A change of scenery
With an exhibition by artists from the former Soviet Union,
director Joshua Simon is injecting new life into the Bat Yam
Museum for Contemporary Art
Arcadi Greenman, ‘Diorama’ Photo: Lena Gomon
Built in 1961 by David Perlstein, the architect responsible for planning most
of the town, the Bat Yam Museum for Contemporary Art is an unusual-looking
two-tier building-in-the-round, similar in design to a Greek amphitheater. It’s
a nice exhibition space.
Last summer, the museum appointed Joshua Simon
director and head curator. With a background in curating, writing, film and
editing poetry journals Simon is clever, well-informed and has the sort of
well-rounded and eclectic intelligence which should serve him well in the
Indeed, word on the street has it that he is now the “hot young
thing” of the Israeli art scene.
In between assuming directorship and
preparations for the latest exhibition, “Cargo Cult,” Simon and his team have
organized varied and interesting events and activities.
As well as talks
by international artists and curators there have been outdoor film screenings in
cooperation with The Third Ear music and film store, a street-art project with
the Arab-Jewish Center in Jaffa and a series of filmed dance and theater
performances which will be available for viewing on the museum’s
Simon was active in the 2011 social
protests, and some of this spirit has entered into museum activities. At a
tongue-in-cheek event hosted under the banner of a “Pirate Party Convention,” a
mock court was established and victims of the Public Housing Authority gave
their testimonies throughout the day.
Since 2007 the museum has focused
on hosting international group exhibitions of contemporary art. Simon intends to
continue this practice, but also envisions the museum as playing a role in the
cultural and educational life of the neighborhood and its surrounding
Working in unison with the municipality, the museum has
extended its educational activities, under the direction of Meir Tati, to
include play-writing workshops for single mothers, which lead to the production
and staging of a play dealing with their personal experiences, and art classes
“We see it as our responsibility,” says Simon, “although it
is not dependent or conditional on us receiving our budget.
kid in Bat Yam wouldn’t go to see an exhibition,” he continues. Art isn’t part
of the core curriculum in Israeli schools, he explains, so “unless you pay an
additional fee children can’t attend art classes. With a view to our future
audience, we at the museum are asking ourselves: who are we exhibiting for? If
you are not exposed to the language and rules of art it makes no
The activities are meeting with some success in the neighborhood.
The recent opening of the museum’s first exhibition under Simon’s direction
showcased, among others, a group of artists known as the New Barbizon Group. The
five artists have similarities in their approach, style and subject matter.
Their informal, realistic, impressionist depictions of Tel Aviv life made them a
fitting choice to conduct a painting class given on the museum lawn to people of
Simon sees this approach as “a part of each show’s curatorial
mission. Opening a show is simply the beginning; from there on we are looking to
‘activate’ each show by creating events for audiences that revolve around some
of the ideas that crop up in the exhibition.”
Simon invited Max Lomberg,
an artist who partnered with Anton Smirnsky to create a work titled Birobidzhan,
to curate the first show. The exhibition is titled “Cargo Cult,” which according
to the catalogue text is a reference to certain “religious practices that
appeared in tribal societies, as a result of their interaction with
technologically advanced non-native cultures.”
For the purposes of the
exhibition the “cargo cult” theme has been re-imagined in relation to artists
from the former Eastern Bloc. In most cases the artists presented either live in
Israel or travel back and forth from their country of birth.
some 30 percent of Bat Yam residents are of Russian descent, “Cargo Cult” became
a way to tentatively take a look at some of the effects of this cultural
intermingling and how the resulting traffic manifests itself in an artistic
“The network and platform of artists that Max brought with him,
and [the] alternate set of cultural references, their strong ties to the Old
Country, offered us a totally different perspective on the Russian diaspora,”
Visitors to the museum get a hint of the migrant experience
in the form of the enormous sign, printed in Cyrillic letters, that greets them
at the entrance, for a moment creating a slight feeling of confusion and
alienation, typically experienced by any new immigrant when first confronted
with a new language.
This is Lomberg’s first curatorial experience and
he’s put together a smart and entertaining exhibition, high on absurdist humor.
Initially, he says, he was approached by the museum with the suggestion to put
on a show centering on the theme of Russian nihilism.
“I had to think
about how (or whether) the term would apply to Russian artists working in the
local Israeli art scene,” he says. Elaborating on the theme and choice of works,
he says, “It was hard for me to define contemporary art in terms of Russian
nihilism. There is always a local language (defined by social and folk
characteristics, etc.) which becomes dissolved in the universal language of art.
Basically we all exist in the same context.
This can however, result in a
slightly schizophrenic effect of a little bit of
Illustrating this concept is a work specially created for
the show, by Ivers Gravlejs, titled Shopping Poetry.
Gravlejs creates his
works by selecting and purchasing various items from a supermarket with the
intention of photographing them, but also wishing to create a kind of rhyming
poem from the product names on the accompanying receipt. The photographs are
displayed alongside their now framed counterpart, the receipt.
“low-tech” method of making art occasionally produces setbacks, as Gravlejs has
found himself in the position of needing to purchase an item for the sake of the
“poem,” but also realizing that said item is too expensive. His solution to the
problem is to have the item charged, but then return it, thereby ensuring the
appearance of the product name on the receipt.
Noticeable in the
exhibition are the varying and disparate styles of the artists. This was
intentional on Lomberg’s part.
“I was interested in showing a slightly
different artistic process in each of the museum alcoves,” he says. He also
refers to how he was struck later on, or “unconsciously driven by the
importance, or lack thereof, played by the role over the course of the show of
an artwork’s title, in relation to each specific work.”
[Gravlejs’s] case,” he says, “the work is almost made to fit the title. Further
on [for example in Andrey Lev’s series of photomontages and drawings, The
Baroque Dump], the title coexists with the work, while in Efim Poplavsky’s works
the title is significant.
“The further we proceed into the show the less
important the title becomes in relation to the work, to the point that it
appears irrelevant – it could be there or not, but doesn’t add anything to the
work; the image itself is sufficient.”
The importance of a work’s title
might seem like a moot point, but Lomberg is refreshingly candid and open about
his curatorial thought processes.
He also revealed that while giving
tours of the exhibition, he found himself delivering the same lines about the
artworks in such a repetitive manner that at a certain point he started
questioning himself and his own interpretations, finally asking himself, “Well,
is it so?” and, “What led me to choose this work?” The humor and irony of this
was not lost on him.
The works in the exhibition are at times as raw as
raw gets. Igor Guelman-Zak uses metal staples, molars and insects as well as
other materials to construct his intriguing, mixed-media, miniature figures. The
figures, housed in plastic boxes, are either solitary or stride in military
formation through a detritus-ridden world of overturned jeeps and cars, waste
material and a tattered Palestinian flag. A red, neon-lit sign reads “Change” on
an adjacent wall.
Exhibited under the pseudonym “Maxim KomarMyshkin” are
10 paintings by Efim Poplavsky, grouped under the title “Astrological Paranoia
Series.” The delicately painted stellar constellations in hues of blue, black
and white are at odds with the disturbing and edgy titles given the
Given the title of the series and paintings with titles such as
Sick Jewish Skies, The Last Words of a Murdered Journalist and A Conspiracy,
it’s hard not to form an image of a somewhat disturbed mindset; this despite the
fact that the works are lovely to look at.
Other visually strong works in
the show are Arcadi Greenman’s wonderful diorama, the Kollectiv’s modern take on
Michail Grobman’s paintings, highlighted through the use of ultraviolet light,
and the Birobidzhan installation, a specially designed construction housing an
organ and an old Russian film, the overall effect seeming like a paean to days
Things look promising for the future of the museum. At present
Simon and his team are contemplating future exhibitions and plans are afoot to
renovate the adjacent building to display exhibitions from the permanent
This comprises almost a thousand works and includes Israeli
modernist painters and sculptors such as Issachar Ber Ryback and Yaacov Epstein,
as well as the estate of Sholem Asch, containing works by Modigliani and
“What’s very exciting about this is that the people of Bat Yam
don’t know about it, they don’t know about the estate and its collection,” says