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If we could fast-forward several hundred years, what would the archaeologists among us assume when they unearth, side-by-side with products of an advanced technological society, terracotta shards that smack of ritual, animal sacrifice and sun worship?
The person to question is Moshe Shek, a veteran sculptor who has created an engaging cast of some 50 totemic columns standing upright on seven elevated steel altars. Set on the gently sloping lawn of the Open Museum in the Omer hi-tech industrial park adjacent to Beersheba, Figures is an extraordinary installation conceived in the historical, cultural and spiritual bowels of Eretz Yisrael.
Similar in their volumetric weight, height and diameter, each charismatic kiln-fired ceramic pillar, 1.28 m. high, is constructed from two units and clamped at the center. The lower portions are indistinguishable one from another, while the top element carries abstracted shapes and forms, some totally biomorphic, others angular and planular. The undecorated clay has been treated with a wash of translucent white slip and ornamented with a single belt of red-ochre glaze (considered antiquity's magic color) around each volume's central girth. The sacred icon fashioned on each summit evokes something animist, pagan or erotic.
In all cases, Shek has molded his ideas into extremely simplistic yet sophisticated symbols. Several are totally non-objective, while others have distinctive references to archaic vessels and anthropomorphic forms. Fertility rites, fired by the mother goddess Astarte, are signaled by a slender vaginal-like cavity or breasts as extended roundels, while a penis is anticipated by an erect, thinly chiseled Cycladic stele at the pillar's center. Compositionally, there is no interaction between the observable sexes as each solitary god-like figure plays out an inaccessible independent role. Ossuaries, used for the reburial of bones, also come to mind in several constructions in which hidden chambers are comparable to those clay repositories of antiquity.
Desert animals, especially the ibex, have long been a Shek favorite. Two bronze interpretations of the mountain goat are installed permanently at the Open Museum in Tefen. At Omer, his animals and birds alike take on condensed zoomorphic forms, reminiscent of ancient devotional vessels and containers for sacrificial ceremonies. Several sprout blunt wings, while others are sleekly designed to emulate a modern aerodynamic source.
Shek has researched his material thoroughly. Among the dozens of diluted figures, one can readily understand that slabs decorated with a series of holes punctured in the surface were influenced by cave decorations at Lachish, architectonic forms from Canaanite (Bronze Age) ossuaries and burnished incense stands from the Israelite period, 10th century BCE. Large solar discs angled towards the sky are derived from Egypt's sun god Re and a quartet of stumps are spin-offs from a crown discovered in a copper trove in Nahal Mishmar at the Dead Sea or a miniature first-century Roman terracotta altar.
Born in Zamosc, Poland, in 1936, Shek immigrated to Israel with his family in 1947. In 1957, after army service and studies at the Bezalel Academy, he settled in Kibbutz Beit Nir, where he continues to live and work today.
A serious penchant for history and archaeology has pressed Shek into countless sojourns to the valleys, caves and abandoned sites of the Hebron hills for the purpose of cementing a physical relationship to the land but more so, to investigate the artistic and crafted vestiges of settlements from Natufian, Neolithic and Chalcolithic periods to the present.
These forays into the countryside, coupled with a term as a devoted apprentice of Rudi Lehmann for nearly two decades, have provided Shek with the foundations on which his sculptures are shaped. Under Lehmann's guidance, Shek absorbed the lessons of mass, space and the art of reducing subjects to their essence.
In addition to Lehmann's influence, Shek has admitted an affinity for the traditional sculpture and the environmental projects of Yitzhak Danziger, as well as with the aesthetic purity inherent in Brancusi's sculptures. Because his work is often linked to things pagan and cultic from the ancient world, Shek has been placed in a revival camp of the pre-State Canaanite movement led by Danziger, Benyamin Tammuz and Kosso Elul in the 1940s and early 50s. Canaanism looked to the archaic cultures of Assyria and Egypt and made an attempt to infuse into local Palestinian sculpture (painting, dance and literature) the cultural essence that emerged from them. With time and its divorce from the reality of life, Canaanism became a philosophical fantasy, yet remained an important artery that fed the blood line of Israeli sculpture, notably Shek's.
More than any other material, clay is the medium of history. From practical domestic objects to non-functional figures of worship, the truth of the past is told in the vessels, shards and molds that have been uncovered in countless excavations throughout the world. In recycling the past, Shek has redefined place via secular contemporary art.
The best time to view these dignified figures is mid-morning or late afternoon. As the sun rises or sets, the totems are dramatically played out on a stage constructed by rational thought, but which are infused, nevertheless, with the illusions of a dreamer that can suddenly touch one's soul. (Open Museum, Omer Industrial Park.) Until January, 2007.