which he founded in 2004. Duggal had the pleasure of working with him to help produce works for his exhibit “Missives” at the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai, India. The exhibit is an extraordinary multidimensional rumination on the idea of collective memory.
“Never say there is nothing beautiful in the world anymore.” “There is always something to make you wonder in the shape of a tree; in the trembling of a leaf.” Stenciled on the surface of two table-like glass enclosures, these statements frame thousands of vintage photographs stacked in the background. Collected by Aharoni through his travels across India, a place he feels deeply connected with, these photos entice the viewer to stop, to look, to seek, to recognize the hundreds of anonymous faces and moments that dot the scenes in the pictures. Who are these people? No one knows. Yet their presence in these sacred glass boxes reflects a larger question. Who are we? Do our stories, our memories matter?
The idea for this multimedia museum exhibition featuring photography, sculpture, fabrics, collage, embroidery and installations began with the discovery of a small box of love letters Aharoni’s mother wrote in the 1950s as a teenager to a boy in Jerusalem. Aharoni deconstructed the letters and reconstructed them in collages on different textures.
“When I first received the box, there was a crumpled letter on top,” recalls Aharoni. “In the process of transferring these letters into my art form, my first reaction was to bring it back to the original state. But by crumpling them, I wanted to protect her privacy.”
Aharoni transforms this “crumpled paper” into exquisite landscapes of memory. The translucent paper on which we digitally printed the letters and sketches Aharoni created represents ethereally the fragile idea of memories. Mapping the random moments and memories in the vintage photos against memories in his mother’s letters, Aharoni explores two parallel love stories—his mother’s and his own love for India. Each display, with the crumpled letters in which the text is left as indistinguishable as the stories of the people in the photos, conveys parallely lived universes and their relevance in a shared future.
“The work explores universal notions of desire, rituals, courtships and collective memory,” says Aharoni.
In an imaginative use of photography, Aharoni features two platforms in the exhibit, strewn with hundreds of vintage photos, with two armchairs, perched facing each other. The chairs, upholstered in digitally printed photographs, feature sculptural arms outstretched from their backs, each arm holding crumpled letters. The platform is stenciled with the phrases “To Jerusalem”, “From Jerusalem…”
A striking example of the deeply multidimensional sense of texture and materiality Aharoni possesses lies in his use of vintage Phulkari fabrics displayed in the exhibit. In the Phulkari, a fabric embroidered intricately by women in Punjab as a dowry gift, Aharoni sees the form of a love letter. He sets the backdrop of the Phulkari to create his own memories. In fabrics that transcribe the old with the new, Aharoni uses embroidery, letters in Hebrew, sketches of architecture rising from traditional geometric motifs, architectural details of a ceiling and outlines of caribou heads with antlers in fabrics stretched on vintage Indian looms. The story of his mother’s love hovers in crumpled cloud forms above the innumerable stories lying untold across the thousands of pictures, disposed and anonymous. By bringing specificity and form to this shapelessness of our shared experience of life, Aharoni brings us face to face with the penultimate truth of human existence: our stories and our memories. His personal story gives meaning to ours. We’re connected through the strands of our stories, in how they define us and shape us, yet when we’re no longer, what’s left is a shapeless form; an ethereal cloud of our memories….
Aharoni’s artworks are characterized by an interest in exploring dualities, such as the intersection of religion and science, or the relationship between nature and architectural form. Many of his works take traditional objects or symbols—such as sacred texts or cultural artifacts—and subvert or synthesize them in ways that challenge their conventional context. In 2012, Aharoni created a Hebrabic/Arabrew© script (a combination of the Hebrew and Arabic alphabets), which was used in a large-scale installation commission in Manhattan entitled “The Divine Domesticated.” Four panels from the installation were permanently installed later that year in the theater lobby of the 14th Street Y. In 2010, a permanent, site-specific installation of photographs from Aharoni’s “Munnar Series,” which captures the spontaneous patterns and vibrant topographies of Indian tea plantations, was commissioned for the lobby of a landmark building in Manhattan. Since establishing his studio, Aharoni has designed numerous architectural projects in New York, ranging from the de Kooning residence and a duplex penthouse in the West Village to a downtown nightclub and the offices of an art law firm on 57th Street. Aharoni’s furniture designs, which often blur the lines between art and design, are also in numerous private collections.
Aharoni’s profound imagination, his ability to absorb nuances across cultures, his meticulous choices of inclusion and elimination, and his fine grasp of the visual palette across multiple dimensions allow him to break through the usual limitations of storytelling. He makes us want to travel with him, to go find the details that we overlooked, to give form to our own very personal experiences and discover them in a larger context of culture and memory. It’s an honor to work with artists such as Aharoni to expand our consciousness and to help us uncover the universal stories that are hidden within our specific experience of life.