The army, business, arts. Itamar Gilboa’s career is one of the extremes. His dog let him choose to live in Amsterdam over London, and New York City. Now, more than ten years later, the Israeli born visual artist still resides in Amsterdam. The Dutch capital proves to be a productive hometown. His lofty studio is literally filled with work, experiments, and obviously doubles as a playground with inspiration. A swing hangs from the ceiling.
Although Itamar lives and works in Amsterdam for over a decade now, little of the city can be found within his artworks. Most of his current projects remain related to Israel. The complexity of his home country and his personal relation with Israel provides extensive inspiration.
Enjoying the village-like city of Amsterdam, Itamar finds himself confronted by the gap between the Netherlands and Israel almost every day. Just days before he leaves for an artist in residence program in China, Itamar talks passionately to us. ‘I might go back. Creating lasting relationships here is very hard for me,’ he says over an Israeli style lunch.
Your studio is impressive for Amsterdam standards. How did you get it?
It is an anti-squat construction. The former industrial building was vacant, and in order to prevent people from squatting the place, they allowed artists to use it. It is beautiful; and indeed it’s unique for Amsterdam. There are plans to redevelop this old industrial area, but funding is currently hard to get. All plans are on hold for now.
You attended the Rietveld Academie. Did you move here specifically for the academy?
In the early 2000s I planned on attending art school and wanted to live abroad. London, New York, and Amsterdam were on my short list. It was hard to decide. But I had a dog then, which made picking my city easier. New York is torture for dogs. When you want to bring your dog to the UK, it goes in quarantine for six months, which eliminated London. Amsterdam was the best place to move to with a dog. I moved from Tel Aviv to Amsterdam in 2001, and although my dog passed away I still reside here.
You are born and raised in Israel. What was your childhood like?
I come from a very liberal family. My mother is a journalist and my father was head of the department of Special Education. There were always books around. I have learned to respect the land, and learned to love the country, but not in a religious way. My parents were politically involved, which I am as well.
Isn’t everyone in Israel politically involved?
On the contrary. People in Israel tend to live in bubbles, showing little interest in the world outside their bubble. This is currently changing though. Last year’s protests for social change are a vivid illustration.
You started at the Rietveld Academie when you were 27. Were you making art already before you moved to Amsterdam?
As a child I always aspired a career in a special army unit. When I was drafted after high school, I got myself selected for this special elite group. Only a dozen or so people make it through annually. Almost everyone that matters in Israel, both in politics and business, served in this section. I was also aiming for a high-ranking position. But I got kicked out, which really hit me and felt like a terrible failure.
After the army I travelled for a year in the Far East, and after returning, I co-started a successful internet company. It was a call service, comparable to Skype. It was successful, but we didn’t manage to capitalize. I did some other stuff as well.
Why did you leave your successful business career for the arts?
Aside from my army aspirations, from childhood on I have had a strong interest in the arts and the theatre especially. While I was in business, I started painting. I got into painting more and more, and decided to give it a shot at the academy.
A lot of your work reflects on Israel and particularly your time in the army. Is your work an expression of critique?
Not necessarily. All my works start with myself. It is rather about my relation with Israel and to a lesser extent to the army, than it is an abstract critique. When I was dismissed from the special unit, I underestimated the impact it would have on me. I started to paint in order to express myself.
The Chief of Stuff is a project in which I explored my new relation with Israel. The project focuses on the principles of the ideological warrior – loyalty, sacrifice, and belief in tradition, and the order of the world. It addresses the symbols of military cliché: the enemy as a target, the fallen soldier as an angel or demon, quantity as value. It reflects on what I now consider my childish glorification of the army. The work questions the symbiotic feeling one gets when you’re in the army.
Many Israeli fear Iran’s nuclear program, while at the same time demonstration on the streets of Tel Aviv shake up politics. Do you worry about the country’s developments?
I worry about the friction within Israel. There are religious and secular Israeli, who find themselves ever more often in conflict. I really have difficulty with the country’s current direction, and wonder how the country will develop. The main problem is the lack of a significant left wing in politics. There is no balance, no counterpoise for the right wing and religious parties. As a result democracy is crumbling. Expect to see major demonstration in the coming years.
Would these be reason for you to return to Israel?
I can’t say. I might return one day, or maybe move to another country. For now I still enjoy Amsterdam.
What makes Amsterdam attractive?
Its small scale makes it feel like a village. You get around easily, and it breathes the peacefulness and quietness needed to create.
After eleven years in Amsterdam, what do you miss most about Israel?
Family and friends of course. My dad passed away while I was attending the Rietveld Academie. Only then I started to miss Israel. Since then I feel the gap between here and there. I especially miss the warmth of people there. The Dutch are really friendly and helpful. However, the cultural differences, as well as the language barrier, complicate relationships. I am ready for a long-term relationship.
What’s up next?
First China. I have been invited to participate in an artist in residency program. This summer I am staying in Beijing for two month, ending with an exhibition. I have no idea what to make or do. I will just go and experience the country. I am really curious what it will bring to me.
Thank you Itamar for this Interview. For more information on Itamar, visit his site here.
Interview: Thijs van Velzen
Photography: Jordi Huisman