The starting point for On Collecting and Collections, the cluster of exhibitions running at the Haifa Museum of Art until July 17, has something of a touch of irony. “We were hit by quite significant budgetary cutbacks in the wake of the economic crash of 2007,” Tami Katz-Freiman, chief curator at the museum explains. “The imperative was to think creatively about what we could do with the museum’s own collection.”
Given the museum’s extensive holdings of art – more than 7,000 pieces in total, including a significant sample of Israeli art, ranging from Mandate-era Palestine to the contemporary scene – what at first might have seemed a curatorial restriction in fact became an inspiration.
“It came to us that we should use our collection as the starting point, the basis, for an exploration of the concept of collecting.” The eight exhibitions at the museum, individually and collectively, offer fresh and intriguing perspectives on the significance of collections and their collectors – principally the ideas and impulses that underlie the act itself; what collections can say about their collectors, about the objects thus aggregated, and about the social context within which said collections are interpreted.
In her essay in the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, Katz-Freiman observes that most contemporary theories interpreting the act of collection congregate around a single meme: “The search for meaning and the urge to order the world… provid[es] an illusion of control over a seemingly organized and orderly world.” When we speak, she expands on this point. “For human beings, collecting is an activity that is intimately connected with death, a compensation for a fear of death; one collects because one wants to remember, to preserve the ephemeral character of life.” Death, of course, is at once both a certainty and beyond human control: one might thus suggest that the underpinning psychological function of collecting is self-perpetuation.
It is no accident that artists seem particularly attracted to the act of collecting; it is but a small step further to use this impulse as subject matter for artistic expression. It is this theme that runs through the work on display in Shelf Life – the centerpiece of the exhibition cluster – a group exhibition of contemporary Israeli and international art related to a range of collecting practices.
“Shelf Life,” Katz-Freiman writes, “attempts to examine the growing interest revealed by contemporary artists in the concept of ‘collecting’... in a range of contexts – memory, nostalgia, commemoration, the fear of death, the relations between nature and culture, and of course, the social context of the collection as a status symbol.”
Status symbol, as a concept, is open to interpretation. Taking Amnon David Ar’s installation – a recreation of his studio working space – as an example, it reveals what at first glance seems an unlikely jumble of the recognizably iconic and the irredeemably kitsch. An Eames armchair, for instance sits close by a brass plate embossed with the visage of Moshe Dayan, overlooked by a selection of Ar’s own realist oil paintings. But the underlying intent seems to be one of upsetting the hierarchy that society as a whole impose on the objects; Ar invests each item with a particular significance, one capable of revealing something of how he perceives the world.
The genesis for the installation is equally interesting. Katz-Freiman explains that Ar’s realist portraits often contain detail from his studio; she felt compelled to first see the space for herself, and then subsequently to propose that he recreate and present it for the exhibition.
Elsewhere in Shelf Life a delicate, ethereal composition of butterfly wings by Damian Hirst nestles besides textured and layered collages by Irit Nemmo and Michal Shamir. Some of the exhibits are playfully subversive – like Ido Michaeli’s compositions, Flight Squadron and Givati Tree, using military insignia as the tool for tongue-in-cheek commentary on the militarized order that permeates Israel society. Others are more whimsical and playful, like Doron Solomon’s short video, Inventory. He lists all his material “possessions” – starting with his wife and child (sic), then progressing downward into the banality of the number of shirts, shoes, compact discs, books, plates, cutlery. He reaches the end of his inventory, then decides to start all over again; it is a wry comment on the bourgeois obsession with accumulation as a means of defining status.
But not everything communicates lightly. Erez Israeli, for instance, displays an discomfiting array of Holocaust ‘memorabilia’, all purchased over the Internet as the title of the exhibit, My eBay Collection # 1, suggests. There is a poison intrinsic in the commercialization of the Holocaust, self-evidently; but what is also interesting is how banal items like wooden dolls acquire value – and thus collectors – purely on the basis of their grim provenance. Likewise, anodyne objects like “discarded” stuffed toys take on a melancholic aspect in Gili Avissar’s Gizella, the forlorn arrangement echoing the transience of childhood innocence.
In her five years as chief curator, Katz-Freiman has favored the cluster method of joint exhibitions for practical as much as for curatorial and aesthetic reasons. “The museum building was a school for Christian Girls, until the 1970s,” she explains. The building is a warren of rooms and corridors, of different sizes and aspects.
“It might be possible to create a more conventional exhibition space” – she taps at a solid supporting wall – “but to do so would be to lose something of the character of the building as it is.” This restriction could be seen as imposing a layer of curatorial restriction; or, conversely, it could be seen as an opportunity for thematic ingenuity, in this case by creating a exhibit that, whilst linked by a thematic thread, allows for vastly differing considerations on the subject matter, the impulse of collecting.
Menachem Shemi, who lived between 1897 and 1951, was an artistic pioneer, one of a small band of painters active in Palestine during the first half of the 20th century, who established the basis of modern Israeli painting. An immigrant from modern-day Belarus, Shemi was a skilled and prolific portraitist. A recurring subject was his wife, Rivka Zavin: Over two decades, until 1942, he painted around 30 portraits of her, some of which are on display in a room dedicated to his portraiture. Together, they chart an interesting evolution of Shemi, the artist; as curator Daliah Belkine notes, the influences that Shemi develops along the way, primarily from different schools of late 19th- and early 20th-century French painting, reflect themselves faithfully in his work.
But equally interesting is the evolution of Rivka, the subject: Set together, one develops an almost palpable impression of her maturity, both corporeal and emotional. Shemi’s intent, as he put it, was to “capture her as best I can.” Set together as they are, the paintings have a poignant presence.
Of a different inclination altogether is Arnie Druck, a selection of whose extensive collection of Israel-linked art is shown in the exhibit In Detail. Curated by Yaela Hazut, the collection is perhaps best engaged with as a statement of Druck’s passion for Israel and for Zionism, one that germinated during his childhood in the United States and took root in the 1970s after he purchased his first Israeli works – one by Yaacov Agam, the other a “kitschy tourist painting by an anonymous painter.” After immigrating to Israel formally in 1978, Druck began to actively collect and champion Israeli art.
The extent, variety and even definition of the collection, as displayed, says much about Druck’s relationship with Israel. Alongside powerful work by some of the country’s leading contemporary artists – Tal Shochat, Vardi Kahana and others – sit huge quantities of symbolic rather than “artistic” representations of Israel. Included is a startling collection of telephone cards; copies of Israel’s answer to Mickey Mouse, Mickey Maoz; toy replicas of the ships on which Druck had visited Israel as a child. That he places as much value upon what might otherwise be considered transitory objects is emphasized by the fact that – unlike in the curated exhibit – Druck apparently makes no distinction between the works collected. The overriding, deeply personal interpretation that one suspects he has imbued in the objects is one of their symbolic connection to the country: One can make art out of all sorts of things, after all.
Given its broad thematic purview, On Collecting and Collections has the opportunity to engage with a broad spectrum of artistic impulse, from the whimsical to the transcendent. Adrenalin, a small exhibit focusing on emerging Israeli artists, takes as its starting point the social and aesthetic value of so-called “found” objects. Assaf Evron’s photographs of collections of scrap metal assembled into shopping carts, in the manner of scrap-metal collectors, plays with the thin line that distinguishes commercial value from worthlessness. The jumbles of metal have no worth except to the person who has gone to the trouble of bringing them together, to be sold on in due course. As in life, so in art, one might suggest. And Eden Bannet’s installation, Studiolo, takes everyday anonymous objects – cardboard packaging, wooden pegs and so on – and invests in them unexpected visual credentials through artful arrangement and juxtaposition. She describes her work as “visual rhyming,” calling to the attention of the viewer the multiple interpretative possibilities that anodyne objects can offer within differing contexts.
Also within the cluster of exhibitions is The Meir Agassi Museum, a retrospective of the artist – who was tragically killed in a car accident in 1998 – in the form of a museum within a museum of his own conception, complete with its own “gift shop.” The New Jewish Countenance is a collection of portraiture of Jewish and Israeli faces which at once is an interesting overview of the art of portraiture and wry comment on the – now scarcely believable – early Zionist acceptance of arguments concerning eugenics and racial purity, something that of course was erased by the horrors inflicted by Nazi racism.
Also, the museum’s New Media center hosts A Disturbed Economy: Collecting as a Conceptual Practice, presenting a historical and artistic critique of different models for organizing knowledge employed by museums, focusing on the 1970s and featuring amongst video archival material from Dov Or Ner’s concept of The Museum of Museums.
Perhaps the most pleasing aspect of the aggregation of several distinct exhibitions within a single cluster – as with On Collecting and Collections – is the opportunity it affords for a plurality of artistic voices and expressions. One may not be moved by the content in its entirety; but the themed cluster offers up an opportunity to engage with an impressive panoply of art and ideas.
“I hope, I expect that visitors will have a sensual and intellectual
experience,” Katz-Freiman says. “Art is a mirror; it reflects and you
learn something about one’s own world.”
What does she hope that visitors might take from the exhibition, as a
whole? “That visitors will have both a sensual and an intellectual
experience, one that will ultimately give a better understanding of the
world around them.”
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