The Old Bottle


with Emilia Kabakov

YEAR: 1999


Version 1

Not preserved.

Version 2

Private collection, Como, since 2002.

Version 3

Not preserved.


Version 1

International Biennial of Contemporary Art, The Sultan’s Pool, Jerusalem
Art Focus 3, International Biennial of Contemporary Art, The Sultan’s Pool, Jerusalem, 24 October – 20 November 1999.

Version 2

San Francesco, Como, Italy
San Francesco, Como, on the occasion of the master-course at the Fondazione Antonio Ratti, 25 July – 10 September 2000

Version 3

University of California – Santa Barbara, California, United States
Inauguration on February 9, 2001 (here entitled The Empty Bottle)


The installation consists of two parts: a large ‘bottle’ made of rusty wire, and a ‘spring’ bubbling up from underground. I will describe each element in turn. The Bottle: The wire used to construct it is round, 11 cm in diameter.

The bottle consists of 4 circles to which are welded 8 horizontal lines and four smaller circles for attaching the bottom and the neck. A very important element is the ‘rust’ of this wire; the impression is created that this ‘bottle’ has rested in this spot for a long time.

The back side of the bottle is raised to a height of 1 meter by a pole attached from the back made of the same wire. In this way, the bottle stands at an angle, and directly across from its ‘neck’ there is a small fountain of water bubbling from the earth, as though coming from an underground spring.

The bottle is 2.25 meters in diameter and 4.55 meters in length.

The spring: The spring, obviously, is created artificially. A rubber pipe is run underground and exits to the outside, but the water flows through it with a very slight pressure, so that the stream of water doesn’t rise above a height of 3-4 centimeters – the ordinary height for a natural spring. A small pond is created around the spring, and a small stream flows in the direction opposite the bottle, disappearing into the sand.

One of the most important ‘elements’ of this installation is the interval between the end of the ‘neck’ of the bottle that abuts the ground and the spring bubbling from underground. This distance should equal 38 centimeters and this ‘void,’ this distance, participates in the interaction between these two ‘objects’ of the installation: the bottle and the spring.


Why can this work, like many others, consisting of objects be called an installation, rather than an object or a sculpture? Any object can be called an installation given one condition: if its image is not exhausted inside of it. Instead, it is entirely connected with the situation in which it is placed or has wound up and with the contexts that might arise between it and the viewer, who also finds himself in a similar situation that is ‘new’ for him. Hence, ‘installationality’ is the openness of any object – from a clump of garbage to a sculpture – toward what surrounds it and its participation in all the levels of meaning that this interaction (between the object and the surroundings) dictates. Of course, the ability to see and ‘read’ these interrelationships is demanded from the viewer of the installation. Moreover, what is required is not only ‘expanded’ vision but also consciousness capable of counting the multitude of associations and ‘images of memory,’ i.e., free imagination and the ability to fantasize.

The difficulty of such ‘vision,’ in contradistinction to the perception of works of art that are self-contained and limited by their own boundaries, rests in the fact that there is no clear border here between the work and its environment. The viewer cannot distinguish the object of art from the world of everyday reality surrounding him, as is the case in the classical perception of art. On the one hand, ‘everything’ becomes a participant in the artistic event, and on the other hand, the object becomes more and more a thing of banal reality – ‘artistic’ form and other aesthetic characteristics grow smaller and smaller in it. The ‘empty bottle’ is a good example of this.

The place where this installation was supposed to be erected is called the Sultan’s Pool. This is a large, deep valley right near the hill walls surrounding Jerusalem, the old and ancient part of the city. The edges of this valley are rocky ledges running downward. The middle is covered with dirt and harsh grasses. Although the time of the exhibit fell in November, the heat was merciless and the entire enormous place, without any trees for shade, literally burned from morning to night under the scorching sun. It is an enormous, empty space with dry earth and stone all around and the bright sun beating down on your head.

In such an unbelievably ‘harsh’ and vivid context – Jerusalem, constant heat and aridity of nature – the idea of the installation could be easily ‘read’: the empty bottle, from which remained only ‘skin and bones’ (in this case only bones), was easily associated for us either with an ancient, perhaps biblical vessel for water that long ago lost not only its water, but also its very shell (perhaps it was of a hide or fabric?). At the same time, there is the easily read metaphor of a woman, in our case, the image of an old lady, an old mother, whose strength had been exhausted and ‘drank up’ long ago.

But her strength, her energy has not disappeared into the sand – it has not vanished in vain. Rather it has been transferred to her ‘son’: the living spring of water that never stops, never dries up. And two metaphors are united in the origin of this spring: water has burst forth from underground where until now it has been hidden, kept secret, and on the other hand, it’s as though the water has poured out of this very same enormous bottle. Hence, the bottle acquires cosmic proportions: just how enormous it must be, so that ‘all this time,’ water keeps flowing from it, never ceasing!

And here, to the forefront emerges that element of the installation that we discussed in the ‘description’ – the interval between the edge of the bottleneck and the actual spring. This interval is of tremendous significance in creating the idea of the interrelationship between the empty bottle and the spring. If we make this interval too small, then the ‘literariness’ of the situation is fortified, the reason for the appearance of the spring then rests merely in the slanted bottle. If we make this interval a bit larger, then the miracle of the emergence of the spring from underground begins to ‘work,’ but its connection with the bottle begins to get lost. From this analysis, it becomes clear that the interval of 38 centimeters is optimal and decisive, since it unites into a single lock, into a complex balance, both of the themes indicated here: the origin of water both from the earth and from the bottle.

All of this – the bottle and the spring – is connected with the surrounding landscape: the stones, the barren earth, the environment that is both vacant and at the same time ancient, having given birth to mythological associations. But the ‘sun’ also plays a very active role in this installation. The bottle is positioned in such a way that when the viewer approaches the spring and finds himself on the same axis as the bottle, then the sun begins to shine blindingly and it reflects off of all four wire rings of the bottle, and at the same time, off the spring, forming a unified whole.

The last thing I would like to say is that you can feel, as soon as you are near the installation, this movement, life, the rustling of the spring against the background of stillness and of the landscape devoid of human activity. This ‘performance,’ this quiet dance of the water, is juxtaposed to and works in contrast with the stillness of the shell of the bottle that became a part of this landscape long ago.



1999Megan BartonComment