In Jerusalem

Art Space: Art for art's sake

The non-profit Yaffo 23 gallery, an extension of the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, is free to implement its real goal: commissioning and displaying artworks.

A2 performance
Photo by: Hillel Roman
Jerusalem has long been considered Tel Aviv’s somewhat parochial, second-class neighbor in the world of Israeli art. Despite being home to the region’s most prestigious art school, the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, and the presence of the Israel Museum, the city’s political and religious divisions, a lack of opportunity and the lure of its more glamorous neighbor have resulted in an ongoing exodus of art graduates. However, a relatively new gallery located in the heart of the city is providing Jerusalem’s art scene with a new focal point and, surprisingly, has become one of the country’s most “happening” art galleries.

Situated on the third floor of Jerusalem’s Central Post Office, Yaffo 23 is an enormous, 930-square-meter facility reminiscent of a New York loft-style space. The gallery is an extension of the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design and is backed by the American Academy, the Jerusalem Foundation and others. In a sense this has removed the usual financial pressures a regular gallery needs to deal with vis-à-vis selling artwork and promoting and attracting new artists, and has enabled Yaffo 23’s director and chief curator, Dr. Roy Brand, the freedom to experiment and push through his vision.

Brand has referred to the space as an “art site” with a focus on contemporary art. Brand is both dynamic and articulate and has infused the gallery with an energy and vision focusing on the “here and now,” a space to be used “to ask questions and encourage dialogue.” Housing two exhibition spaces and numerous facilities, the gallery has become an artistic hub of exploratory work in multimedia and interdisciplinary art projects, as well as somewhat off-center forms of art.

Brand says that “there is a substantial interest in a space for contemporary art in Jerusalem. When the gallery opened we didn’t advertise, people heard about us by word-of-mouth or Facebook. Here we are in this weird space, above a post office, we didn’t know what kind of interest there would be.”

In its first year, exhibitions took place almost once a month. Each exhibition was, and for the most part still is, accompanied by a roundtable discussion, with international artists and guest speakers invited to participate and give lectures on a variety of themes, artistic practices and social issues. Performances in the space range from contemporary dance to modern classical music, DJ sets, sound installations and performance art.

If anything, it is this eclectic mix and the possibilities that the space provides that Brand and his team make use of and have given each new exhibition opening the feel of a “happening,” and has resulted in active participation from students and the general public.

The gallery officially opened in October 2010 with an exhibition titled “Correspondences.” Taking as their point of departure the building’s main function as a post office, international artists were invited to collaborate with local artists through the avant-garde practices of “Art by Instruction” and “Mail Art.” The instructions received were then realized by Israeli artists, producing a series of live performances and sculptural and video installations.

Since then, the gallery has hosted international performance artists such as Bill Drummond and the A2 Group, and has continued to show themed exhibitions dealing with subjects such as climate change, as well as more quirky exhibits displaying music paraphernalia in the form of artful record and compact-disc packaging.

The dynamic created in the running of the space is very much a team effort, and Brand is quick to acknowledge fellow curator and artist in her own right Sagit Mezamer, whose input he views as “crucial,” and the work of Eyal Vexler.

“We are in continuous conversation and engagement with each other,” says Brand. When preparing exhibitions, “We discuss works and write the accompanying texts among ourselves – for us it results in an organic way of putting a show together.”

Brand’s worldview is expansive; he has a background in philosophy, aesthetics and art theory and views the space as a way of “communicating other kinds of experiences,” a way of connecting with the outside world.

“We view ourselves as cultural activists – putting exhibitions together can be like going around the world connecting dots,” he says, speaking in a somewhat metaphysical vein and referring to the present multicultural climate where art and life are often entwined and interact.

The interaction between art and life manifested itself at the gallery’s official opening and offered Brand and his team a reminder of how Jerusalem’s “charged” climate would serve as a backdrop for their activities. Mayor Nir Barkat was scheduled to give a congratulatory speech, however, unbeknown to the gallery a group of activists had decided to stage a protest against the ongoing residence of Jews in east Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhoods.

While Barkat was speaking, protesters were blindfolded, knelt on the floor, and were then led out by other protesters in a kind of “mock arrest” procedure. Barkat was heckled, but maintained his cool and has on occasion returned to the gallery.

THE LATEST exhibition, titled “Machines For Living,” is loosely themed around a phrase from French architect Le Corbusier – the original sentence being, “The house is a machine for living in.”

The works on display are somewhat reminiscent of early 20th-century Modernist aesthetics and present a raw, stark environment – whether through photographic reproductions of scarred building facades, the use of materials such as glass and steel or the discarded street debris present in Heike Gallmeier’s mixed-media installation.

These are not environments that provide any real sense of comfort or domesticity.

The installation by Dina Kornveitz, titled Grandmother’s Asleep, lulls the viewer momentarily. Kornveitz has placed groups of ornate glasses and decorative cups and saucers, which her grandmother had brought from Russia, on the shelves of a wooden cabinet. The cabinet apparently took pride of place in the family’s household and only the old lady was permitted to touch the precious glass.

The cabinet and its contents are a reminder of days gone by, an antique, decorated with pretty but slightly kitschy curios. Hidden in the cabinet, however, is a set of speakers emitting a low bass sound that causes the cabinet to vibrate. Kornveitz’ deceptive, innocent-seeming cabinet suddenly produces a feeling of unease, a sense of hidden danger.

Andrea Zittel’s Escape Vehicle, part of an ongoing series, is the exhibition’s showpiece. Zittel is a well-known, international artist whose work relates to creating functional “living units” and sculpture. She has had site-specific installations placed in New York’s Central Park and in the Californian Desert.

This work, on loan from the Israel Museum, resembles something between a retro porta-cabin and a kind of space-pod. It is not an abode one would want to spend quality time in. In collaboration with Israeli artist Lior Shvil, the vehicle’s interior has been customized.

Now fitted out with security and surveillance systems, the vehicle’s occupant can monitor events in the outside world, such as an attempted break-in, which we can witness in the work’s accompanying video. Zittel’s insular pod, an attempt at giving its inhabitant a form of independence, now assumes a slightly sinister aspect, with overtones of Big Brother and the role of state surveillance systems.

Two other works of interest in the exhibition are the ready-made environment and colorful, staged photographic prints of Gallmeier, which provide a more traditional artistic approach and offset the exhibition’s more conceptual works. Gallmeier has recently begun a threemonth residency at the gallery.

The photographic installation by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin titled Chicago #5 is part of a larger project, begun around the time of the second intifada. A reproduction of a scarred and derelict Arab house facade has been scaled to fit the rear and side wall of the gallery.

The work seems to turn the gallery space inside-out, providing a window onto an alternative Jerusalem reality, or onto a reality that we are not accustomed to seeing.

Yaffo 23 functions as a non-profit exhibition space. Despite the fact that most of the works are commissioned by the gallery, none of the works exhibited are for sale, and the artists remain the sole owners of their work. Currently, the gallery is also involved in a “green” project. Working in cooperation with local artists, David Karnovsky (general counsel to the New York City Department of City Planning) and the Jerusalem Municipality, the idea is to create a series of landscaped gardens on the roofs of buildings on Jaffa Road and also provide a public meeting space and cafe on the gallery’s terrace. The project is called “Green Line.” •


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